Turns out, I am not very good at basketball.
I knew this to be true before I ever came to China. But now I can say it is official.
Last weekend, after the banquet and too much Chinese liquor, I was recruited to play on a basketball team by a few men in the English department. At the time, I thought this was a fantastic idea; an activity that I could potentially dominate (due to me American-ness, the inventors and perfect-ers of the game), maybe have some fun, and hopefully be able to learn some new Chinese words and phrases, such as “shoot!”, “pass!”, “board!”, and “Oh my gosh! Look out for that ball coming straight at your face!” You know, things like that. Unfortunately, all of these inklings were astoundingly miscalculated.
So, on Thursday, September 18, 2008, I decided that I would join my new ‘friends’ and help lead them to victory in this, the most important of Chinese activities. I was confident with my being both American and white, the latter of which used to make me very self-conscious back home, or at least ever since I saw the movie “White Man Can’t Jump” a few years ago. But here, in China, I was very confident in both my athletic ability and my usually sports-deficient white skin.
I was picked up by one of the players on the team, a man 45 years of age and a rounded stature and whose name I definitely should have known but still can’t quite remember, and we rode the elevator downstairs and got into his own personal car, which is an anomaly and also an impressive show of wealth in China. I tried to make conversation as we rode over to the basketball courts, and despite the fact it was only a two-minute drive, this proved to be quite difficult. Although he was able to speak to me and make his wishes known, it was very difficult for him to comprehend anything that I was saying, making it very difficult for us to actually ‘converse’.
“What time does our game start?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied, “we go to the basketball courts.”
“Are we playing other teams from the school?”
“Yes, we go to basketball courts.”
“Do you play in a league?”
“Okay, It’s no problem.”
Alright then, I thought, good talk.
We pulled up to the basketball courts and I got out of the car. We walked up a set of stairs, still attempting at conversation, failing miserably. There was a pathway that cut between the two sections of basketball courts. On both sides of me were at least eight full courts, and it continued to climb up another set of stairs, where even more basketball courts were located on both sides of the pathway. All together there must have been at least thirty full basketball courts, each filled with two teams playing a full game and another two teams waiting for their turn to take the court.
I knew the Chinese loved basketball, but even this seemed a bit ridiculous. There were people everywhere, all Chinese, and they all turned to stare as I walked up, the only white boy in the whole complex, and possibly the only American who has attempted to play in this school league. It was just a bit intimidating, but my years and years of playing sports, and particularly basketball in the driveway of my friends, the Williams’, kept my confidence up and I would be lying if I said I was seriously impressed with the basketball skills that were on display on the courts. Not that they were particularly poor basketball players, but technique was much different (for lack of a better term) then what I have been used to seeing in the United States. There were no ‘elbow up-backspin-follow through’ Pistol Petes out on the court, that much was for sure.
We sat on the sidelines for nearly thirty minutes waiting for our turn to play and the other five guys on my team decided that was a good time to get warmed up for the game by smoking a pack of cigarettes. Nothing like a good chain-smoking social to get ready for the big game. They offered me a cigarette on more than one occasion, as the Chinese always do when you are in a social situation, and I respectfully declined.
I’d rather not cough up a lung during the second quarter, thanks though.
It was finally our time to take the court. We were a ragamuffin group of six. One guy was wearing a bright neon yellow shirt and the others were in an assortment of colors: red, blue, navy, and gray. I was dressed in my traditional workout color of all-black, and together our team nearly covered the entire color spectrum. I looked across the court and to my dismay saw the other team all had beautiful, ironed, matching uniforms. They had numbers and their names were emblazoned across their backs in neat, Chinese characters. Their team was also quite large. There must have been at least twelve members, enough for two full lines and a couple of leftovers, and they were running through gracefully choreographed warm-up drills: lay up, rebound, pass, a cut into the paint, sharp bounce pass, outside fade-away, rebound – repeat. I looked back at my team. The guy in neon was pushing the ball from his chest with all his might as he attempted to heave up a three pointer. Two other guys sat with their backs against the pole, double fisting cigarettes and smiling as they puffed away. Another guy was attempting to chase down yet another air ball and the ball slipped through his hands twice before he was able to reel it in and pass it back out to Mr. Neon, who believed that after another thirty shots or so, he was bound to find his range, which I was convinced couldn’t have been farther than four feet.
To sum up: we were in trouble.
We had six guys, and since I didn’t want to be that outsider who just steps in and takes control, I quietly backpedaled my way off the court right before the game was going to start. Not that I was scared or anything, but I was pretty sure we were about to get slaughtered, and I really didn’t feel like being a part of that right away. Maybe once the game was way out of range I could come in, no pressure, and bring the team back from certain defeat and save the day. Actually, sitting and watching it all unfold was even more tempting.
Unfortunately, Mr. Neon spotted me ever-so-casually making my way to the bench and adamantly motioned for me to return to the court. He sent off one of the more heavy smokers, who obviously was not mentally prepared for this sort of clash.
Alright, I thought. Just go out there, run around, play defense, and get home as soon as possible. I believed this to be the best game plan.
The referees, who were in full uniforms and had whistles and everything, brought everyone to center court and threw the ball up for the tip, which, to the surprise of no one, we lost. The other team, in their beautiful navy uniforms, pounded the ball down the court. I searched frantically for someone to guard. As I swung my head back and forth in desperation, automatically realizing that if I wasn’t guarding anyone, than someone on the other team must open, I began to realize that every single player on my team was doing the exact same thing.
Somehow everyone on the other team was open and after a few quick passes, they scored with an easy lay-up from about a foot away.
The game went that way for some time; we went up the court, Mr. Neon threw up a desperate three-point shot, missed by miles, and the navy team pounded it down our throats for another easy bucket. It wasn’t until our fourth trip up the floor that I actually touched the ball. Frustrated that we were losing 6-0 within the first three minutes, that no one would pass me (The American!) the ball, and Mr. Colorful-Neon was shooting up dead ducks like it was the Great Outdoor Games, I decided to get a bit demanding. I clapped my heads adamantly and yelled gibberish that I hoped was Chinese for “pass me the friggin ball you air-balling, weak-armed pansy!”
Sure enough the ball came to me and I was now in the game. It’s go time baby.
The Chinese are all about teamwork and good structure, and our opponents filled the stereotype wonderfully. They played stingy zone defense, moving and shifting as one, and no one ever took more than two dribbles before passing. Even if a player had an open shot, he would look for a teammate who had an even more wide-open shot, and against our team, that wasn’t hard to find. They were the epitome of a team, as so many Chinese are.
But I’m not Chinese.
While I have decided to adopt a lot of Chinese customs and traditions in my every day life (baijou liquor!), basketball is one thing that is inherently American, and if we know anything about American basketball players, it’s that the player is greater than the team, and, gosh darn it, I believed it was time for the Chinese to learn this wholesome and very important cultural difference.
A short Chinese man with glasses stood in front of me as I held the ball in both hands right outside the three point line. I guessed he was from the Chemistry Department. He looked like a guy who would work in the Chemistry Department. I almost smiled at the sheer unfairness of the situation: short Chinese man with glasses versus average sized American with contacts.
Advantage: Star-Spangled Banner.
I put the ball on the floor, bounced it twice and dribbled between my legs, adding a soft juke to the left to throw off the defender. It worked. He took a short step to his right, biting on the juke, and as his weight shifted onto his right leg I brought the ball back in a quick crossover to my own right side, leaving him staggering and helpless. And before he could say “Kobe Bryant – very handsome!” I was by him and exploding into the paint.
Defensive help came from their center, who was also the tallest man on the court. He attempted to step into my path and draw a charge, but I was already near full speed and pushed off the ground as I picked up the ball, flying towards the rim. Two opponents gave out a loud yell to try and break my concentration, and I heard someone yell “loawaaiiii!” (foreigner!) from the crowd.
As I floated through the air, I looked back on my development as a basketball player, and, I realized, that it was somewhat limited. I was very confident in my defensive skills, where the quickness and speed I acquired from years of playing soccer aided me tremendously to make quick pokes and jump in between passes. I was also a fairly good dribbler, as I had worked on dribbling between my legs, pulling crossovers, and doing spins in the paint quite often. I could pass fairly well; between my legs, bounce pass, chest pass, and everything in between. But there was one part of my game that was not entirely honed; not completely developed, you could say. Unfortunately for me, that was the most important part of the game: shooting. Or, in general terms, putting the ball in the little round hoop and through the basket. Not my best skill.
This realization came to me just as I was floating ever so gracefully past Mr. Tall (which might actually be his English name). Suddenly, all the confidence that I had as I blew past the Chemist faded away, and all I became was a white boy who was way too high in the air and moving much to quickly to make any sort of feasible shot. At the last moment, I tried to do a Steve Nash-like scoop lay-up, hoping that I could slow down the velocity of the ball enough so that it would gently sink through the basket. Everyone watched as the ball left my hand and it felt good as it did so. I was still in the air, while Mr. Tall watched helplessly as I continued to float by him like Woody Harrelson in the end of “White Men Can’t Jump” when he finds out that he can jump and he dunks the ball. Or something very similar to that.
The ball approached the rim, and I smiled as it did so, knowing that it was on its way for two points and I was going to bring my team back in this game, something that seemed impossible only moments before. I landed like a Care-Bear on a cloud and I kept my eyes up as the ball approached the rim. I was waiting for that soft swoosh sound (the sweetest sound in all of sports) as the ball sunk smoothly through the hoop.
The sound resounded across the court and my eardrums quivered as the ball clanged off the back rim and ricocheted back into the open court, where Mr. Tall was gladly waiting with his long arms and big, strong man-hands. I hung my head in utter dismay. I had failed myself and, more importantly, I had failed all of America. The small crowd and the opponents’ bench cheered madly at my miss, euphoric at the American’s inability to make a lay-up.
The navy team flew back down the court, leaving me staring at their wonderfully straight names and large, bold numbers on the back of their jerseys. By halftime, we were down big. No one actually knew the score except for the one score keeper sitting at a small table at mid-court, but I knew we were down, and by the look of everyone else on my team, so did they.
I decided to dedicate myself to playing strong defense and just pass to any one who seemed to be able to shoot fairly decently, and as the second half begun, that is exactly what I did. I began to understand our opponents’ offense, and I jumped in front of pass after pass. At one point I stole the ball on three straight possessions, thundering down the court two of those times to make a lay-up and have another careen off the trampoline-like backboard. But still, I had disrupted their play and kept them from scoring for a short time, which was good enough for our team. So, while our ability to score remained very, very low, our defense became strong, and soon I had stolen the ball so frequently, and grabbed so many rebounds, my teammates began to feel confident in my ability to play basketball once more. As long as I never shot, which, unless I was on a breakaway, I never did.
And then a funny thing happened. Something that during warm-ups I thought was impossible. Something so inconceivable that I was unable to wrap my mind around it for some time, due to it’s own otherworldliness: Mr. Neon found his range.
I don’t mean that he took a few short jumpers and they just happened to rattle in. No. I mean, he found his range. And just as he was so sure of during warm-ups, his range was behind the three-point line. After another steal by myself, I brought the ball up-court, gave it to our point guard, who found Mr. Neon sitting by himself on the far wing. He heaved up another three-pointer, and, as was my reaction every single time he did this, I broke towards the basket in hopes of catching the ball in my lap as it sailed wildly past the rim. But this time, it didn’t. It banged hard off the backboard and rocketed through the hoop. I looked up at him in surprise and he showed zero emotion, as did everyone else on my team. They all just turned and jogged back down the court, acting as if Mr. Neon had been doing this his whole life: spotting up and sinking threes. It was like if the NBA all-time three pointer leader Reggie Miller had hit a three. Everyone sort of expected it to go in, so it wasn’t that big of a deal when it did. But this was Mr. Neon. He hadn’t hit the rim all day, let alone actually make a bucket. But everyone acted like he was their sure-handed sharp shooter. So, I gave him a thumbs-up and offered a “nice shot!” as I jogged back down the court.
The next trip down the floor, after another tough defensive stop, Mr. Neon once again found himself open in the corner and, once again, Mr. Neon delivered, swishing a three pointer effortlessly and then turning and jogging back down the court. If this was NBA Jam the announcer would be yelling “Heeeee’s heating up!”
I was amazed at this sudden show of skillful shooting, and before I knew it, Mr. Neon had hit five straight threes (“He’s ooooon fiiiiire!”). The energy of the game picked up considerably, and the rest of the team decided to join me in my one-man defensive effort. I jumped in front of another pass and knocked the ball out in front of me. I found myself in the open court and this time I took my time as I approached the basket and put in an easy lay-up. No problem, I thought, the first five were just practice.
Soon, the fourth quarter was drawing to a close, and I knew that we had to have been cutting the prim and proper Navy team’s lead, but I wasn’t sure if we were close enough. The whistle blew for the last time and we all made our way over to the bench. Within thirty seconds my entire team, just as they had done between each and every quarter, were smoking their cigarettes, without a trace of emotion on their face.
“Did we win?” I asked the other teammate who knew some English.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe.”
And so there we were: smoking cigarettes after we had staged one of the most remarkable comebacks in China University of Mining and Technology Teacher League history, and no one even really cared to see if they had completed the comeback and stolen a victory from the seemingly heavily favored “Team Navy Organization and Discipline”. Or maybe they already knew. Maybe they knew they were a second half team. Perhaps everyone expected Mr. Neon to just catch fire in the second half and pull us out of the huge hole we were in.
And all of that happened. And as I waited to hear the score, I expected some high-scoring, shooters delight tally to reflect what seemed like a fast-paced and intense game. Sure, there were a lot of misses, but also a lot of fast breaks and second chances.
Finally, my teammate told me the score: 33-22.
That’s it? 33-22?
“We lost?” I asked.
“No, no!” he said, “we won!”
“Awesome!” I replied.
So, maybe it wasn’t the great offensive battle I had expected. But since all I did was play some defense and make two lay-ups the whole game, I was okay with that, because that just meant I had a greater impact on how the game went. As did Mr. Neon, who must have ended with more than half of our points, despite shooting 7% the first half.
Unfortunately, I was unable to make the next game the following day (I took a personal health day), but my first foray into the world of Chinese basketball was enjoyable, even if I wasn’t the dominating offensive force I hoped I would be. But hey, defense wins championships. Or so say the people who can’t play offense.