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April 7, 2010

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The Sharks get their bite back

IT'S 6:30pm. The area around Pudong's Yuanshen Stadium was filled with students, young couples, trendy young women, families with little children and even some foreigners.

Some were already queueing up and chatting with friends. Some crowded in the tiny convenience stores nearby to grab dinner. Almost all sandwiches and dinner boxes were sold out.

Some people were circling the stadium looking for ticket scalpers, who kept asking passersby: "Do you have tickets?" rather than: "Do you want tickets?"

They were all here for the playoff games of Shanghai Sharks, a real-life example of "coming back to life after death."

The Shanghai Sharks defeated the Liaoning Panpan Hunters in the play-offs and entered the semifinals with last year's champion, Guangdong Dongguan Bank team. Sharks lost the first away game on Monday, 106 to 110.

Before Houston Rockets star Yao Ming bought his former team last summer, the 2001-02 champion of the Chinese Basketball Association was suspected of not being able to play this season due to financial reasons.

The team plummeted after Yao left for the NBA in 2002 and ranked second from bottom last season. Only 10 percent of seats were sold for many of their games.

That all changed when the Sharks held their first game of the season on December 19 last year. Yao's return to the team, though as boss rather than player, attracted thousands of fans, old and new.

The team moved to the larger 5,000-seat Yuanshen Stadium, 1,500 more than its original Luwan Stadium and became this season's "dark horse." It made the playoff for the first time since the 2006-07 season and has a big chance to enter the semifinals.

"For the seasons after Yao left, most games only had a handful of fans in the stadium. Sometimes, there were more fans of the guest team than our own fans," says Cheng Yifan, official DJ of Shanghai Sharks since 2004.

"The stadium almost exploded from the very first game of this season. It was such a surprise to see so many fans on the scene," he says.

Cheng is a loyal Sharks fan. A wedding planner and MC, he has arranged his schedule around the basketball season.

Cheng remembers when the number of fans was often less than 200, only increasing when the team was playing against other teams with major stars.

"Sometimes, the number of players and staff was even more than audiences. It was a very difficult time. Although the few fans were very loyal and always cheered with all their might, it was still almost impossible to stir up an atmosphere," he recalls.

It's quite the opposite in the current season, especially during the playoffs. They follow Cheng's lead to switch between yells of "attack" and "defense" as if they have been doing it for years.

From early this year, Cheng added some local Shanghai slang into the cheers to make it even more like a home base. When a player scores, Cheng yells out his name and fans follow with "Muzi!" or "You're the man!" When the Sharks organize an attack, he screams the name of the guest team and fans follow by "Nei yi zu te!" or "Finish them off!"

"It's so nostalgic to watch the live games of our team again. I rush here right after work, worrying that I might miss the beginning of the game. It's so great to feel this atmosphere again, although at a different stadium now," says Pan Qin, a 24-year-old accountant.

Like many others, Pan started watching NBA games in his teens and got interested in the local Shanghai team in 2000, when he was in middle school. Sharks ended second that year and Pan started going to Luwan Stadium for the next season in 2000-01.

He remembers that he used all his pocket money to buy tickets from scalpers. Pan used to save his lunch money until he had about 500 yuan (US$73) to get a ticket from the scalpers for one of the finals.

"The Sharks lost and I ate bread for almost half a year for that game, but it was still worthwhile. It was one of my teenage memories and it is so great to re-experience them now," says Pan, a big fan of the team's captain Liu Wei.

Pan buys almost all the team's goods, including calendars, keychains, clothes and other memorabilia, at the stadium.

Long queues also form at the popcorn and hotdog counters before the game and during time-out. One of the guards, surnamed Zhang, says it has been like this for almost every game this season as he helps light cigarettes for dozens of fans as they walk to the smoking area. Lighters are not allowed inside the stadium.

"I never expected to watch a basketball game here in Shanghai before I came, but it has been quite a great and unique experience. Asians are famous for their craze for soccer, but I didn't expect them to be so passionate for basketball as well," says Jay Chen, a San Antonio Spurs fan from Texas and an American-born Chinese.

Chen is taking the semester off from university and is on a trip around the world. He came to Shanghai to visit his mother's family two weeks ago and followed his local cousin to the first playoff game.

"Though my cousin kept telling me how great the team was and what a golden time it was for the fans in the old times, I still had no expectations before going to the game," says Chen. "I was completely stunned by the enthusiasm of the live audience."

Yet Chen has not seen the full picture - those watching on television are no less passionate than the live audiences, such as Maximus Lu for example.

Like some fans, Lu works night shifts and can't ever make it to the stadium. He and his colleagues often get together in front of the TV to cheer on their team.

Luckily, he works for a sports-related magazine and it is not completely impossible for them to turn on the TV for a game during work hours. He and his colleagues try not to scream too loudly when the games are on but "sometimes you are just too excited."


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