After graduating high school, Zhang He and Zhang Baoyuan decide to take a trip from their native Hebei province to Beijing with their newfound freedom — a breath of fresh air after months of gaokao prep.
As they touch down in Beijing, others are arriving from more distant places: Shanxi, Hainan, even Los Angeles. Fresh high school grad and working professional alike, they all have one thing in common. Everyone is making the pilgrimage to Sunset Dongdan — Beijing’s legendary street basketball tournament, held on a court that’s come to be known as the “Holy Land” of Chinese streetball.
Streetball is more fast and loose than your NBA variety of the sport, typically played with less enforcement of the rules, more flair and tricks. There are courts around the world that draw perennial crowds hoping to catch some of the city’s — even country’s — most talented streetball players in action. For New York, it’s Rucker Park; for LA, it’s the courts at Venice Beach. For China, that court is Dongdan, which plays host to the aforementioned yearly streetball tournament that falls between May and June.
“Since high school, we’ve wanted to come out to Sunset Dongdan,” says Baoyuan, sitting on the steps of the historic court in full gear. “Plus we’re big fans of MoreFree.”
Meet MoreFree, the Chinese Streetball Pioneer Who Can’t Stop Battling NBA Stars
Minutes after Baoyuan speaks, MoreFree — the man that transformed the court into the streetball Mecca that it is today — pulls up in a sleek black car. He enters the court with a swagger and celebrity which, in this space, only he or an NBA all-star could possess.
Throngs of spectators have already gathered around the court, while lines to enter still run one hundred-deep. Music is bumping, the sun hovers beyond its highpoint, and with MoreFree now present, onlookers become hushed in anticipation of the main event.
While the audience jostles for the best vantage points, players are already on the court, warming up their jump-shots and lay-ups for the competition. If they perform well, they’ll be picked up by one of the big boys, maybe even MoreFree, for the competition’s finale: the night games.
Like most traditional streetball tournaments, it’s individuals and not teams that come to play in Sunset Dongdan. Teams are randomly assembled from the pool of players for the first round of the tournament, and standout individuals are picked by judges to compete one-on-one for slots in the night games. There they will play alongside pre-selected streetball veterans like MoreFree — many a young streetball player’s dream.
Securing a spot in the first round is a challenge in and of itself, however. Each week there are only 64 slots open — 40 for Beijingers and a meager 24 for people from out of town, like He and Baoyuan.
“We got here yesterday because there’s a limit on the number of people who can play,” Baoyuan says. “We showed up around 9 o’clock to get a place in line. And we were in line until like 11am — it’s pretty miserable.”
Henan province native Liu Jie, whose towering stature is a dead giveaway that he hasn’t just come to spectate, played the previous Sunday and stayed at a friend’s place in Beijing all week so he could make the final day of the tournament before heading home.
Unfortunately, he’s missed his chance. “I played last week but came late today, so I can only watch,” Liu says, who still dons leg sleeves having fully expected to ball. “Last week was incredible, and today is the final week of the tournament so it’s going to be even more explosive. I expect they’ll have some special people come.”
Sunset Dongdan’s preeminent status has drawn a few special guest appearances in the past — Stephon Marbury and Russell Westbrook, to name a couple. While no NBA players have showed up this year, MoreFree isn’t the only Chinese streetball celebrity in attendance.
Native Beijinger and streetball veteran Wang Tongyang — an approachable 6-foot-something colossus with a gleaming shaved head — is taking interviews in between warm-up shots. Wang has been coming to Sunset Dongdan for years, and has already been slotted to play in this year’s night games.
“There are a lot of people today, and I feel like the talent is pretty strong,” Wang says, before adding, “These days it just seems like there are too many young people!”
Li Tujin, better known as Aking, another well-known player and member of MoreFree’s streetball collective Chinese Legendary (CL) Smooth Crew, also has thoughts on younger players who come out. When asked what he thinks about the skills and passion of the upcoming generation, he says:
“I think people brought up in the ’80s and ’90s know how to suffer, but these Gen Z-ers lead good lives.”
Blissfully unaware of this perceived generational gap, Gen Z-ers He and Baoyuan take to the court to begin warm-ups, having just found out the teams that they’ve been placed on will be facing off.
MoreFree circles the court with a microphone, setting the mood in his unmistakeable Beijing accent as the games begin. More spectators crowd around the outside fence, sitting on shoulders and scaling the chain links to get a better view of the spectacle.
What follows are back-to-back hours of high-level streetball, brimming with swatted shots, backboard alley-oops, shook defenders and flashy three-pointers. The structure of these games ensures maximum entertainment — one of the rules requires a three pointer or slam dunk before the game clock passes the nine-minute mark.
Interspersed among the games are other forms of entertainment, including a high-flying slam dunk contest, hip hop dance routines, and even a performance by Wang Haoxuan, the bombastic rapper who made a short-lived but memorable appearance on last season’s Rap of China, performing his song “AYO Everybody 在你头上暴扣” (“Slam Dunk On Your Head”).
As the sun sets and the streetlights flicker on, the remaining players shuffle into the middle of the court. Veterans Tongyang and Aking also enter, along with a batch of foreign players and other Chinese streetball heavyweights. The highlight of this evening — the night games — are about to begin.
As they get rolling, it’s clear that the degree of skill and physicality on display is beyond what was happening earlier in the evening. Almost everyone on the court is able to dunk if given a chance — and more than a few do. Shots are being taken from far beyond the three-point line, quick and calculated passes are being made at court length, and forceful moves are being used in the paint that would send most flying.
After a series of games, an all-Chinese team, Mai Chao, takes home the cake. The crowd roars as the game clock hits zero, but it’s not even the grand finale. Per tradition, one standout player from each of the top two teams is chosen for the final one-on-one match of the evening to compete for MVP.
Players Wang Jing and Li Tianrong are the chosen pair, and the crowd closes in on one half of the court as the two standout players start their match. Their fatigue is evident, but the intensity of their back and forth barely flags. After sinking a final fade-away jumpshot and clinching the win, sweat-drenched Wang Jing turns to the crowd and does a triumphant downward flex.
Baoyuan and He watch it all unfold from the sidelines — they held their own on the court, but didn’t make it this far. The high school grads are far from deterred, however.
“Are you coming next year?” Baoyuan asks me over WeChat after the tournament. “Next year I’ll be MVP and I’ll let you interview me.”
The “Holy Land”
After the tournament, a young Chinese streetball hobbyist manages to catch MoreFree for an interview (link in Chinese). Starstruck, the admirer nervously asks him how to start other tournaments like Sunset Dongdan in China.
“First, you need to have confidence,” MoreFree replies. “You have to get to know everybody in the scene. It’s really difficult to do something like this by yourself. You need the combined hard work of a group of people.”
“What opportunities do the locals need? What do they want? Serve them, ask them, and turn it into a system — that’s the key.”
What MoreFree means by all of that is: strive to fill a void. When he founded the tournament in 2012, Chinese streetball was facing extinction. He told RADII last year that many streetball events at that time had already ceased to be, and people’s attention was beginning to turn elsewhere.
How Basketball Became China’s Most Beloved Sport
Dongdan wasn’t much more than a community court at that point, but with a tournament on the horizon, the best streetball players in the city — and the nation — would ideally have something to work towards. The first tournament sent ripples across China, and other cities started to form their own streetball teams, returning grassroots streetball to its glory days once again.
Perhaps Liu Jie from Henan puts it best when asked what Dongdan Court and MoreFree’s tournament have come to mean to the Chinese basketball community.
“Whether you play or watch, you absolutely have to enter that court to see the spectacle for yourself, to see how explosive it is,” Liu says. “Dongdan is China’s basketball ‘Holy Land.’ It’s inspired China’s young people and basketball hobbyists to chase their dreams.”
All photos: Dawei Chen for RADII