Slam dunk! How a Hong Kong-style Harlem hustle can give city its pride back

The resilience of street basketball – and those who play the game – have much to teach a city at war with itself, argues Niall Fraser

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 January, 2018, 1:10pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 January, 2018, 9:56pm

Walk along any Hong Kong street and you will find them. Hard-working, focused and happy youngsters blessed with levels of energy and invention betraying the environment in which they have to perform.

Team spirit and individuality exist cheek by jowl, like two sides of the same committed coin and in most places where this fast-moving pastime plays out, a shifting population of spectators stops by to marvel at the skills on show.

The end-to-end pass, move, block and shoot simplicity of it when done right is dizzying. Not only that, so is the range in age, size, shape and ability of the participants.

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I am, of course, talking about that remarkably resilient feature of our high-rise, shopping mall-dominated city – the humble basketball court and the people who populate it.

It is in these pockets of concrete jungle – built on a quasi-religious desire to know the price of everything and the value of nothing – that, in my opinion, you find the real spirit of Hong Kong.

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This is not top-down, officially organised sport. No money changes hands, everyone plays to the same rules and everyone wants to win. Yet the whole endeavour is imbued with a sense of decency and respect, devoid of which it would cease to exist.

This is not romanticism, and if you don’t believe me, get yourself down to one of the courts and watch.

Data from a 2009 Chinese University of Hong Kong study – carried out for the government – on Hong Kong people’s participation in physical activities strongly suggests that when it comes to participatory team sport, the beating heart of the city’s physical activity is basketball.

Yet despite its self-evident popularity – and the failure in any meaningful sense (apart from the advertising and gambling dollar) of its pumped-up sporting cousins football, rugby and cricket – basketball remains a relative backwater.

There are many reasons for this state of affairs, but in the absence of space and time to get into them, I will say only the following.

What height constraints Hongkongers face in basketball are more than made up for with guile, fleetness of foot, a froglike ability to leap unlikely leaps and the dogged, annoying persistence of a bloodthirsty mosquito. Oh, and then there are the hours and hours of practice to perfect the moves required to leave a taller opponent in your wake.

The other night on my way home from the office, I stopped off at my favourite spectating spot overlooking a chain link fence-surrounded court wedged between high-rise blocks on Wan Chai Road.

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Among the varied cast of players was a boy just into his teens, if that, who was clad in basic plimsolls and what looked like hand-me-down, definitely NOT brand-name kit. He was, as the saying goes, knee-high to a grasshopper, yet running rings around his mates – young and old – and had a glint in his eye that roared with confidence and pride in what he was doing.

How’s that for an example to Hong Kong and evidence that – despite the daily diet of negativity – our young people have what it takes to survive and prosper?

I am not saying the great and good should throw the obligatory bureaucracy, money, stadiums and advertising at street basketball, which has been tried and failed over and over again.

Just get down to the court and have a look at what is there.

How’s this for a slam dunk of an idea? Dedicate an overpaid, underworked sporting administrator to scour the streets for the talent required to form Hong Kong’s very own Globetrotters. I bet you could find them in no time. Back them – and only them – to wow the world, just like their famous Harlem forefathers.

Might help put a spring back in the step of our city and offer us all some genuine pride.