Millions follow ex-NBA basketball star Zhou Qi on his NBL journey with South East Melbourne Phoenix
Zhou Qi is a major asset in world sport, but most Australians have never heard of him.
The Chinese basketball player plays for South East Melbourne Phoenix, one of 10 professional basketball teams from Australia and New Zealand playing in the NBL.
He trains in the dark at the State Basketball Center in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. But online, it’s a whole different story.
A message announcing his recruitment in September was posted on several Chinese social media platforms.
One has reached more than 480 million people, 15.5 million of whom have engaged with it.
Another post reached 15 million and another reached six million.
“The numbers don’t seem real,” marvels Daniel Hoy, Phoenix brand and media manager.
‘One of the best’
At 216 centimeters – 7’1″ – Zhou is easily the tallest player in Phoenix’s roster.
A natural defender, the 26-year-old started his professional career playing with his hometown team, Xinjiang Flying Tigers.
He was named best defensive player in the Chinese professional league three times and represented his country at the Rio Olympics.
His global profile took off when he joined the Houston Rockets in the American NBA in 2017 and 2018.
He then returned to play in China after being written off by the Rockets. However, there was a backlash on social media after the final minutes of a tight FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 match between China and Poland when Zhou missed what some fans thought were easy chances.
A reported contract dispute at home and a reported desire to return to the big league in the United States led him to Australia and a new NBL franchise based in Melbourne’s outer suburbs, Wantirna South.
It’s a far cry from the NBA. But that didn’t stop millions of fans from following him, at least online.
Translator WeiHao Hou helps Mandarin speaker Zhou off the pitch (he doesn’t need a translator when playing) and his media company is also contracted by South East Melbourne Phoenix to run their Chinese social platforms.
His company has built the club’s engagement on Chinese social media from scratch to much higher levels than in Australia.
For example, the team’s Douyin – TikTok – account has 255,000 followers and its Facebook page has 14,000.
Mr. Hou is not surprised by the numbers.
“[Qi is] one of the best – if not the best – basketball player in China,” he said.
The phenomenon is not limited to Melbourne – the Brisbane Bullets have also signed a Chinese player.
At 225cm – 7’4″ – Chuanxing Liu, known as “Big Liu”, is the tallest player the NBL has ever seen.
More than two million people streamed a Bullets and Phoenix game live in January.
This made it one of the most-watched NBL games of all time – free views on SBS from the 2019/20 season got roughly the same views overall, while a regular game would now get over 100,000 live views across all platforms.
An NBL strategy has seen a number of players from Asian countries join the league, including India’s Princepal Singh, who signed with the New Zealand Breakers, and Fillipino Kai Sotto from the Adelaide 39ers.
NBL commissioner Jeremy Loeliger said the league changed the rules to make it easier for teams to sign players from countries in Asia.
“We very deliberately introduced an amendment to the salary and contract rules allowing each team to contract an Asian player who would be excluded from their salary cap calculations,” he said.
“We are aware of the quality of talent coming out of the region, the popularity of the game in various markets across Asia, but also the fact that the best players receive significant salaries.
Mr Loeliger said the league started broadcasting games in China in 2016 and has facilitated a number of games between Australian and Chinese teams.
He hoped more Asian players would consider playing professional basketball in Australia.
“You can’t deny the significance and importance of the signings of Zhou Qi and Chuanxing Liu, as it showed other Chinese players that the NBL is a legitimate option for them,” Loeliger said.
“There is no doubt that the NBL is a real stepping stone to the NBA and is a very attractive league for any player who wants to make that transition.”
Will he stay?
Despite the NBA hype, Zhou said he enjoys working and living in Melbourne.
His few months in Australia were not without controversy. In December, Melbourne United’s on-pitch announcer was suspended for two games after making an “inappropriate” comment about Qi during the game.
Qi declined to comment on the incident, but spoke highly of his NBL experience so far.
“I just want to concentrate here,” he said through a translator.
“Obviously I thought about [going to the NBA].
“But at the moment I feel quite comfortable here in Australia.”
“I didn’t expect such welcoming teammates. In the United States, I found that everyone played individually, but here everyone supports each other no matter what.”
While his teammates talk about Zhou’s laid-back nature and cheeky sense of humor, perhaps just as important is his love of the sidelines.
“The crowd was amazing and it’s something I didn’t expect coming here,” he said.
Bringing cultures together
A ten-minute drive from the State Basketball Center, Patrick Yu hosts a weekly basketball competition.
The Australasian Basketball Association started as an informal competition between four Chinese churches ten years ago.
Today, the competition has 53 teams divided into six divisions, with more than 500 participants who are mostly of Asian origin.
Mr. Yu said he was delighted to have a famous basketball player on their doorstep.
“Our original plan was to have Zhou Qi come to our stadium and sign autographs, but unfortunately due to COVID we weren’t able to do that.
“What we’ve heard is that they’re very keen to connect with the community – he’s got some really good people behind him telling him to get involved.”
While this has not changed the number of people interested in his league, Mr Yu said it has changed the way Chinese-Australian fans have engaged with local basketball culture.
“Now that Zhou is on the Phoenix team, there’s a much bigger Asian presence at the games, and more people are starting to understand the culture of basketball in Australia,” he said.
Zhou’s move to Australia is part of Mr Yu’s larger goal of leading an inclusive community basketball league in Melbourne’s east end.
“Basketball is a common language for everyone – it brings people together.”