It’s a question I’m asked all the time when I go back to the States and explain to people that I live in Beijing.
And it’s a question that I suspect a few of you are asking right now as you’re reading this.
Notice, you didn’t ask why basketball? You like basketball, you’re familiar with it — you know it matters. It’s accepted and therefore accessible; you watch it on TV, you play it with your friends, you read it in a book, in a newspaper or on the internet. You get the facts, you formulate opinions and you come to an understanding of what the game is and what it should be.
I know that basketball matters, too. I got the Basketball Jones when I hit my first lay-up on a ten-foot hoop as a kindergartner after school one day. Almost twenty years later, the game is still with me. While picking colleges, high quality indoor courts and good competition were a must, which as crazy as it sounds is part of the reason why I chose to attend the University of San Francisco, where my daily routine consisted of sneaking off into Koret in between classes to work on lefty hook-shots and playing hours of full-court run after class, before coming home to plop myself in front of League Pass for the rest of the night. Different people get off on different stuff, but for me, basketball is a high untouched by anything else.
Well, almost anything else.
Like putting the ball through the hoop for the first time, my first trip to China in 2002 was a surreal, life-altering experience and ignited a deep interest for the country within me, an interest that has yet to dissipate. Sure, rafting past Guilin’s straight out of Middle Earth karst mountains, hiking up Moon Hill and looking up at the Himalayan mountains as I walked through the streets of Dali all made a lasting impression, as they do on most people who journey through China’s southern region.
But, nothing can compare to my stay in Kunming, Yunnan Province, where my program placed me with a Chinese family for part of the summer. Coming as their guest, I was treated like a long-lost cousin and their genuine charm and warmth put me quickly at ease. Like hitting a cutting teammate for a back-door lay-up, the feeling cannot be had by reading a book, taking a class, or walking the Great Wall with a tour group – China is best experienced by feeling it, by living it. It’s why after I studied four semesters of Mandarin, I went back to study abroad for a year in Beijing. And it’s also why on my way back to my apartment from USF during my senior year – or on my way back from playing pick-up, I should say – I’d go six blocks out of my way to Shanghai Dumpling King for quick sip of tea with the owner, and the conversation that would go with it.
I don’t pretend to be a “China expert” or a “China hand,” or whatever else people like to call foreigners who have studied and/or lived in the country. Frankly, I don’t think such a thing exists. Sure, there are some incredibly smart people out there who have made this country their life, and there’s something truly scary when I meet a fellow native English speaker who speaks Mandarin better than I speak my mother tongue. But these monikers unfairly portray a country that is far too big, old and complex as something whose “mastery” is reached by simply meeting pre-set requirements and checking them off grocery list style. Safe to say it doesn’t work like that, and anybody who tells you they’re a Zhongguotong because they’ve done this, that and the other is most assuredly not.
But, I have paid attention. I’ve engaged society. And though I don’t claim to know it all, I definitely don’t know nothing, either. In all I’ve been here for more than two years, most of which have been spent in Beijing, the place where I’m currently based out of. And naturally, as basketball is also permanently ingrained into my basic fibers, I’ve spent a lot of time around basketball during my time here. I’m not completely fluent, but I know Mandarin well enough to read Koulan Magazine and Basketball Pioneers. I can defend Troy Bell’s NBA career to the two Chinese I’ve ever met who know who Troy Bell is. I can understand Zhang Weiping’s blatant pro-China homerism on CCTV-5; stuff that makes Tommy Heinsohn sound like Jay Bilas in comparison. I can talk trash during pick-up games, argue with biased Chinese refs and direct traffic at the point to Chinese teammates.
With her 1.2 billion people, and an estimated 400 million basketball fans, trust me – there’s plenty of opportunity to call somebody over for a side pick-and-roll. Basketball is the city game, and being that China has the most cities in the world, basketball is clearly the Chinese game as well. From early morning, starting with the rhythmic patter of old Chinese women shooting two-handed set shots from 15 feet, to late at night when the lucky ones who live near the lighted courts scattered around Beijing wait twenty minutes to get on for one game of four-on-four half-court, basketball is always going on here.
As I see Ron Artest yelling “I can play!” at my face while an advertisement for the Chinese shoe company, Peak, playing in between quarters of a Celtics – Magic game, I recognize that other people realize this, too. David Stern opened up a separate NBA China division in Beijing to solely focus on expanding the League here in the PRC, and emphasizes expansion into the mainland at every opportunity. Seemingly every category of NBA player, from rookie lottery picks and bench players to recent All-Stars and past-their-prime stars, all wear Chinese brands on their feet, eager to cash in on this basketball crazed country. Some players have even taken it a step further, playing for the Chinese Basketball Association as an opportunity to prolong their playing career and sell their own shoes to the largest growing market in world history.
Because even without basketball, China would still matter to the world. But, being that both matter – to me, to the Chinese who live here, and ultimately to you and the rest of the world – it needs to be understood, it needs to be discussed and it needs to be shared.
I take pride that I’m able to lend you some insight on two things that really interest me, China and basketball. Hopefully, after reading my humble words, you’ll start to take pride in learning from me as I continue on my journey down this complicated Chinese path.
Welcome to China. Welcome to NiuBBall.com.