Basketball-Playing Grandma Becomes China’s Internet Darling

Granny's got game — and it's afforded her millions of online fans

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Zhu Shumei with her basketball

On an average day on a university campus in eastern China, a woman runs through her usual exercise routine. She plays basketball as she has every day for the past 20 years. She runs 10 400-m laps and climbs a pole for a bit of strength training. The difference between Zhu Shumei, though, and all the other students doing similar exercises is that Zhu is 76 years old.

For students at the Zhejiang Normal University campus in Jinhua, Zhu is a perennial — albeit odd — presence whom they’ve dubbed “Basketball Grandma.” She was just part of the crowd until recently, when student Song Huating was impressed by her solid form on the court. Upon approaching Zhu, Song discovered the hardships faced by the single mother of three and decided to turn a camera on the woman. What Song and her friends found was some steely resolve and a pure love of the game.

Zhu Shumei’s husband divorced her when she was 54, leaving her sole custody of their mentally challenged daughter. To escape the demanding life of a caregiver, she picked up a basketball and began shooting at the university’s courts, first borrowing students’ balls while they were resting between games and then investing in her own. Twenty years on, a $80 real-leather basketball is her proudest possession. She cares for it meticulously, washing it daily before she takes to the court.

(MORE: Inside the Life of Basketball’s Next Superstar)

Since the 5-ft.-tall (1.5 m), hunchbacked Zhu lost her job at the university’s library after her divorce, she and her daughter have been living off their subsistence allowances, totaling a combined $67 per month, which equates to just one-third of their home province’s minimum wage. Zhu would be entitled to a monthly pension of $175 (almost three times more, but still below minimum wage) if only she could make the $5,005 down payment to qualify for the Social Insurance pension scheme. Which gave Song and the student filmmakers an idea.

On Oct. 6, the students published an open letter on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, telling Zhu’s story and setting up a bank account to solicit donations for the down payment. Her story has gone viral on Chinese microblogs, along with a video clip of Zhu showing her skills on the court, which attracted more than 700,000 views in its first 12 hours online. Needless to say, that sum was easily reached.

And it may owe in part to basketball’s overwhelming popularity in China. The rise of Shanghai-born NBA star Yao Ming and his return to China captivated young generations of Chinese, a phenomenon that was overshadowed last year by Linsanity, centered on Chinese-American basketball prodigy Jeremy Lin.

(MORE: Linsanity Strikes China, But Could Chinese Basketball Ever Produce a Jeremy Lin?)

But Basketball Grandma is more than just a one-woman viral story. An online debate was sparked about how the elderly, like Zhu, as well as the mentally challenged, like her daughter, could be exposed to such financial hardship in the world’s second largest economy. The viral clip highlighting the pain and inspiring kindness of strangers is reminiscent of the story of Karen Klein, a bus monitor in upstate New York who was bullied by the very kids she protected aboard the local school bus. The 68-year-old was shown being driven to tears in a clip that went viral in June, sparking a debate about bullying. The video has been watched more than 8 million times and has resulted in more than $700,000 in donations for Klein. The Internet may seem cold and vast at times, but when millions rally around a cause, it can truly inspire good.

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