As he collected himself for a packed press conference, Guo Shiqiang was visibly emotional. He was trying to address the assembled media after his Liaoning Leopards team lost 96-87 in Game 4 of the CBA Finals, a defeat that came less than two days after his players fought in the street with rival fans. At one point, someone told him he was a champion to the people of Liaoning province because of his leadership during the ongoing scandal. But with his team down 3-1, the Leopards are close to losing a second successful Finals. As he spoke, a red-eyed Guo, was bitting down on his lip, trying to fight back the tears. Others, though, could not hold it together and at least one journalist began to weep in the middle of the press conference.
To put all this emotion into context, it is important to stress to how big basketball is within Liaoning province and how painful losing has become. This will be the Leopards’ sixth Finals visit in two decades and barring a remarkable turn around, the team will be 0-6 in the championship series. For decades, the team was among the better sides in the country and won several titles prior to the beginning of professionalized basketball on the mainland. But since the start of the CBA, Liaoning have been title-less, and often because of cruel or unusual circumstances.
Indeed, in the late 1990’s, Liaoning went to three successive CBA Finals thanks to a roster of cocksure entertainers. The key to the team was Li Xiaoyong, a swashbuckling point guard who delighted in playing alongside James Hodges, a hyper-athletic American forward that later turned out for the Harlem Globetrotters. That version of Liaoning was China’s own Seattle Super Sonics, with Li playing the role of Gary Peyton and Hodges doing an outstanding job of throwing down dunks like Shawn Kemp.
Yet for three years in a row, that same Liaoning team came up against the Bayi Rockets, a military side with links to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Given that the PLA enjoyed deified status among the politicians who ran the country at the time, Rockets often played with six players; five in red uniforms and another wearing the stripped officials jersey. Naturally, Liaoning lost all three of those Finals by a wide and decisively unfair margin.
Guo Shiqiang (left, in the white jersey) would feature in the two of those Finals runs as a dead-eyed shooting guard (ironically, he was with Sichuan as an on-loan player during another Liaoning visit) but after retiring in 2006, was immediately hired as head coach of the Leopards. Guo, who spent a decade playing for his hometown team, quickly asserted control over the young roster and within a year guided Liaoning to their first CBA Finals since the late 1990’s.
This time, Liaoning would face the Guangdong Tigers, the team who had eventually
supplanted Bayi as the unstoppable force in Chinese basketball. An straight-up cinderella story, Liaoning had swagger and incredible self-belief but Guangdong boasted a hugely experienced roster that simply was too much, too soon, for a young Leopards roster. Guangdong overcame Leopards in five games but many expected latter to be a regular visitor to the Finals after that.
Instead, the team regressed and had it not been for Guo’s long-standing connections with the organization, he might have been kicked to the curb during this period. On a couple of occasions, the talented roster didn’t even make the play-offs and it was to take until 2014 for the rot to finally be ended.
By then, Liaoning had not only emerged relatively unscathed from a lawsuit that saw them publicly censured and fined by FIBA, but somehow also lucked into signing Lester Hudson, a two-time CBA MVP. With Hudson onboard, the Leopards had a spark plug to work alongside backcourt prodigy Guo Ailun and the team finished top of the regular season standings and almost went unbeaten during that time. In the 2014/15 Finals, the Leopards came up against the Beijing Ducks and Stephon Marbury. This, finally, had to be the year for Leopards– the Ducks were aging and had struggled during the regular season, whilst everyone on the Liaoning roster was coming into their prime.
That seemed like sound logic until Marbury turned in one of the all-time great Finals performances at thirty-eight years of age. Everything Liaoning threw at him, the former NBA All-Star seemed to figure out– sometimes through skill, sometimes through blind luck.
But even when the Leopards managed to stifle Marbury, something else would implausibly happen. In a pivotal Game 4, bench warmer and defensive specialist Wang Xiaohui (career scoring average: 4.2ppg) started trading several three-point shots with Hudson and amazed Chinese basketball by winning a game by himself. A shell shocked Leopards team fell apart after that loss and Beijing, led by a journeymen defender and an American point guard who was twice as old as some on the Liaoning roster, won the title in six games.
So fast forward to this year. Once again, Liaoning had Hudson, brought back the entire local roster and also added Shavlik Randolph, who led the league in scoring, back in 2012, to the bench. They beat Guangdong in the semi-finals and seemed to have vanquished all their ghosts along the way. Their opponents in the Finals were a Sichuan team that was nakedly reliant on foreign players and Liaoning were favored going into the series.
But once again, being the favorite counts for nothing. On Wednesday, Guo Ailun and He Tianju, two players that Guo Shiqiang helped develop into national team regulars, fought with fans outside their hotel. He (left) is seemingly done for the Finals and watched Game 5 with his hand in a caste. Guo Ailun started despite injuring his own hand in the brawl but may well be banned once the Sichuan police release their report into the fight. Meanwhile, the team is clearly falling apart mentally and Han Dejun, another player caught up in the violence, managed to get himself T’ed up in the most recent Finals game and could have sparked a riot given the anti-Liaoning sentiment within the Sichuan area. Once again, the Leopards have come so close to lifting their first ever title only for cruel fate to intervene. There is still time for the Leopards to save themselves but no team has ever come back from 3-1 down to win the Finals.
For as hard as they try, it seems that Liaoning can never escape their bad luck. Right now, the team has a Finals record of 4-19 and are comfortably the worst performing side when it comes to the championship series. It seems that for as long as the CBA has existed, Liaoning have always been the feel-good story, only for everything to come crashing down in the final act. Careers have been and gone without a title, whilst two generations have watched their heroes fail when it counts. Given all these disasters, suddenly all those tears at the press conference start to make a lot of sense.