Lai Ka Tong is a rising star of Macao’s basketball. At 1.93 metres, the 20-year-old has a natural advantage over other local players, who rarely exceed 1.8 metres. Nicknamed Little Yao Ming, after the famous 2.2-metre Chinese basketball player, Lai shrugs off the often raised question of the diet that has made him unusually tall; he prefers to talk about his goal to be a good professional player.
Lai’s physique and skills have attracted attention from outside basketball teams. At the end of 2014, South China Athletic Association Men’s Basketball Team, Hong Kong’s top basketball company, offered him a five-year contract – the first local basketball player to be given the opportunity to play professionally outside Macao. Lai’s heart though is still in his hometown.
“I would learn a lot playing in Hong Kong. Yet, in Macao, I have friends who support me and team members who have played with me for many years,” said Lai.
Lai is the new face of Macao’s young generation of basketball players; they are trained from a young age to take part in numerous competitions and, backed by family and school, excel in the game.
Basketball has become a popular sport in Macao, after football and swimming, thanks to the government’s efforts in building basketball courts in many open areas outside the city centre. The intense media coverage of United States National Basketball Association also adds to the fever.
The Macau-China Basketball Association, the official representative body of the sport, organises 2,500 competitions a year, a figure which “few Asian countries can match,” said Wu Chong Fai, 62, president of the association.
The competitions are for players of all backgrounds, ages and levels. Its Silver Match, for example, which precedes the all-Macau Open Competition, has top 64 groups of participants, coming from companies, government departments, clubs, trade associations and other sectors.
Wu said there are over 100 basketball groups wanting to join the competition. “We have to reject many applications, because there’re not enough venues for all. Among the applicants are groups which have played on the streets for a while. Once they feel they are good enough, they would like to test their level in a formal, open competition like ours.”
BREATHE AND LIVE THE SPORT
Basketball is an important part of the lives of young people like 28-year-old Aron Chan. He used to play basketball for one or two hours after school five days a week; now, busy running the family catering business, he practises with his team twice a week. “Whenever we have time, we’ll play even if there are only three or four of us, just to have a better feel of the ball, in preparation for tough competitions.”
“With basketball, you need to stay calm. Even if your team is falling behind, you can still turn the tables and win at the last one or two seconds. This is what I like about the game. I hope I can play basketball until I’m 45 years old or more,” he said, after his team had won narrowly by one point in a competition at the Silver Match.
Chan Kin Pong, 40, a local sports teacher, started playing at 11. “I used to play football but find basketball more interesting. The game requires a lot of team work: you have two teams of five people playing in a very confined area, trying to score points against the other. This is a most exciting sport,” said Chan, who is both a coach and a referee.
As a mass game, basketball is a winner in Macao; in international competitions, though, it still has a long way to go. “In competition overseas, we never managed to get beyond the first round. We are still behind other Asian players in Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong, in terms of experience and physique. Still, even if we lose a match, we are able to learn from it and understand where we stand,” said Leong Ko Ioi, 29, a member of a top local team called Police.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
Basketball has come a long way since Wu first played in the less affluent post-war years. “In the 1950s, basketball was played by a few enthusiasts. In an era of limited social opportunities, it was a platform to meet all kinds of people and to play together, regardless of background and social status.”
Wu started his life-long love for the ball at seven, a story which mirrored the growth of the game over the decades in Macao. “In my days, we had no training or strategy at all. I felt so good just touching the ball and passing it promptly to another team member. When we managed to put the ball into the hoop, we were so happy,” said Wu, with a spark in his eyes as he talks about his youthful days.
At 17, unfortunately, Wu had to quit school and the game to become a sailor, to help support the family. In 1981, he returned to Macao for another job; he plunged himself into the game after work. Every day at around 5 pm, he would swap his suit and tie for a T-shirt and sneakers, rush to the Tap Seac playground and play until dark before heading home. In those days when there were few players, Wu went around and organised four teams, of friends and colleagues. His enthusiasm caught the attention of the basketball association which invited him to be a committee member.
Thus began Wu’s 35 years of involvement at the association, offering his service free, first as the organiser of training of young players, as vice president in 1995 and then president since 2013.
“As the eldest child of a family with five kids and limited means, I had to start work young and missed the boat to fully realise my potential as a basketball athlete. I want the younger generation to do better.” Wu still plays basketball once a week, with older people, and acts as referee occasionally for local games.
JOINING FIBA — A MILESTONE
Wu witnessed how the association became a member of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) in the 1970s – a milestone for Macao. “We realised we were not good enough and needed to bring the sport to a higher level. By becoming a FIBA member, we have the guidelines on how to train our athletes and referees and organise competitions.
In the 1980s, Wu said, Macao’s basketball benefited from a strong dose of new, foreign blood, with the arrival of a women’s basketball team from mainland China. This professionally trained team did so well that it won for Macao the fourth place in an important Asian sports event.
Such importation of sport talent, however, backfired in Macao. “The mainland athletes were too good; this discouraged local ones who felt frustrated trying to catch up. This resulted in fewer home-grown basketball teams in those years,” he said.
It was around this time Wu and his colleagues approached schools and invited their students to take part in basketball competitions. “It was a major achievement that both schools and parents agreed to the idea. Students’ life was restricted then, with few extra-curricular activities. Parents were afraid that their kids would meet bad elements in playgrounds outside home.”
MAJOR SPORTING EVENTS
The next breakthrough for Macao’s basketball came with the city’s hosting of three major sports events. They were the East Asian Games (2005), the Lusophony Games (2006) and Asian Indoor Games (2007). “As host, we had to improve our own standards. Our athletes, referees and supporting staff had to learn, among other things, how to communicate with foreign athletes,” said Wu. These large-scale sport events were an eye-opener for local players and motivated them to do better.
In the early 2000s, Macao began to have more contact with the mainland’s various sports organisations. “We used to have exchanges mainly with neighbouring Guangdong province. Now, such activities have been extended to all mainland provinces and cities, with invitations to take part in their competitions, training and other exchanges.”
OVERSTRETCHED BY HEAVY WORKLOAD
The work involved at times seems overwhelming for an organisation that relies on volunteers, like Wu, working in a small basement office with a few cabinets, desks and chairs. “We need to select the athletes, coordinate schedules and arrange the logistics. Our workload has multiplied, from serving Macao’s local basketball community to working with mainland and other foreign bodies. In terms of the scale of the activities and the broad spectrum of officials and athletes we are meeting these days, it’s a completely different world from the time when I first joined the association. This multi-faceted job requires many more resources to train players and referees, and to do detailed planning.”
“In the past, we planned only for the next day because there was only one venue: the outdoor Tap Seac Playground. If it rained, all games stopped. Now, there are several major venues in the peninsula and in Taipa, for practice and competition. In schools too, there are training sessions frequently.”
How does Wu cope with only one part-time staff who works for just a few hours a day?
“I and others have to sacrifice personal time. Basketball is my passion. I hope to do well in a job passed on to me by my committed predecessors, and that one day I’ll pass the torch to somebody else.” Wu personally receives no salary, subsidies or other financial reward for the job.
MORE VENUES NEEDED
For the game to move to a higher level, Wu said it needs more venues designated just for basketball.
In this small city, big open space suitable for playing basketball are often booked for ceremonies, exhibitions, book fairs, concerts and other outdoor activities all year round.
Also, as more people get interested in playing basketball, they compete with athletes for playgrounds and stadiums. Athletes interviewed say that, if there was a regular venue for them, they would practice every day, instead of two or three times a week as they do now.
Wu added: “I wish the government would provide us with a fixed venue for training and competition. Dragon boat athletes have the whole Nam Van Lake for themselves, while swimmers go to the Olympics Aquatic Centre. There are plans to build a training centre in Taipa, but construction has not yet started. Another sports centre in Mong Ha is closed, for renovation. The government is helping to arrange athletes train overseas; but then, athletes have to take holidays from work – not an easy thing to do.”
Another problem is the lack of career prospects for players aspiring to be professionals – a predicament common to all sports in Macao. There is no corporate sponsorship or government support for those who want to be full-time athletes. ”Some play basketball very well at secondary schools but, once they go to university, they’ll have to think about the future. And once they start work, it is difficult to keep up with the training, as many jobs in Macao, a round-the-clock entertainment and tourist city, require night shifts.”
Wu now places his hopes on the increasing contacts with mainland basketball clubs to help raise local standards.
“I hope that the better players in Macao will attract the attention of mainland clubs and be recruited. However, not many young people like to move to China, where the starting salary is low. They can find jobs easily in Macao and life is easier here,” he said.
TOUGH JOB FOR REFEREES
Where there is a competition, there will be a need for a referee. Macao has thousands of basketball competitions each year, so the need for referees is great. The Macau-China Basketball Association has done much to train referees. Each year, it organises classes to train referees of all levels. There are now over 40 local referees and, in addition, six international referees – three men and three women – accredited by the International Basketball Federation (FIBA).
Still, there are not enough referees, especially during the peak competition seasons. On certain busy days, referees need to go from one venue to another to mediate.
The FIBA referees take part in important local competitions. They are also invited to be neutral third-party referees in other countries.
Wu Chong Fai, head of the basketball association, speaks proudly of Macao’s international referees, who have to pass vigorous international exams testing their knowledge of basketball regulations, physical capacity and language proficiency. “Macao has an unusually high ratio of international referees, given its small population. They are of high calibre, given a task that has little room for making mistakes. A mistaken judgement affects the results of a game.”
FIRST FEMALE REFEREE
Lei Si Man, Macao’s first female international referee, has just returned from Brazil where she took part in preparatory competitions for the Olympic Games this summer. “I feel very honoured to represent Macao as a referee. I met other female referees from Africa, Europe and Asia. I’ve learnt a lot, especially about communication with others,” she said.
Lei started playing basketball at 14. “I’ve always liked sports and was into volleyball and running marathons as well. With basketball, I first played on the street, before getting more formal training, and was on Macao’s national team later.”
Lei began her referee career, first locally in 1996; she later obtained the FIBA referee licence. Female referees were rare then in Asia. In recent years, two other female referees in Macao, Chao Hio Tong and Wong Cheng Lou also obtained this qualification.
Lei has served as a neutral referee in international events such as the Gulf Cup of Nations in Doha and the Latvian U20 Women’s Basketball League. “Each competition is a new challenge to me; it helps me to understand myself better. To be a good referee, you need to be quick, fair, calm and with high emotional intelligence to deal with hot-headed situations in the court,” she said.
Lei, who has a doctoral degree from the Shanghai University of Sport, commands a formidable presence in the male-dominated court. “As a referee, you have to look respectable. Even when you face a bad-mannered player, you have to keep your nerves,” she said.
Another international referee of Macao is Chan Kin Pong. “Being a FIBA referee has helped me to evaluate my own level objectively and become more aware of standards elsewhere,” he said. Chan has taken part in competitions in Burma, Malaysia, Thailand and other countries, as a neutral referee.
TRAINING YOUNG REFEREES
In Macao, Chan is actively grooming young referees. Each year, Chan is in charge of several referee courses organised by the basketball association, with as many as 50 students in one class. “They joined the class because they wanted to learn more about basketball, to understand, for example, why they were penalised by the referee at a recent game. Others came because they wanted to be involved in the sport, as a referee and not as a player.”
“In these courses, we start with the basics: how to record scores, filling out required forms and timing the game. Students should familiarise themselves with basketball rules; being a referee is not just about blowing a whistle.”
Chan has played basketball since 11 years old, practising four hours each evening after school in two different venues, for four to five nights a week. “As I grew older and injuries got worse, I realised that the days of competition and intensive playing had to end. As a referee now, I can participate in the game in a different capacity. There’s no age limit to being a referee, although one needs to be physically fit and meets certain requirements, such as running 1,700 meters within ten minutes.”
Chan now teaches physical education at a school, where he organises a basketball team of girls aged 11 to 18. “In training young people these days, you first have to cultivate a team spirit among them. If you pay your attention to one or two individuals only, the team will split up easily. So, after a game, we have to analyse why we win or lose. I also need to treat them like friends and to encourage them frequently.”
Chan added, “Students nowadays have to face many pressures. We have to teach them not only basketball skills but also other things in life.”
Chan finds his work as referee equally challenging, as disputes often arise between referees and the players. “Basketball is an intense game, involving much body contact in a small, prescribed area. As referees, we have to judge whether such contacts are intentional or not and whether any regulation has been breached. This is an art that can’t be done by computer or closed-circuit television monitoring soon.”
“As a referee, you have to learn the rules well, watch videos of past competitions and exchange views with other referees. Foul language used by angry players is another problem. This is becoming more common these days. Sometimes, the players swear but are unaware of doing so. As referees, we have to find out why a player swears over what he or she thinks is an unfair ruling. It’s best to resolve any possible conflicts before the start of a game,” he said.
Text Louise do Rosário
Photos António Sanmarful and Courtesy of Macau-China