Chairman Mao didn't need his "little revolutionary generals" for long. By late 1968, having used the turmoil to consolidate power, he called in the army to establish order. The Red Guards were demobilized. Within weeks, millions of them were shipped off to the countryside to temper their revolutionary zeal with years of hard labor. Some would never make it home again.
Da Fang, however, would have a different fate. The revival of basketball--a sport she had been taught to vilify as a bourgeois Western import--saved her from going to a labor camp. Trophyism was still considered a crime, but the nation's Communist leaders now saw sports as a way to restore the lost sense of communal feeling inside China and to rebuild diplomatic relations outside. Training sessions resumed tentatively in Shanghai at the end of 1969. Many of the nation's best athletes, however, were still toiling away at factories and collective farms. The dearth of veterans benefited the 19-year-old Da Fang and hastened the rise of Yao Zhiyuan, the 6'10" center who joined the Shanghai men's team after escaping the brunt of the Cultural Revolution as a worker at the Shanghai No. 8 Machinery Factory.
Da Fang would soon become the standout Chinese center of her generation, one of the best in Asia. Tall and solidly built, she developed a steady shot to go with her tenacity under the basket--skills that would later help her power the women's national team to an unforgettable upset win over South Korea in the 1976 Asian Championships.
Da Fang was a loyal Maoist, too, and the leadership in Beijing sensed that she would be a perfect role model for the nation. She was selected year after year as the national team captain--and, in 1974, as a representative at the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Communist Revolution in Beijing's Great Hall of the People. As captain, Da Fang often was assigned to greet foreign delegations at the airport, meet presidents and dignitaries and mingle with members of the politburo. She moved easily between the basketball court and the highest echelons of political power. But around her teammates she rarely cut loose. "Da Fang was very closed," says Luo Xuelian, the national team's effervescent point guard. "After practice she would just sit in her room knitting sweaters." The aloofness only added to her aura of authority.
Nagging health problems, however, hindered Da Fang's career. The grueling practices exacerbated the pain in her lower back, and she constantly teetered on the edge of exhaustion, playing hard one day and barely having the energy to move the next couple of days. She traveled with the national team to Iran, France and Cuba, but health problems forced her to miss several other trips, including a 1975 tour of the U.S. Three years later, at age 28, Da Fang was ready to hang up her sneakers.
When Chinese athletes reach the end of their playing days, they are never truly released from their obligation to the state. Until recently the sports system automatically absorbed most retired athletes as coaches or administrators, who passed on their knowledge to the next generation. If they happened to be extraordinarily tall or talented, they were expected to pass along something even more fundamental: their genes. Indeed, when Shanghai sports officials finally let Da Fang retire, they suggested that she produce a champion.
But whom could Da Fang marry? She had never kissed a boy, much less dated one. Her entire adolescence and adult life had been focused on just two things: sports and revolution. Even if Da Fang had had the time or inclination, dating was strictly prohibited in the sports system--and marriage was forbidden until athletes either retired or turned 28. If a player got pregnant, she would have to get an abortion or be kicked off the team and reassigned to a less desirable work unit.
The responsibility for arranging marriages among the most gifted retired athletes often fell to the coaches. "We had to do a lot of work as matchmakers," says Wang Yongfang, the former sports-institute leader who coached Da Fang early in her career and, after a long stint of hard labor in the countryside, was rehabilitated as the leader of the Shanghai women's team. "These girls spent far more time with the coaches and team leaders than with their own parents. Who else was there to make sure everything was O.K.?"
Before Da Fang even started to look for a husband, Shanghai officials had identified a suitable partner for her: Yao Zhiyuan. Yao, an active player who was two years her junior, was an agreeable man whose ready smile and love of a good quip contrasted sharply with Da Fang's grim demeanor. For several years the two players had eaten in the same cafeteria, lived in the same dormitory and practiced on adjoining courts, but, Da Fang says, "we didn't know each other very well."
Shanghai coaches teased the two towering centers that they were made for each other. But it was up to a portly team leader named Liu Shiyu to make the match a reality. He spoke with the players separately and convinced them that they could "make do" with each other--adding that they had the Communist Party's stamp of approval to do so. Given such high-level interest, how could Da Fang and Da Yao refuse?