RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.
Basketball is huge in China. The NBA estimates that 300 million Chinese play the game, and for them Team China versus Team USA was yesterday's big event. NPR's Frank Langfitt joined fans at Beijing Institute of Technology, where students crowded around laptops and TVs to cheer on the home team.
Unidentified Announcer: (Speaking foreign language).
FRANK LANGFITT: About 20 students packed into the tiny dorm room. They sat transfixed before a blurry-screened TV. Some lay on bunk beds beneath mosquito nets; others sat on the floor. They're thrilled.
(Soundbite of cheers)
LANGFITT: They cheer as China's star center, Yao Ming, slams the ball through the hoop. Yao is a crowd favorite. Hu Yu(ph) is 20 years old from Northeast China. He's watching from one of the room's six bunk beds. He says Yao, who plays for the NBA's Houston Rockets, is a source of national pride.
Mr. HU YU (College Student): He proved that Chinese can play basketball well.
LANGFITT: The next most popular player on the court?
Mr. LI FUNG (College Student): Kobe Bryant. I love him, yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
LANGFITT: That's Li Fung, and this is his room. Li is a six-foot two-inch material sciences major from Inner Mongolia. He plays ball three days a week.
What do you love about Kobe?
Mr. FUNG: He's cool. I mean, he's my idol. I want to be as good as he is.
LANGFITT: As the game wears on, the Americans open up a lead. The crowd is ambivalent. They love to see their favorite NBA stars dunking, but not over fellow Chinese.
Here comes LeBron James, and...
(Soundbite of groaning)
LANGFITT: Big dunk by LeBron James.
Liu Hongshuen(ph) is a 22-year-old from Fujian, one of China's coastal provinces. He plays basketball every night at the school's courts. Liu begins after 10 at night to avoid the heat. In a culture that has traditionally emphasized conformity, basketball offers a chance to be creative.
Mr. LIU HONGSHUEN (College Student): (Through translator) It's a way to express yourself.
LANGFITT: And he says the greatest act of self-expression would be this.
Mr. HONGSHUEN: (Through translator) I really want to dunk. I can't. I'm not tall enough.
LANGFITT: In the 1990s, Americans wanted to be like Mike - Michael Jordan. But in this dorm room, this evening, they want to be like Kobe. Midway through the third quarter, Sun Yuen Miou(ph) arrives and sits on the tile floor. He talks about how great it would be to be Kobe Bryant with his friend, fellow student Jiu Jintao(ph).
Mr. SUN YUEN MIOU (College Student): (Speaking foreign language)
LANGFITT: If you were Kobe, you could just slip through the defense. Jiu Jintao shoots back: If I were Kobe, I could jump over it.
As the Chinese fall farther behind, Sun complains. The Chinese team isn't playing tough enough. The Americans are playing dirty, he says. Talking to the screen, he urges the Chinese to play more aggressive defense and start fouling the Americans.
Mr. MIOU: (Speaking foreign language)
LANGFITT: He's just standing there. That doesn't do anything. You're one step behind. You're too slow. If you could be one step faster, then he can't do anything about you. His friend, Jiu, counters him again. If you commit too many fouls, you'll foul out of the game.
(Soundbite of applause)
LANGFITT: After nearly two hours, the game begins to wind down. It's 101-70, five, four, three, two, one, the game's over.
It's a tough loss, 31 points, but many of the students see a victory of sorts. In the past, the Chinese have lost to the Americans by an average of 51 points.
After the game, I ask Li Fung, who organized the viewing session, what he thought of China's play.
Mr. FUNG: (Through translator) I think it was very good. Before the game, we all knew that China would certainly lose, but we didn't know if they would put on a good show for everyone.
LANGFITT: And in the end, as far as these fans were concerned, they did. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Beijing.
MONTAGNE: Olympic results and a video from Beijing can be found at NPR.org.
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