hoops and dreams

Michael Fiala

Michael Fiala

SINGAPORE - Ju Dan was two years old when she was sent to the Chinese sporting elite's boarding kindergarten while her father coached basketball in China and Africa. She was a child prodigy.

The little girl whose father had represented China at basketball was picked in 1974 as an athlete capable of competing for the "glory of the country", a slogan she would see and hear often over the next two decades.

She lived at the kindergarten for the next three years, and was to enter China's sports mill full-time at age 11.

In the words of the man who came to collect her birth certificate so the sports school could take her over, she was "born to play basketball". She was tall for her age - she would grow to 1,83m - and strong.

I met her in 1992 and learnt her story, which is hardly unique to China.

The Communist Soviet bloc had similar sporting factories: athletes were political tools to fuel party support at home and be played like pawns on the ideological front of the Cold War.

The 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong split Ju Dan's family for much of her childhood. Her mother, who was a well-known actress, was sent to the army to be "re-educated".

Her father, Ju Fen Kang, abandoned life in the capital due to political pressures, to coach the Shandong provincial team.

When Ju Dan was seven, she and her baby sister Ju Li followed him to Jinan.

After three years' separation, her mother was allowed to return to Beijing where she was reunited with her daughters: they shared a tiny two-room apartment with another family.

Her father stayed on in Shandong because he didn't have the necessary papers to return to the capital.

From age 11, over about 12 years, Ju Dan was honed into a world-class athlete, undertaking exhaustive daily workouts and stark living conditions to become a professional sportswoman.

Her routine would start at 6am and finish at 9pm. The girls slept six to a room on beds that had wooden slabs for a mattress and only cold water showers in the dormitories.

"I don't have happy memories of the school," she told me. "I felt more of prisoner than player."

She made several unsuccessful attempts to quit the game, and the sports committee reluctantly permitted her to retire in 1985 at the age of 22.

By then she had five national basketball championships to her credit.

Having escaped basketball, Ju Dan eventually turned her hand to golf and was later to become a PGA golf professional.

But despite the hardships, she is justifiably proud of her family's basketball feats.

Such is the family's prowess that official government film documentaries have been produced highlighting their sporting achievements. Aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces have all competed collegiately, professionally or on a national team.

Heading this family dynasty were two towering and statuesque brothers, Ju Fen Geng and the younger Ju Fen Kang - Ju Dan's father - who represented the People's Republic of China after its formation in 1949.

Easily fitting the mould of the valorous, chisel-jawed comrades in propaganda posters of the Communist era, the brothers criss-crossed the Soviet bloc to represent the People's Republic throughout the 1950s.

Their journals overflow with black-and-white photographs of them, smartly dressed to visit places that were strictly off limits to the West during the depths of the Cold War.

In 1956 Ju Dan's father was selected for the Olympic basketball team to compete in Melbourne. Suits and uniforms were issued - personally approved by Premier Zhou Enlai himself.

But with only weeks to go to the Games, the team was told China had pulled out in protest against the inclusion of the Republic of China, which now competes under the name Chinese Taipei.

His Olympic hopes were dashed.

His older brother Ju Fen Geng died in 2006, but Ju Fen Kang will finally get to the Olympics this August in Beijing, as a spectator with his daughter Ju Dan and three-year-old grandson.

They will go to the basketball venue to watch China's present-day superstars like Yao Ming.

I will be there too. In the press centre, I will be quietly proud of this extraordinary family, which I joined when I married Ju Dan in Beijing in 1992, and which has toiled so hard for the state for so many years in the name of sport. - Reuters