It was his only significant pass of the game but the fourth-quarter dish gave Hu Xuefeng 2,242 career assists and ownership of the league’s all-time record. The Jiangsu Dragons, who were missing Chris Singleton with what has since turned out to be an ACL tear, lost that game, 117-94 to Shandong but the significance of Hu’s achievement still can’t be overlooked.
It was absolutely a special moment but even the circumstances behind Hu’s claiming of the record reflects how unorthodox the Jiangsu player has been over the years. The point guard, who has played for Dragons since 1999, is now also the team’s head coach and supposed to be running things from the bench. Instead, with the team badly weakened by injuries, Hu has played for most of the season and was able to come into Wednesday’s game within touching distance of the assist record he formerly owned but had since lost to Sichuan’s Lv Xiaoming.
But Lv, like vast chunks of the Jiangsu roster, has been injured for a while and thus unable to keep topping up his lead at the top of the assists chart. Meanwhile Hu came into the game tied with the Sichuan player on 2,241 and put himself in the game. It was mostly to help out his ailing team but one couldn’t begrudge him if Hu was also trying to steal back a bit of history in the process.
This record may well be the highlight of Jiangsu’s season as well. The team is in disarray, like it has been for several seasons. Players have sat at home for an entire year to force their way out of Nanjing whilst others who stayed have stagnated. In many ways, Hu Xuefeng’s moment in the sun simply reminds the fans of the better times.
Indeed, when the point guard made his debut in 1999, the team was led by forward Hu Weidong, the most emblematic figure in the Dragons’ history. Meanwhile Hu Xuefeng was emerging as a promising youngster as was Tang Zhendong, a rangy center who would eventually have try-outs with NBA teams in the mid-2000’s. Then in 2005, the team made a fairytale run to the CBA Finals with a team built around the two Hu’s, Tang and a young American swingman called Ryan Forehan-Kelly, who later became one of the league’s most reliable imports. The Dragons managed to take the Guangdong Tigers to a winner-takes-all Game 5 only to lose in a crushing defeat. Hu Weidong retired immediately afterwards and the team have never returned to the Finals.
Since then, Jiangsu, one of the more traditionally dysfunctional teams in the league, have drifted into complete mediocrity. Tang, the league MVP in 2005, eventually grew so tired of the Dragons front office that he forced his way out of the team. Hu Weidong was unceremoniously hired and fired as head coach twice in seven years. Only Hu Xuefeng remains from the glory days and it remains unclear how long he himself has left.
What Hu Xuefeng will always have though is a reputation for thinking outside the box. He is after all a player that once picked up a triple-double that didn’t include points. The point guard is also renowned for a pair of hands that move almost as quickly as his mind and Hu has led the league five times in steals. He also owns the all-time record for steals in a game, a season and over a career.
But it is his deft passing that has really made him stand out. Hu also led the league in assists twice (in consecutive years between 2004 and 2006) and it was his rivalry with a variety of other great point guards in the CBA that made him so captivating. At one point, it was even discovered that the Shanghai Sharks had been fiddling the statistics to ensure their captain Liu Wei led the league in assists rather than the guard from Nanjing.
And yet Hu’s most prominent rivalry would be with Lv, a similarly cunning ball handler that cared little about getting his own basket and more about setting up others for theirs.
However unlike Hu, Lv has always been a nomadic floor general for hire. This roaming around started in 2001 when Lv was cut a year into his professional career by his first team, Shandong. Lv then ended up playing for the Hong Kong Dragons, an army team based in the then-recently reclaimed city. In years past, Hong Kong had enjoyed a reasonably strong professional basketball league that had since fallen into ruins. The Dragons were an attempt to revive that legacy but also inject the sport of the mainland into a soccer-mad city that saw itself as different from the rest of the country. Perhaps it was because of those clumsy overtones that the Dragons soon folded amid local apathy and dodgy front office finances but regardless, Lv was sent into exile once again. Finally in 2003, the guard eventually found himself playing for Xinjiang and it was under this cloak of stability that Lv’s ability emerged. Since then, both he and Hu have been carving up defenses and competing with one-another to one day claim the CBA assist record.
Since that battle started a decade ago, Lv (pictured right with Hu) has also played for Dongguan, Shanxi and Sichuan but always managed to keep clocking up the assists due to being on mostly competitive teams. By contrast, Hu Xuefeng started with great players like Hu Weidong and Tang but has since been working with increasing limited rosters. It has meant that despite the headstart Hu Xuefeng enjoyed, both men have largely been neck and neck for their entire careers.
Although Father Time does not indulge sporting rivalries and it is unclear as to how long the two thirty-five year olds can keep up their private duel, neither has shown any sign of quitting. Lv knows Hu can’t combine a player-coach role for too long. Perhaps Hu knows this too but is going to throw procedure to the wind in a bid to outlast his increasingly injury-prone rival. Hu is after all his own team’s head coach and doesn’t have to ask anyone for permission to insert himself into the line-up. The Dragons front office, who are mired in fan contempt, would also have little intention of interfering if it keeps Jiangsu’s name in the record books.
All the signs now point to a battle without a clear ending, as two old foes fight to be the last man standing. One has played for the same organization since he was a boy, the other has worn five different uniforms in eleven years; yet both are still linked together by dint of being gifted but also remarkably selfless players. Similarly however, it is their stubbornness to relent and give the other control of the assist record that makes for such a fascinating paradox in the autumn of both men’s careers.