Liaoning triumphs in season of adversity

The Liaoning Flying Leopards celebrate with the trophy after beating the Zhejiang Lions 100-82 in the Chinese Basketball Association Finals on April 26. Liaoning swept the best-of-seven series 4-0 to claim the second CBA title in the franchise”s history. XINHUA

Flying Leopards crowned champs after CBA’s bubble format changes landscape of league in testing times

The Chinese Basketball Association concluded another bubble season with a lopsided finals series last week, while the prolonged impact of the pandemic has sparked concerns about the league’s financial health.

The CBA’s 2021-22 season finale witnessed the return of traditional powers, with 2018 champion the Liaoning Flying Leopards completing a 4-0 sweep of the Zhejiang Lions on April 26 to claim the franchise’s second league championship.

Yet the quality of the best-of-seven series was significantly diluted by the absence of two Zhejiang stars-regular-season MVP Hu Jinqiu and sharpshooter Zhao Yanhao, who were sidelined by injuries sustained in the semifinals-to render the finals something of an anticlimax.

The continuous vigilance against the COVID-19 pandemic across the country required the league to play inside bio-secure bubbles for a second entire season-in Zhuji, Zhejiang province for the regular campaign, and Nanchang, Jiangxi province for the playoffs, with the absence of spectators in the stands for the majority of the season and a lack of on-site media coverage taking a heavy toll on the league’s appeal.

After helping Liaoning beat Zhejiang 100-82 in Game 4 last week, Flying Leopards’ star guard Guo Ailun was not exactly in a celebratory mood.

“Personally, I don’t feel as excited as I was back in 2018. I just did my job, which is to play basketball to the best of my ability,” said Guo, a national team starter who contributed a team-high average of 20.4 points and 6.9 assists in nine games during the postseason.

“I was proud, though, of my perseverance and resilience to carry myself through the hard times of the bubble season.

“I felt quite depressed at times isolated in the bubbles for such a long time, and other players did too. So, to finally get the job done with a championship trophy makes it all worthwhile.”

Guo’s subdued mood underlined the struggles that the CBA league has been dealing with since deploying “bubble mode” in the second half of the 2019-20 season.

The tournament-like structure involves all 20 league teams staying at one location for at least half a year, with players and all league staff required to travel only between designated hotels, and competition and training venues in the host city. No fans were allowed at the arenas, while players could not visit anywhere outside the bubbles for the majority of the past two years.

The strict COVID-19 containment measures, however, have offered more opportunities for China’s young guns, with most teams relying on homegrown cores due to the complications of getting foreigners into the country and the economic realities of the pandemic.

Liaoning head coach Yang Ming reckoned there were plenty of positives to salvage from the difficult campaign.

“I think to be able to complete the whole season safe and sound was already an accomplishment, not to mention we finished with a trophy,” said Yang, who was a formidable part of the Leopards’ 2018 championship roster as a point guard.

“I feel quite honored and even more satisfied to bring the championship back to the team as a coach.

“Although Zhejiang wasn’t at its best with two key players absent, I think we thoroughly deserved the championship rings as we proved through ups and downs that we managed to adjust to any challenges and to always stay confident.”

Liaoning’s American forward Eric Moreland, who won the 2018-19 NBA championship with the Toronto Raptors, was seemingly the most excited of all the Flying Leopards in the locker room after the final game.

“I am so privileged and honored to be the first foreigner to win the league championship in the CBA after winning in the NBA,” said the 31-year-old native of Houston, Texas, whose humorous posts and wise cracks about coach Yang went viral on social media during the finals.

“This was the goal from the beginning of the year when they brought me here. That’s the only aspiration here… We came together as a group through adversity and hard times in the locker room and on the court. We just came together and got the job done. That’s the most satisfying thing we can have.”