Unfortunately for Chinese fans, guys like James Singleton are the exception for foreigners playing professional basketball in China, not the rule. Singleton (and teammate Quincy Douby) arrived in Western China last October with the singular aim to bring the Xinjiang Flying Tigers their first ever Chinese Basketball Association trophy. Through the two’s unquestioned dedication, seriousness and professionalism towards achieving that goal, Xinjiang has stormed out to a 21-1 record, dominating practically every opponent that’s been thrown their way with a relentless, punishing inside game (led by Singleton) and a microwavable high-scoring perimeter attack (led by Douby).
Whereas some guys come here to merely play for the check, its been pretty obvious, both by looking at their record on my computer screen and their games on TV, that both Singleton and Douby are just a couple of old-school basketball players focused on doing one thing: winning basketball games.
Throughout a worldly hoops career that started at Pearl River Community College in Mississippi before transferring to Murray State in 2001 for his final two years of college ball, the 6-8 230 pound forward has taken his hard-nosed game to some of the world’s greatest professional destinations, spending a combined four years in the NBA, with extended stints in both Italy and Spain mixed in as well.
After being traded last season from the Dallas Mavericks to the Washington Wizards as part of the seven player deal that brought Caron Butler to Texas, James impressed Wizards management enough in to earn a one-year contract in the offseason last summer. But, like we said, James is a basketball player. Deciding it was within his best interests to play overseas, Singleton walked away from the NBA to sign with Xinjiang instead.
So far, the move has paid off: Singleton has been muscling opposing players around to the tune of 21 points, 10 rebounds, a steal and a block per game this season while shooting over 72% from the field, and Xinjiang has morphed into the prohibitive favorite to win their first ever CBA championship in April.
NiuBBall was able to catch up with James for a while yesterday afternoon in Nanjing before Xinjiang’s 113-103 win over Jiangsu last night. With the win, the Flying Tigers clinched a spot in the playoffs — with a whopping 10 games still remaining on the schedule.
Here’s what we talked about.
NiuBBall: So you guys have the best record in the league and you’ve swept three-time defending champs, Guangdong, in your two games against them this season. When you first came out here, did you expect things to go as well as they’ve gone so far, or were you thinking there was going to be a period of adjustment you guys were going to need to work though?
James Singleton: No, I kind of figured we’d do good. First week here, I got to see the nucleus that they already had and with the addition of me and Q (Quincy Douby), I knew things were going to go well.
NiuBBall: I know you guys came out here earlier than most other teams’ imports before the season started. When did you fly out here and how do you think showing up ahead of time has affected the team’s success?
JS: We got here October 15th and we started practicing October 16th. Typically, they say when an import comes out here, for one he’s not going to come out here that early and then two, he’s going to take at least three or four days before he actually starts practicing. When we got here, we really just got off the plane and came straight to the gym. Started shooting, getting used to everybody, talked to our teammates, to the coaches to see what was going on… just tried to get things going on the right foot.
NiuBBall: Before the season, there were a lot of NBA guys that came out here and it ended up not working out for a lot of them. Personally, as a guy who has played multiple years in the League, how do you think you’ve been able to adapt and fit in so quickly into the country and your team?
JS: I played overseas for three years, so I kinda know what overseas teams expect from their imports. Most guys that come from the NBA can’t play overseas, whether it’s China, Europe, whatever, it doesn’t matter. It’s just the fact that you have to come over with the thought process that it’s not about the individual anymore. Because overseas its more about the team than it is about yourself. You need your teammates to win out here, you’re not going to do it by yourself. So coming here it just took me about a week to see how it was going to be. And then I just had to re-tune my game to fit into this team’s plan.
NiuBBall: Just watching you guys on TV the last couple of months, it seems that you two and your Chinese teammates genuinely like playing with each other.
JS: That’s the most important thing, right there. Our chemistry with them is the most important thing because we can’t do this by ourselves. Every team has two imports, some teams have three, but I doubt that those players actually take the time to get to know their teammates – to actually hang around with them, play around with them, joke around with them and want to make them better. Because the better they are, the better you are and the easier things will be. And once they see that you have a lot of confidence in them and they know that, the sky’s the limit.
NiuBBall: I know some guys come in and they’re automatically distrusting of the country and the Chinese players, or it can be vice-versa, sometimes the local players are distrustful of imports because of bad experiences in the past or stereotypes about imports that have built up through the years. When you and Q showed up, was it you two who made the initial effort to get to know your team, or did the team do something special right off the bat to make you guys feel comfortable?
JS: When we first got here, the team was very welcoming. They went above and beyond to make sure me and Q were comfortable in every single way. I’d say the first week was kind of rough because for one, there’s a communication barrier and a different style of play. So when I first got out here, I used to get into it with the other post players a lot because they were so physical and I couldn’t hit them back. But, it got to the point where the coach pulled me over to the side and told me, “Hey, they’re getting you ready for the season.” I’m thinking in my head, if this is getting me ready for the season, I’m gonna end up killing somebody. But, after every practice, the player would come up to me to apologize and to say it’s nothing personal, I just want to get you ready for the season because I’ve played here all my life so I know how it’s going to be [for you]. And once he did that it kind of made me understand that wasn’t personal, that he was trying to help me. So in return, I was going to help him to get ready for the other imports he was going to play against, because he was helping me out get prepared for the local players. So we developed that relationship the first week and it’s been great ever since.
NiuBBall: For a lot of guys I think, playing out here can be a challenge because it’s a foreign country, there might not be a lot of people for them to talk to in English, maybe there’s not a lot of places that they can go on their own, etc. So do the foreign players playing out here stay pretty tight with each other generally? Do you talk a lot with players from other teams?
JS: Well with me and Q, we’ve had a big brother-little brother relationship going on from right when we got here. We talk to each other everyday, we look out for each other on the court, when we go places, we always go together. And when we go to other teams or other teams come to us, I’ll either know a guy or [Douby] willl know one. So we’re always going back and forth, we’ll talk for a minute before the game. But, our situation is totally different from everyone else’s because we’re on a team that actually has different facilities and a different way of running an organization. Some players, they can’t stand where they are. They might think their teammates are stupid, or the coach is stupid… but if they learn to look beyond that and try to just help the situation and get better instead of just making it worse, they’ll last a lot longer. The turnover rate for foreign players in China is astounding. I didn’t know that. A guy can be here one week and then he’s gone the next day. That’s crazy.
NiuBBall: As someone who’s spent various periods of time playing in the States, Europe and China, what are some of the major differences between the three continents in regards to basketball?
JS: Uh [pause]… The talent level in each place is definitely different. But with the integration of so many foreigners coming to Europe and to China, they’re kind of bringing their basketball style over here. The physicality is totally different from the NBA to Europe to China. The refereeing is a lot different, totally different. Of course the communication… But, it’s all basketball. There’s still only one objective: to win the game. It’s still a round ball and a circular hoop, so it’s all the same thing. It’s just how you look at it. Over here, they may say the players aren’t as talented. But, there are some players over here that are very talented. It’s just that when they get a better understanding of the game and how it’s played, and when they learn how to play defense without trying to take somebody’s head off [laughing], then I think they’ll be a lot better. Offensively, they’re fundamentally sound. There are certain things they don’t know how to do yet, but all it takes is someone to come in and to teach them. Once they learn those things, they can be pretty good.
NiuBBall: You had an offer to play in the NBA before the season and I think a lot of people where maybe a little surprised when you chose to play here in China instead. I wanted to get your thoughts on why you decided to play this season in China over playing in the League.
JS: Being in the NBA, there’s a lot of politics to the game. It doesn’t really depend on how talented you are; it depends on who you’re good with sometimes. I hate to say it, but that’s just the way it is. It’s a business, basically. And it got to the point to where no matter how hard I tried, or no matter what I did, it was always something else I wasn’t doing right. I would get there early before practice and stay late after practice. If there was a game and I didn’t play, I would stay there after the game was over and I wouldn’t leave the arena until one o’clock in the morning because I stayed and worked out. To me right there, that’s showing the coach no matter what situation I’m in, I’m always going to work hard and I’m always wanting to succeed. But it got to the point to where it just wasn’t working anymore. And I thought, before I start going through the motions, I just told myself I’m not even going to worry about it. Whatever happens, happens. If I get an offer to go overseas, I’m going to go overseas. If I get an offer to play in the States, I’ll think about it.
But, I just want to play basketball. I don’t care where it’s at. It’s not about making the money; it’s not about the prestige that comes with it, because every league has its own prestige. Over here, [Xinjiang] is one of the biggest teams over here, but they have yet to win a championship. To come over here and be one of the players who helps them win their first championship, that’s more of an… accomplishment for me. I can always go back to the NBA. I’m not one of those guys who leave the League and then is out of the League forever. My upside grows every year. I’m not one of those guys that take a year off and then he declines. I’m always trying to get better so there’s always room for improvement. And that’s why I came over here, because I thought it was a good opportunity to improve.
NiuBBall: Do you want to go back and play in the NBA, either next year or sometime further down the road?
JS: Yeah, I would go back to the NBA next season. But it has to a more lucrative decision. The same thing that made me pick overseas over the NBA. It’s more of a business decision than anything. What people fail to understand is that at the end of the day it’s a business.
NiuBBall: And that might even be option with the concerns over a lockout next year. If there was a lockout and if Xinjiang wanted you back for another go, would you consider coming back? Are you interested in playing back in Europe?
JS: If this team wanted me to come back, after we win a championship and this team wants me to come back, then I’d consider coming back. There are other teams out here that I’m sure would try to get me at the end of the season. But, I’ve been keeping tabs on everything with the NBA. The lockout, it seems like its going to happen, but I don’t think they’re actually going to let it happen. There’s too much upside going on right now and if they did have a lockout, the recovery could take a long time. But, it could either be the CBA, the NBA or I’d go overseas someplace else to Europe or wherever. Basketball is worldwide, so it doesn’t matter to me.
NiuBBall: I want to switch gears a little bit, because you live in an area of China that most people haven’t heard about and are probably very unfamiliar with. Describe to people what it’s like living out in Western China, in Urumqi.
JS: It’s far [lauging]. It’s far from everything. It’s a great city. They have their own cultural differences. They have the Uyghur and Chinese all living together. The owner of the team lets us stay in his guest house and we basically walk from his house straight to practice every day. And when we go into town, they make sure there’s someone always with us, and everything’s always fine. It’s a great city. It’s just that I don’t really go out too much.
NiuBBall: How’s the food been?
JS: The food’s been great. We have a chef there and he loves trying to cook us anything that’s American or Western. If it’s Italian, he’ll try his best cooking that. They have like four or five different chefs and they want to learn new recipes. So if we ask him to make something new and different, then they’ll try their best to make it and if it’s not right the first time, they’ll keep trying and trying and trying. So the food’s great.
NiuBBall: Have you gotten into any of the Chinese or Uighur food?
JS: Yeah I’ve tried of some of the Uighur food, some of the meats. It’s a little different. I do eat Chinese food. Not everything, I’m not a big seafood guy. They like to eat a lot of seafood out here, but I just can’t with it. But, the food is pretty good. It’s a little different, but what can you do.
NiuBBall: I heard you speak a little bit of Mandarin with your translator a minute ago, have you picked up any for off-court use, or on-court for talking to teammates? Trash talk? Refs?
JS: Yeah, I can say a couple of things. I’ve actually picked up more Uighur than anything. I know how to tell my teammates if there’s a blindside pick coming. I know how to yell to them. I know how to order certain stuff in restaurants. The basic essentials to surviving are what I try to learn. I don’t try to go out and learn how to hold an everyday conversation because I’m not going to be doing that. But, things I’m going to use constantly, that’s the stuff I’ve been learning.
NiuBBall: And I’m sure like you said before, you’re experiences playing overseas helps with all of those everyday adjustments – already being accustomed to communicating with non-English speakers, like pointing to stuff, body language, and all of that.
JS: Non-verbal communication. Body language helps get me through a lot of stuff. I might not be able to say it, but I can point and describe it with my hands. And then they make gestures to me and I know exactly what they’re saying.
NiuBBall: James, thanks a lot for your time and good luck with the rest of the season.
JS: No problem.