TIGERS 101: BEHIND THE SCENES OF OUR HOMETOWN HEROS

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Well, ladies and gentlemen, the Jason Dixon days are already long gone. That man has paid his dues. After shining throughout his 10-year career with the Guangdong Southern Tigers, while racking up five championships and having his jersey number retired, he created a dynasty that will live on with the Tigers for some time.

Still today, Dongguan’s favorite basketball team continues its dominance in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), as it ranked 4th in the league last year (2015-2016). With a record of 28 wins and 10 losses (28-10), they easily tore straight into the semi-finals of the playoffs.

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Yi Jianlian poses in his team gear

Though the 2016-17 season was expected to begin with a heightened challenge, thanks to the loss of seasoned veteran, Yi Jianlian, an exciting development emerged.

Yi had originally signed to play with the Los Angeles Lakers this season, but at the last possible moment, it was decided that he would not be able to play the Lakers. Though bittersweet, the team and fans were ecstatic to have him back.

The team further strengthened their position by adding several new faces on the coaching staff, collected additional role-players and brought in fellow NBA players, Carlos Boozer and Donald Sloan, to join Yi as they prepare to take on their 9th Championship.

YEAR-ROUND TRAINING

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In the NBA, players are monitored, guided and trained by some of the best coaches and trainers in the game. As the CBA looks to grow and expand, they will need to hire more high-priced staff with NBA experience in order to implement the better coaching philosophies and tactics in China’s game.

“I think at times, like any other young adult, it can, at times, be a struggle to stay mentally sharp and physically motivated during the off-season” said Z speaking about the grind. “It is our job as coaches to make sure they do just that.”

Head Strength and Conditioning Coach, Zeshaun Mirza, also known as “Z,” spent four years working under the Phoenix Suns’ staff, where he learned from some of the best trainers in the NBA. Now starting his second season with the Tigers, he explains what goes into his training routines, how he helps players recover from tough workouts and what it’s like to work one-on-one with celebrity athletes and rising stars.

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Carlos Boozer takes a selfie

It’s important to remember that these athletes are kept continually busy both during and after the season, per the China way. Almost every hour of their day is used and the coaches have to make sure that the players stay on track. Their training must stay as consistent as possible when weight lifting, working on skills development and during team practices.

“I think at times, like any other young adult, it can, at times, be a struggle to stay mentally sharp and physically motivated during the off-season” said Z speaking about the grind. “It is our job as coaches to make sure they do just that.”

cover-storyCoach Mirza also must do his best to make sure that the athletes are eating healthy foods at all appropriate times. Accomplishing this can be rather difficult in China and often requires some creativity to stay on top of their fitness and nutrition program. During the off-season, there is a lot of weight lifting—on average 4 to 5 times per week—and individual skill and development sessions for each position. In addition, they are also constantly having team practices. All this heavy training effectively starts only a month after the season ends, so the players are extremely busy all year ‘round.

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Scenes from an exciting fan day with the team

Both light and heavy injuries are to be expected in physical sports. To combat this, players can receive a variety of Chinese medical treatments to advance the recovery period. These include electric acupuncture, suction cup treatments that help draw out bad or black blood, ultrasound therapy to alleviate chronic injuries, Hong Kong paste, which players swear reduces swelling and inflammation, and the deep Muscle Stimulator (DMS), which is also used in the NBA and works by loosening up muscle tissue by stimulating deep fibers near the bone.

2016-17 PRE-SEASON

cover-story-8 “There ain’t no rest for the wicked,” a phrase uttered by American band, Cage The Elephant, resonates perfectly for one of the best performing teams in the CBA and especially during a summer where the team almost lost one of their most valuable players to the NBA.

 

The Tigers began their off-season training in Los Angeles, California. There they enlisted the help of several NBA trainers, including Chris Johnson (skills and development coach for NBA players), world champion Cleveland Cavaliers Assistant Coach Phil Handy, Chris Hines and Ben Voogd. Renowned NBA players like Jimmy Butler, Jason Williams and Tony Snell were also on hand for assistance.

cover-story-10As a result of extraordinary results in the first month, management decided to extend the training in L.A. for an extra month. This period ended up being very useful as it broke up the monotony of the summer training in Dongguan, drastically improved skills and the players bound closer together.

 

Every player has slightly different goals they need to meet, so making sure they reach the standard or exceed it is highly important for coaches. The tests and scores are all based on the player’s height, weight and position. At the end, the entire team must pass or they must pay to retake the exam at a different city and later date.

cover-story-11“For 9 weeks, the coaching staff let me have [full] control of the athlete’s meals, portioning their plates accordingly. Within a few weeks, we saw visible changes in all of their bodies. Food matters!” Coach Z explained while describing how he helped players lose weight and gain muscle mass. It seemed to have worked. The players came back to Dongguan looking the best that they ever had, with the lowest body fat percentage ever achieved.

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Peering behind the scenes at the Tigers’ practice space in Nancheng

Within a few days of being back home, preparation for the annual CBA testing began in Guangzhou, leading into another month of rigorous training. The CBA test is compulsory for players and is held every September. In order to participate in the CBA, players must pass all four tests, which consist of bench pressing, squatting, sprinting and shooting drills.

Every player has slightly different goals they need to meet, so making sure they reach the standard or exceed it is highly important for coaches. The tests and scores are all based on the player’s height, weight and position. At the end, the entire team must pass or they must pay to retake the exam at a different city and later date.

A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A TIGERS PLAYER

Coach Z guides his players

Coach Z guides his players

A typical day for a player on the Southern Tigers can vary widely, based on what the Head Coach and schedule have in store. A practice, travel or a game day all have differing wake up, training and nap times, but there is never a day where napping is left out of a basketball player’s schedule.

The constants that always tend to stay the same are fixtures like starting the day with a healthy breakfast full of critical carbohydrates, fats and protein, attending a morning practice or shoot around, communicating with the staff on upcoming game strategies and never losing sight of the small details. Also important are activities that can help players’ bodies recover for the next days of training, which can include taking ice baths, getting massages and having medical staff perform treatments on any sort of new or nagging injury.

Skills Coach Chris Hines and Assistant Coach Igor Miglinieks watch plays being drawn up

Skills Coach Chris Hines and Assistant Coach Igor Miglinieks watch plays being drawn up

Since these players almost exclusively rely on their bodies to make money, it seems that most athletes maintain a strict focus on a schedule that revolves around making their body feel as flawless as possible in order to effectively make their way through the rugged CBA season.

Their entire days are indeed very regulated. They don’t have much free time and that’s in part to how management looks to keep these guys organized and ready to train each day. Still, a Chinese player’s daily life in China is very different from that of an American. Scouted import players are almost exclusively recent or former NBA players, so quite often these athletes need to be treated differently and accommodated a bit more while they familiarize themselves with the differences in basketball culture, foods, travel and general details of everyday life in China.

Coach Du Feng watches his team at practice

Coach Du Feng watches his team at practice

For the versatile point guard import Donald Sloan, one of the biggest challenges he finds while being in China is the language barrier and being dependent on a translator. Still, he enjoys the feeling of playing here because has far greater freedom with his leisure time compared to the Chinese players, who have mandatory curfews. Though, he does mention that, “…living in a hotel would be much easier if we had access to cable like back home on the TV, instead of feeling confined to using our smart devices.”

As far as the Chinese players go, older athletes that are married or have children are commonly given more privileges and can live on their own. The younger generation of players must live in the team apartments, which can be likened more to dorm room style living quarters. Ultimately, though, there’s little difference because for the entire off-season, pre-season and regular season all players eat, train and sleep basketball.

Still, it’s important to remember that these guys are just like regular people and all players have similar hobbies and interests as other professional basketball players making millions all around the world.

More scenes from the Tigers' fan appreciation day

More scenes from the Tigers’ fan appreciation day

They all enjoy keeping up with the latest fashion trends, driving luxurious hot cars, obessessing about shoes (i.e. being sneakerheads) and occasionally dabbling in varying business ventures. Zhu Fangyu, for example, has been featured in international sneaker fanatic magazines, thanks to his love for rare kicks. Dong Hanlin collects cars, along with discovering new places around the world on his off time.

Really, all the players have their own attributes that make them special. Basketball is how they spend their time and earn money, when they go home at the end of the day, they’re not so different than anyone else.

BEING A TRUE TIGERS FAN

On October 22, thousands of Tigers fans gathered together for a fan carnival where players did a meet and greet, hosted a variety of entertaining games and showed fans some love for all their support throughout the years. But really, everyone is anxiously anticipating another successful year for their team.

“We’re excited to see the new import players lead the team to [another] championship with Yi,” said my neighboring coffee shop owners that pay tribute to the team by showcasing memorabilia throughout the place. The Tigers generate some of the most diehard fans in the CBA that are not only loyal, but also dedicated to bringing excitement to every game. You could say the fans are a big part of the entertainment when watching a live game, as they cheer and chant non-stop.

cover-story-19 Gaining a membership to the fan zone can be an enduring task, but probably well worth it. The organization holds their own online recruitment system that gathers people from all over China by allowing fans to apply online.

Going to a Tigers game is quite an experience. It’s lively as fans go nuts rooting for their team, even sometimes including a bit of animosity. The CBA is well known for fighting and in the last few years has been leveling greater punishments with new penalties. You can easily find videos floating around the internet with bench-clearing brawls that violently erupt at center court. That’s real passion, you could say.

cover-story-20Now, there are less and less fights, even though fans still hope to see this type of primitive entertainment and sometimes will even try to provoke this type of behavior by yelling out things like “black whistle,” which pretty much is like yelling bullshit to the officials. Chinese fans unconditionally want their team to win, whether it’s an honorable outcome or not.

“Scouted import players are almost exclusively recent or former NBA players, so quite often these athletes need to be treated differently and accommodated a bit more while they familiarize themselves with the differences in basketball culture, foods, travel and general details of everyday life in China.”

Experiencing a professional Chinese basketball game is, in many ways, a raw, cultural reflection. Most Americans grow up with an influential family member dictating which team to support. For example, following college basketball is far more popular with people being far more enthusiastic for their alma-mater and also will often feel significant pride for their hometown team. Because the NBA is so much older, fan ties have far deeper roots compared to the relative short-term history of the CBA, which has only been around since 1995. In China, having your baby don your favorite team’s gear can be something perhaps interesting for new generations to come.

GOING TO A GAME & STAYING UPDATED

cover-story-21If you are eager to watch some live CBA games, there are plenty of options to get you there. You can easily buy tickets online, at the team office, at the stadium door or by calling 0769-22623638. Prices depend on the opponent and level of seating. Regular season tickets cost 80 to 800 RMB and are categorized into two different levels: A and B.

A level features some of the best teams in the league. Season tickets consist of seven different levels and start at 1,680 RMB, which include perks like overall ticket discounts and a chance to automatically join the Tiger’s fan club in the designated fan area in the arena.

Catching up with Sister Yin, the team’s executive office manager, who handles everything from travel arrangements for the team and opponents to registrations, visas, food, tickets, security and assuring that everything is going as planned during the game. She has overseen the team office and watched the CBA mature for 21 years after her own basketball playing career ended.

cover-story-22She tells me most fans actually arrive to the stadium by carpooling with friends, driving their own cars or booking rides through apps like Didi. Driving to the stadium is easy and takes only about a 20-30 minutes from Dongcheng. Most fans create WeChat groups to simplify coordination and set up a more convenient form of transportation. This is really the best way to travel to a game and home, as parking can often burst out of control, especially during highly anticipated games.

If you miss a home game, you can still stay updated by following the team’s official Weibo account, WeChat, and dw-sport.com (currently all in Chinese).

2016-17 TIGERS GAME SCHEDULE

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The Guangdong Southern Tigers opened up the 2016-17 season on the road in Shanxi on Sunday, October 30 (Loss, 109-74). In all, they’ll be playing a total of 38 regular season games—not including playoff games—19 home and 19 away. Every team goes head to head twice per season in the CBA. This year, the Tigers have a much more evenly spread schedule, where they will mostly play two home games, followed by two away games.

Unlike last year’s six home opening games, this year the Tiger’s opening week is kicking off in Shenzhen and Shanxi. As a result of last year’s heavy home game start, the team had to make it up on the road. At one point, the squad was traveling 30 out of 42 days during a brutal Chinese winter, which often took place in frigid arenas.

The former Dongguan squad, the Leopards, is now based in Shenzhen and have become major rivals for the Tigers, defeating them twice last season and during this year’s pre-season. Shanxi, another stiff competitor who kept their young, imported shooting guard, Jamaal Franklin, who later went on to be the league’s leader in triple-doubles. The Tigers passed on him last season.
Christmas day will consist of another head to head against Shenzhen. Besides this, there will be a number of showdowns to keep an eye on, such as those against Liaoning, Xingjiang, Beijing and Sichuan.

The All-Star weekend will commence on January 7th for a two-day affair. Afterwards, the team will take a holiday break for the Chinese New Year, from January 25 to February 4, finally returning to conclude the regular season on Sunday, February 19, against Foshan at home.

Photos by Lai Derong and Trout Liang

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