Dare to dream! How a one-armed basketball-playing teenager from China inspired the world
"How can you play basketball with just one arm?"
Over the last two years, Zhang Jiacheng has grown used to hearing this question. The 13-year-old from Yunfu, in south China's Guangdong Province, typically silences his doubters with a series of mazy dribbles, quick turns, and powerful drives to the basket that belie his tender years and his obvious handicap.
In recent days, the teenager has become an online sensation in China, with many people fascinated by both his mind-boggling skills and his desire to follow his basketball dream.
Zhang's sweetest basketball memory was created on Saturday, as he stepped onto a CBA court for the first time in his life.
Invited to the tip-off ceremony of the match between the Guangdong Southeast Tigers and the Shanxi Loongs, Zhang naturally seemed a little shy standing next to his idol Yi Jianlian, CBA's all-time leading scorer.
Out of the dark
Zhang endured his lowest ebb in 2010 when he was only four years old.
While playing in an oil mill, run by his grandma, his right arm became entangled in some heavy machinery, causing significant damage and leaving doctors with no option but to amputate.
"He didn't cry," Zhang's mother Tan Miaoling recalled. "Before his amputation, we had to disinfect his wounds. Every time I saw them, I could not help crying, then he began to cry."
"But doctors told me, 'your son is so brave'. When his father accompanied him to disinfect the wounds, he never cried."
Initially, with so many thick bandages covering the affected area, Zhang was unaware that he had lost his arm.
When he eventually returned to kindergarten, he made sure to always wear shirts with long sleeves, and would get irritated when other children attempted to look at what was left of his right arm.
"What are you doing? Leave him alone," his friend Huang Jinghao would admonish more curious classmates.
"I had to accept the fact, and I began to prefer clothes with long sleeves because of that," Zhang said.
Instead, basketball became a glimmer of light in the darkest times of his life. In 2018, he took up the sport at a teenage basketball training class held in his hometown of Gaocun.
"From the way he dressed, it was clear he had very little experience playing basketball," said one of his teachers, Shi Xiaohua, who could tell that Zhang had never touched a basketball before.
"It was difficult, but I felt happy when playing basketball," Zhang said of his first impressions of the sport.
At first, things were tough. The ball often fell from Zhang's grasp, and he even needed other children's help to tie his shoelaces.
"When I first started playing, a lot of people looked down on me," Zhang lamented.
Previously, Zhang had played football and badminton, but soon realized he had a much stronger passion for basketball than any other sport.
Zhang would arrive at school every day no later than 6:40am, and seized the time before morning classes to hone his skills.
Home also became a training ground for Zhang. After finishing his homework, he practised both dribbling and shooting fundamentals for two hours every day in a small room.
Even with the balls and his shoes wearing out, and his left hand bloodied from so much action, Zhang never stopped playing basketball.
On weekends, when the school court was closed, he would go to the town center to play instead.
"He even slept with a basketball in his arm for a while," Tan revealed. Her son had always had a positive mental attitude, but gained even more confidence after taking up the sport.
"Now we can feel the confidence from his eyes. It seems that he can conquer the world," added Pan Weikun, Zhang's mentor, who has also witnessed some positive changes in the teenager.
An inspiration at home and abroad
Zhang's story had been covered by local media, and was well know in his hometown, but the teen really rose to fame when video clips of his skills were uploaded online.
In late May, Zhang was brought to a basketball game in Zhuhai. During half-time, he was invited to play one-on-one against a series of opponents, some of whom were former professional players.
"Please try your best in defense. That is how you can show real respect for me," he told his taller and stronger opponents.
He displayed his dazzling dribbling skills before scoring basket after basket, drawing huge applause from the crowd, among whom was former CBA player Wang Jing.
"Your right hand has been taken away in a brutal way, but you have the best left hand. You are the real star in this game," Wang told Zhang.
Zhang opened an account on China's video sharing platform Douyin in March and promptly uploaded several videos of his skills.
"Give it a try, or give it up," reads the caption on one of Zhang's videos. The teenager chose the former, and now has over 800,000 followers and more than 3.4 million likes for his videos.
"The heart is always the strongest part of the body," said Yi Jianlian.
Shao Ting, captain of China's women's national basketball team, is another superstar who was touched by Zhang's experience.
"From his story, we know sport has no border or gender. Everyone can participate in it."
"He is an inspiration to me. We can overcome any difficulty with love and bravery, no matter how tough things are," Shao commented.
Zhang's videos also struck a chord with many on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.
"Who is this kid? Help me find him! Keep doing you and don't let anyone tell you that you can't," NBA megastar Stephen Curry wrote on Weibo after reposting Zhang's video, along with the hashtag "Stay Underrated."
"I will work harder," Zhang replied to his idol in Chinese, which was then translated into English by netizens.
Another wave of encouraging words from Curry followed.
"You are an inspiration. You don't take 'no' for an answer. You've found a way to overcome and get out there on the basketball court and show people how much the game means to you," the three-time NBA winner said in a video message to Zhang.
"Keep it up young man," said fellow NBA player P.J. Tucker, who also generously offered Zhang a pair of shoes as a gift.
Continuing to dream
Learning of Zhang's story, reigning CBA champions the Guangdong Southeast Tigers invited him to use their facilities in Dongguan.
Fatigue from the four-hour journey soon gave way to excitement.
"Your love for basketball has touched us all. We hope that you keep realizing your dream," Guangdong's general manager Zhu Fangyu told Zhang.
After touring the facilities and watching a training session, Zhang was taken to meet coach Du Feng and the players, and got to share his experience with Yi. He even got the opportunity to go one-on-one with Guangdong's point guard Xu Jie.
"Jiacheng, just play your game," Du shouted in encouragement after Zhang missed several shots.
"He has shown solid fundamentals and good physical balance. We can feel his effort with such a performance at his age," Du noted.
The Guangdong club wished Zhang all the best in chasing his dream.
"This is a kid with a dream. Hopefully he will grow up and become stronger without being diverted too much from his love for basketball."
"I want to be a professional player," Zhang said, and he is already making strides towards his dream.
Local media reported that the 13-year-old had registered to become a junior athlete in Guangdong which would see him receive systematic training in a sports school.
China's top-flight basketball league resumed its action on Saturday after a nearly five-month hiatus.
Due to COVID-19 containment measures, CBA matches are currently being played behind closed doors. But not even a lack of spectators could dampen Zhang's enthusiasm.
"I just want to prove I am no different to anyone else," Zhang says.