By Jeff Keeling
As an East Tennessee State University basketball team prepared to tip off against Duke Saturday in ETSU’s Center for Physical Education, ETSU guard Liang Wang smiled happily.
Dr. Wang, a public health professor at ETSU, had just spent a few minutes playing with his 5-year-old son, Joshua – a Lake Ridge Elementary kindergartner – after ETSU fell to North Carolina State in the first-ever Southeastern version of the Northeastern Chinese Basketball League tournament. The brainchild of 2012 ETSU graduate Ran Gao, now an entrepreneur in Manhattan, the tournament brought teams from Duke, N.C. State, Emory University, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Tennessee for a two-day slate of games.
“It’s pretty exciting,” said Wang, who completed his doctoral work here and has taught for five years. “There’s a very good chance we can make more friends, and also help ETSU to increase our reputation.”
After graduating with a computer science degree in 2012, Gao went to the University of Rochester in New York. While pursuing a master’s in technical entrepreneurship and management, he helped birth the Northeastern Chinese Basketball League in the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
The teams comprised of students, graduates and faculty affiliated with specific universities were such a hit that the league has spread around the Northeast, Midwest and Southeast. And Gao brought the first Southeastern tournament to his alma mater, reaching out to ETSU earlier this year.
“I tried to find the multicultural office, and the Chinese Student Scholar Association. We told them who we are and why we’re doing all this. We had to work everything out and make sure they like our idea and our motivation.”
ETSU did like it, and seven teams showed up this weekend. The league contacted CSSA’s at various universities in September to round up participants. Gao expects more for the next
Southeast tournament, which he’d also like to see occur at his alma mater. “We’re looking for at least 10 teams next year. Not every school had enough time to form a team.”
As the sound of basketballs hitting the gym floor sounded on three courts around him, Gao explained why he believes basketball is such an attractive rallying point for Chinese students and faculty living stateside.
“Based on the education system in China, not many people can play for a school team growing up and have official training,” Gao said. “Most of the people play pickup games only, so they’ve never had a referee or running clock or anything. Never have the teammate feeling, a captain, a coach trying to study the game instead of just knowing ‘dribble, shoot, dribble, shoot, pass.’”
Gao said the game drew him into friendships during his years at ETSU even though the games were informal. He sees the leagues increasing in popularity. “People enjoy having that teammate experience, and also having that competition feeling. ”
Wang said he sees activities like the tournament as a way to attract more Chinese students to ETSU. He has worked with ETSU President Dr. Brian Noland to strengthen exchange programs with two areas in China, and has also enjoyed some hoops with Noland in the CPA. “At that time his son Jackson defense me,” Wang said with a laugh.
He said most Chinese ETSU students do very well in the job market when they return home, and love their time here. That is the case for Haoxuan Zhao, who is studying marketing and management and was the team captain last weekend.
“Clean air, and I can drive the car without the traffic jam. There is a big difference with Beijing. I treasure everything here.”
Zhao plans to return to Beijing someday, but not before pursuing his MBA here – and, he hopes, seeing ETSU’s team (which struggled this weekend) improve.
“We got a lot of freshmen, we got graduate students, we got professors – it’s exciting for us to join this game. I told them that this time all we need to do is be happy and do our best. Win or lose, it’s okay, because we have a lot of years. For me, I can do the graduate program in order to play this game, man.”