Land of hoop and glory
The walls are peeling, the doors have fallen off in the bathrooms and students sleep on plank beds, five or six to a room. There is no heating during the bitter winters and no air conditioning in the sweltering summer. Yet the run-down residential high school on the southeastern fringe of Beijing, about 20km outside the city centre, attracts students from across the mainland.
They have come dreaming of fame, fortune and joining the National Basketball Association (NBA) as the next Yao Ming.
Beijing Weikang Basketball Immersion Training Centre is among a handful of private high schools in the capital that combine specialised sports training with traditional studies. Anyone with the 23,000 yuan (HK$26,300) annual tuition can enrol and students come from as far as Xinjiang province.
Schools such as Weikang are meeting a demand created by growing interest in basketball as a career (fostered keenly by the NBA in its drive to build a mainland following), even as state-sponsored sports schools are on the decline.
The mainland's 3,000 state sports schools, where education is largely sacrificed for athletic prowess, are seen as dinosaurs in the new economy, says Susan Brownell, a US visiting scholar at Beijing Sports University. Although much has been made of state schools as Soviet-style, gold-medal machines, the central government has been nudging its sports education system over the past decade towards a capitalist model that relies primarily on corporate sponsorship.
But while many youngsters view the basketball schools as a chance to achieve hoop dreams, for others they are also a last resort to secure a college place in an intensively competitive setting. Many tertiary institutions lower requirements for a minimum score on entrance exams by as much as 40 per cent for a highly ranked player.
Liang Fei falls into the first category. Standing at 2.06 metres in his socks, the 19-year-old is Weikang's tallest student and its star player, recently rumoured to have been courted by the Shanxi Zhongyu team. Yet the shy lad from Anhui province had played little basketball until he was offered a place at Weikang about three years ago.
His father is unemployed and his mother, who works as a nanny in Guangzhou, barely makes enough to send him to school and Liang has twice had to drop out because they couldn't afford the fees. So when a former classmate recommended him to Weikang, he hopped on a train to Beijing straight away.
'There was nothing for me to do at home,' Liang says. His initial lack of hoop skills wasn't an issue for Weikang. 'The coach said the less I knew the better because they could teach me from scratch.'
The basketball school was taking a risk when offering him a scholarship, but its owners, Liu Zhenyan and her husband Yang Kairui, were betting that Liang would turn out to be a star.
'His height was obvious so we thought he had the potential. In a school like this, you need a few talented players to carry the team,' Liu says. 'Plus with his family situation, we thought he would be better able to take the hardships of training.'
An amateur player who used to work in facilities management, Yang spotted the demand for basketball training and set up Weikang with his savings in 2001 despite having no experience of running a school.
He recruited Ma Jian, the first mainland basketballer to play in the US National Collegiate Athletic Association during the early 1990s, to help with the publicity. Weikang began by running summer camps, and some of the students remained for the school year.
The school sets a strict and regimented schedule. During the week, students spend about four hours training every day in morning and evening sessions, with five hours of academic study in between. The rest of the time is spent in study halls or the canteen.
The living quarters are clean but spartan, often smelling of sweat and instant noodle seasoning. The boys handwash their own laundry and, with barely two hours to call their own, gather during what free time they have to chat.
But there is little talking done at meal times: eating is a fast, shovelling action and many forsake chopsticks for spoons in the interest of efficiency. The menu is plain rice and steamed buns accompanied mostly with vegetarian fare, but the boys are too hungry to care.
'We're practically forced to be monks,' says Ali Duosi, a polite 17-year-old Uygur from a small town in Xinjiang.
Students from Beijing are allowed to return to their families on weekends, but out-of-towners remain on campus and train for another three hours on Saturdays.
Weikang shares facilities with Shi Dai High School, a conglomerate of private schools that gather about 1,000 students between them, including a rival basketball centre, Wang Fei Hoops. The Weikang boys train by themselves, attend class with the Wang Fei boys and eat with the regular students.
The school has yet to turn a profit and enrolment - there are now 36 boys aged 12 to 19 - has not grown since it began, although Yang insists that 'if students have the hope, they'll come'.
His wife is more realistic. The annual fee is beyond the means of most families and they keep the school running out of sheer determination, Liu says.
At least Weikang has given Liang a dream he didn't know he had. His usual diffidence disappears on the court: the towering centre wins nearly every tip-off, smacks the ball out of other players' hands with relish and dunks with ease.
'He's their leader,' says coach Aboubacar Fofana. 'When he talks, they listen.'
But the basketball school has been a dose of reality for Ali: 'I used to have my own dreams,' he says, shrugging. 'I thought I was going to play in the NBA.'
Like Liang, he discovered a passion for the sport relatively recently - in Ali's case, after watching his first NBA game on television two years ago (the NBA estimates its games draw about 300 million mainland viewers).
'Rockets versus Spurs,' he recalls. 'I never liked basketball before, but I got so excited after seeing Yao Ming and wanted him to do well. I wanted to handle the ball just like them.'
Ali joined his school team and, despite slipping grades, managed to secure a place at the local high school by winning a basketball contest that awarded the champions places without requiring them to sit entrance exams.
Rather than take the opportunity to continue his studies, Ali begged his parents, who export Xinjiang speciality foods, to send him to Weikang, which he discovered online.
The first few months in Beijing were hard for the Uygur teenager. Food at the cafeteria was not only unpalatable, it was taboo for a Muslim because the preparation was not halal.
It took Ali a while to get used to the time difference and the gruelling training schedule meant he seldom got enough sleep. His light features and high cheekbones also attracted stares from Beijing residents, and he missed speaking Uygur so much he began talking to himself. But the cruellest adjustment was on the court against his schoolmates. '[Back home] I thought I was good, but when I got here, everyone was so much better,' he says.
It wasn't long before Ali gave up his NBA dream.
'It's not realistic. There are so many Americans as tall as me, faster than me, better than me.'
But his time at Weikang hasn't been entirely wasted. Next year, Ali hopes to continue an accidental career in modelling and ride on his basketball skills to secure a place at university.
His friend Zhang Yan doesn't have any illusions about a future at college or in basketball. The chubby 17-year-old Beijing native arrived at Weikang 18 months ago because he had no choice.
He hates studying and knows there's no place for him in the mainland's rigid education system. 'My grades were bad. I didn't even take the zhongkao [high school entrance exam].
'No other school would take me,' he says.
But his parents insisted that he keep studying, even though his talents clearly lie in business (he borrowed 50,000 yuan [HK$57,000] from his mother to open a clothes stall in November and made enough in six months to pay off the loan).
Yan says he wound up in Weikang because his father was an athlete and kept pushing him to be one too.'I don't even like basketball,' he says.
'I hate this place. There's no room to breathe here.'
Study is no one's strong suit at Weikang. During class, Yan snoozes hidden behind his gym bag while other students openly browse magazines. Academic supervisor Nian Cunhui is frank about the boys' capacity for study. After spending so much in training, there's a limit to their concentration, she says, adding that they are weakest in difficult subjects such as maths and English.
'They're usually very tired,' says mathematics teacher Li Hanbing.
The Weikang boys may sway from boredom and lack of sleep during the morning flag-raising ceremony, but they come alive at practice, running up and down the court and twisting their bodies for lay-ups.
Muscles aching from the drills, a dozen boys cram into their dorm room to discuss the one dream that may be coming true.
'Oh man, can you imagine if da ge [older brother] goes pro?' someone asks.
'Yeah. It'll be Liang Fei this and Liang Fei that,' another replies. 'Then coach Yang can take down Ma Jian's name from the billboard.'