Changing China

Giant on the move

The Ju basketball dynasty

August 3, 2008

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While based in China as a chief photographer in the early 1990s I had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of a sports journalist and in turn an entire family with a remarkable basketball legacy. So much so that official government film documentaries were produced highlighting their sporting achievements. Aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces have all competed at college level, professionally or on a national team.

My journalist friend’s accomplishments were impressive. Starting at the age of 2-1/2 her parents had to place her, for the next three years, in the national sports committee’s boarding kindergarten. It was a place where China’s sporting elite could leave their children while they competed for the Party and national pride.

With few options available my friend was separated from her family again at age 11 to enter into the government’s athlete mill. Gruelling workouts, stark living conditions, military-style coaching were all in a day’s work. She spent her entire teens and early 20s being honed into a world class athlete. Looking to finally wrap up her career, the sports committee eventually, but reluctantly, permitted her to leave the game. She left with five national basketball championships to her credit.

east-germans.jpgHeading this family dynasty were two towering and statuesque brothers, Ju Fen Geng and the younger Ju Fen Kang, who were members of China’s first national team formed post-1949. They were so striking in appearance that they could easily have been the inspiration for the valorous, chisel-jawed comrades overcoming adversity in the ubiquitous propaganda posters of the Communist era. The brothers criss-crossed the Soviet-bloc and socialist countries of Europe proudly representing the People’s Republic throughout the 50s. Their journals overflow with black and white photographs of the smartly dressed young men visiting and competing in places that were strictly off limits to the West during the depths of the Cold War.

In 1956 the younger brother had been selected to the Olympic basketball team to compete in Melbourne. Uniforms, jerseys and suits had already been issued – personally approved by Premier Zhou Enlai himself. The team’s roster had even been published in the press. With weeks to go and while finalising their training in Guangdong province the team were notified that China had pulled out of the Games in protest at the inclusion of the Republic of China. His Olympic dream had been dashed. Following their playing careers the two brothers went on to enjoy success as coaches at the national and professional levels.

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The journalist used the strength of body and mind she acquired in the Chinese sports system to become a PGA golf professional. Sadly, the older brother Ju Fen Geng passed away in 2006 but the younger Ju Fen Kang will soon realise his dream of attending the Olympics – as a spectator in Beijing. Accompanying him to the basketball venue will be family members including his daughter Ju Dan (the journalist) and her 3-year-old son, to watch China’s present day superstars like Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian battle the world.

wu-jan.jpgI too will be attending the 2008 Olympics but from behind the scenes with Reuters as a photo editor, firmly tucked away in the main press center. I’ll be busy editing through thousands of daily images along with my colleagues so will be unable to join them at the basketball. However I will be relatively close by, feeling very honoured to be a part of this remarkable family. And if you haven’t guessed, I married that journalist (right).

Pictures from top:  Ju Fen Kang (R) shakes hands with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai after the team defeated Czechoslovakia in Beijing in this 1956 family handout photo. Chinese national basketball team members Ju Fenkang (3rd L), Yang Buo Yong (L) and Wang Yi Cheng pose with East German players in East Berlin in this 1955 family handout photo. The team was in East Berlin to train with the East German team. Ju Fen Kang (standing 3rd R) and members of China’s 1956 Olympic basketball team pose in their newly issued Olympic uniforms in Guangzhou, Guangdong province in this 1956 family handout photo. And my wife Ju Dan. 

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