I read one or two pieces of basketball nonfiction per year. This book is a mix of basketball and current affairs. It’s the story of a year in the life of the Shanxi Brave Dragons basketball team with occasional diversions into Chinese politics, history, and culture. Basketball is a great vehicle to give the reader a glimpse of the inner workings of China because it takes something distinctly American, something we can relate to, and charts its integration into Chinese culture.
The author, a foreign correspondent for the NYT, is basketball fan/Pulitzer prize co-winner Jim Yardley (stationed in China at the time, now in India I think). The team owner of the Brave Dragons, Boss Wang, gave Yardley insider access to the team as they tried to dig themselves out of the cellar of the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) by hiring an American coach named Bob Weiss.
It’s been a decade since Yao Ming first entered the NBA so you may have the feeling that basketball is kind of advanced in China, that maybe it’s free of corruption and played in shiny new stadiums like the ones we saw in the Beijing Olympics. Ah, no. There’s plenty of corruption and anything shiny in the stadiums eventually becomes dingy from all the cigarette smoke.
Basketball is managed by the state, like most things in China, and they start the managing early. Here’s what happens with kids:
The winnowing tool is the X‑ray machine. In elementary school, children undergo medical tests that include a scan of their skeletal structure, with special attention paid to their wrist bones. Doctors examine the distance between the developing bones, and that distance provides a projection for future physical growth. Kids deemed likeliest to grow the tallest are encouraged to attend government sports schools, where coaches will steer them toward certain sports, like basketball. Other kids, the ones showing narrower spaces in the bone structure of their wrists, continue attending schools focused on academics, many of which offer no team sports whatsoever. (Kindle loc. 411–15)
If you’re lucky enough to make it to the CBA, you’ll get a place to lay your head, practice your craft, and hang out with plenty of cool people:
The Chinese players slept inside a three-story concrete dormitory painted burnt orange. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were taken in a canteen on the first floor. The gym was an old warehouse, as high as a barn and constructed with sheet metal. (Kindle loc. 570–72)
But man, these guys are so thankful to be playing the game. The work hard and don’t complain. In fact, they have an overriding feeling that the only way they can compete internationally is to outwork the competition because they feel that they are genetically inferior to the rest of the world. The Brave Dragons coach, Liu Tie, tried to explain this to the author and the conversation became uncomfortable quickly.
I realized we were having a strange conversation, or at least a conversation that would run roughshod over political correctness parameters in the United States. Garrison had been helping with some interpretation, and he rolled his eyes when Liu digressed onto the kung fu warriors. Yet nothing that Liu had said was considered outside mainstream thought in China. Even as the rest of the world regarded China as a rising power, as the country most likely to dominate this century, most Chinese regarded themselves as genetically deficient, at least individually. Mobilizing the masses, not inspiring individuals, had always been the priority of the Chinese leaders. The X-rays and bone tests conducted on Chinese boys like Pan Jiang and Big Sun were a systematic response rooted in assumptions of physical inferiority. No country on earth believed in Darwin more than China. (Kindle loc. 903–909)
Wow, it’s a whole society that won’t accept no for an answer, that’s ready to do anything it takes to dominate the world. Yardley also spent time in India and has this observation:
Ask an Indian intellectual in New Delhi why the capital’s libraries are mediocre or their infrastructure was poorly built and he might shrug and say, “We Indians are not especially good at that.” The Chinese, or at least their leaders, could not accept such a lack of ambition or national will; for China to reclaim its place in the world, China must be great at every endeavor. Yet the price was that daily life was a grinding stone. Everyone worked hard, often separated from family, as rebuilding and rebranding Chinese greatness was a round-the-clock enterprise. (Kindle loc. 4244–48)
So will China ever be a power in basketball like they are in manufacturing? I don’t know, the sport just may take too much creativity and artistry, things that can’t be mandated by the state very well. And each team needs a star, or two. The stats are pretty formidable, you don’t win without a superstar, which is antithetical to the Chinese collective way.
Bob Weiss had an impossible time installing any sort of American style into the Brave Dragons. In fact, after only a week he was demoted to a “consultant” and replaced by Liu Tie, his assistant. Then he was reinstated, then he was moved back to a consultant. It was quite a soap opera. But Weiss and his wife fell in love with China.
Weiss wanted to meet Prada, too. Because if J. T. Prada was angling to get back to the NBA, Bob Weiss had decided he wanted to stay in China. He was having a ball. Tracy loved it. She could even imagine returning to Taiyuan for the following season, though Weiss had a harder time imagining that. He was curious about other teams, other possibilities, and Prada knew people. (Kindle loc. 4882–5)
That’s cool. Weiss seems like a good guy. Yardley paints a detailed picture of him and many other characters. He delves into the lives of players and management but doesn’t stop there. Heck, he even spends a holiday weekend with the teams DJ.
I love basketball. I have a few basketball books queued up. This Thunder vs Heat series is awesome. I gotta get back to it.