China's dynamic Kings of the Underdogs and California's famous Venice Basketball League (VBL) street basketball teams faced off across the court Saturday in the first inaugural 'March Madness in Paradise' international street b-ball tournament.
It was a gloriously sunny, temperate day in the artsy, seaside community of Venice, California, where bikinis outnumber streetwear and artistic self-expression is an ingrained way of life.
Thousands of Angelenos, tourists, musicians, beachcombers, and even a rainbow-haired clown jammed the narrow boardwalk that winds along the popular Venice Beach, where local vendors hawked their colorful wares amid stalls crammed with thousands of sunglasses and beach souvenirs.
A tight-knit beach community, Venice is known for its relaxed lifestyle, funky artists, and beach bums. But, more importantly, it's also known for its legendary "street ballers."
Street ballers are fiercely independent basketball players who come together on local courts or anyplace with enough room for a hoop and at least three players, for pick up matches against anyone who's "got game."
It's a fraternity of passionate players who prefer the rough and tumble world of street ball over pro or even college ball.
"These guys are the real deal. They eat, drink and sleep b-ball," said Nick Ansom, a lifelong fellow basketball-lover who immigrated to the Golden State from France and founded Veniceball to help to do his part to extend the basketball fraternity that now stretches around the world.
"Veniceball enables us to showcase talent from all over the globe like the Chinese team here today. For us, it is not only about our VBL summer seasons, but also about working and involving the community where we play and beautifying the space to entice more people to join in a healthy lifestyle," Ansom told Xinhua.
98 to 92
A hot spot for fiercely competitive street games, the VBL has turned Venice into a force to be reckoned with. Some Chinese agreed, so they came to Venice Beach to throw down with the "Veniceballers" and went up against the scrappiest street court kings in America.
The Chinese Elite Basketball Association sent "Kings of the Underdogs", their 3-man team of high-flyers, to VBL's annual 'March Madness in Paradise' tournament for an international showdown.
The VBL was invited to China last year to compete in the Jump 10 tournament in Shanghai. Laying waste to the competition, the Veniceballers walked away with the Grand Prize of 100,000 U.S. dollars. But, now it's payback time.
Zhang Zhiyang, the "1 on 1" Champion of China, was excited with the opportunity to come to the US to play the game he loves. "The atmosphere here is so great and there are so many more players in the US and that makes it easier to play and improve my game."
The festivities began with special guest appearances of VIP ballers, including NBA Hall-of-Famer, Jason Williams; Indiana Fever's Women's National Basketball Star, Cappie Pondexter; LA Clipper' forward, Montrezl Harrel; former Indiana University player and current VBL all-star, Deja Mattox; and Hannah O'Flynn, plus street legends, Phillip "Hot Sauce" Champion, Robin "Sik Wit It" Kennedy, Christon Staples and Mamadou Ndiaye.
Next up, the top of the bill for the day was the "Friends across the Water" match between China and the Venice All-Stars.
The team fielded by China included Hao Tianji (aka "Hamlet") from Nanjing, Huang Yujun from Fuchen (aka "Liam"), and Zhang Zhiyang from Shanghai (aka "Lucky").
Spirits were high as the two teams took to the court for a friendly international game cheered on by large crowds of fans and onlookers that looked like a cross-section of the world: every race, color and nationality come together for the love of the game.
Displaying dazzling footwork and exceptional ball-handling, the two evenly-matched teams put on quite a show with some fancy moves. The spirited game culminated with China's Kings of the Underdogs pulling off a surprise upset over the Venice ballers on their home turf by 98-92.
"We are excited to be here today. The culture, the sunshine, playing basketball in this kind of relaxed vibe is just great," Hao Tianji aka "Hamlet" from Nanjing told Xinhua.
"It's a great experience for us to be invited here," said the champion, "Lucky". "It's a great way to share the game and we hope to come back soon."
The Venice Basketball League has a mission to "Build, Compete, and Elevate."
Through cultivated global relationships, VBL flied around the world, from the Phillipines to Paris, teaching basketball training clinics, renovating basketball courts, installing hoops and donating over 1000 basketballs to under served communities in need of the spiritual and physical inspiration that a sport like basketball can provide.
Former Houston Rockets player Montrezl Harrel hailed this kind of culture exchange.
"The game of basketball travels no matter where you are in the world. Today we've got these three guys over here from China who are big in their country and now making a name for themselves here," Harrel told Xinhua.
"We are all here to support them because this game is about involvement, it's about relationships. You come out here and connect with the fans and anyone who is passionate about the game," he concluded.
Having traveled to China himself while with the Rockets, Harrel encouraged others to do so. "I'd advise anyone who hasn't done it to visit China - it's a cool place. Just be prepared for that jet lag!"
They also donate clothes and food to the homeless, host toy drives, and hold health and nutrition classes to foster a greater awareness of health.