We’d say Wang’s facial expression pretty much wraps up our feelings on All-Star Weekend.
Two and a half years ago, I stood up on my first day of teaching a Nanjing University oral English class, eager to start on my eight class journey aimed at turning a bunch of shy English speakers into confident, seasoned orators. By my side, a nicely organized six-lesson unit on debates that would start with the basics and conclude with an actual judged debate. Since Chinese students have been programmed at a young age not to pipe up in class, I figured this would be a great way to get my kids passionately talking at each other about stimulating and interesting topic matter, while also learning how to think about all sides of potential issues.
This debate is going to be awesome, I repeated out loud to my students over and over again on the first day of class, making sure to add extra emphasis on the word awesome to really drive in the profound awesomeness I truly felt the unit was going to exude. Judging by their wide-eyed expressions and attentiveness, I guess I was being pretty persuasive. This was definitely going to be awesome.
But, as my students and I quickly found out after the first unit, “Introduction to Debates,” learning how to debate isn’t awesome at all. In fact, its quite boring. Trying to get people excited about how to add support to your reasons and how structure rebuttals effectively, no matter how awesome I kept telling my students this was all going to be, only led a good portion of my class to put their foreheads on the front of their desk, the preferred sleeping position of Chinese students everywhere. No matter what I did to try and get my class back to that first day, my weary students zoned in a semi-catatonic state as I implored them to be enthusiastic about the definition of the word “resolution.”
What I learned was twofold: First, that I probably wasn’t cut out to be an English teacher and two, no matter what you say or do, you can’t get people amped up for too long on stuff that sucks. Like learning about debates.
As I sat in the MasterCard Arena (formerly Wukesong Arena) during the CBA All-Star Game this past Sunday night, I couldn’t help but think back to that same hyped up six-lesson unit that ultimately bored my class to sleep. Except instead of falling asleep after realizing the game was permanently stale, fans at the arena just got up and left in the second half. When you’re not forced to sit through a three hour oral English class, it’s way more comfortable to go home and sleep in your own bed.
The connection from the game to my class in Nanjing was easy to make, since both suffered from the same basic problem: Despite being dressed up on the outside as the best thing ever, both the game and my lesson plan were exposed as completely unengaging and dull.
And like the 40 or so students who sat eager and wide-eyed at the repeated emphasis on the word awesome on that first day of class at Nanjing University, I believe that fans at Wukesong were honestly on board with the All-Star experience at the beginning. The crowd got into it from the start after a cool video on the jumbotron morphed into a pretty slick on-court dance/acrobatic routine, complete with dynamic lighting and sound effects.
That was followed by what was to me the unquestioned highlight of the weekend and possibly the entire season: Guo Ailun, China’s young 17 year-old point guard who played on the Senior National Team last summer in Turkey for the FIBA World Championship, taking the floor with mic in hand to sing (very seriously, I might add) Rong Yao, “Glory,” in front of an almost full stadium of basketball fans.
To an outsider, having a 17 year-old professional basketball player perform a song during a nationally televised All-Star Game would seem quite strange, ridiculous even. But in China, where the local population’s unbridled love for karaoke extends all the way to pre All-Star Game entertainment, giving it your all to sing a song called “Glory” is not only acceptable, its flat out niu bi, even if he did lip-sync it (which he most definitely did).
After a pretty solid performance by female pop star, Zhang Liangying, the lead up to the game continued to entertain. For the player introductions, it was genuinely charming to see the league embrace more of its “Chinese-ness” by having the starters come out onto the court with their families, instead of trying to copy the NBA by having crazy set-ups and backgrounds like the CBA usually does. Like many others, Bayi’s Mo Ke came out with his mother and father by his side, and DongGuan’s Zhang Kai emerged from the tunnel with his pregnant wife standing next to him. Stephon Marbury, whose family was unable to attend, carried a little Chinese girl onto the floor. Quincy Douby came out with his translator.
(Fast forward to around 9:30 for the player introductions)
Though the pre-game entertainment was generally entertaining, that’s not to say there weren’t awkward moments. Zhang Qingpeng’s courtside proposal to his girlfriend was weird and seemed staged. During the pre-game starting five introduction ceremony in a hope to lather up the crowd for Wang Zhizhi’s introduction, two lines of scantily dressed cheerleaders banging huge drums hanging from their neck failed miserably (with an assist from the night’s MC, CCTV-5’s Yu Jia) to get a “Wang Zhizhi!” chant from the crowd before the big guy came out of the tunnel. The situation already soaked with awkwardness, Big Wang took it to another level by grabbing the mic and yelling ni men jiu shi wo de rong yao. In English, that would literally translate into “you [fans] are my glory,” but I think it’s actually closer to “it’s an honor to have you as my fans.” The reaction from the crowd was minimal and I don’t blame them. After all, would you get excited about a waaaaay past his prime 34 year-old who’s only moves at this point are a stepback jumper and a herky-jerky shot-fake step through making his umpteenth appearance in the All-Star Game?
Once the actual game started, it became pretty evident rather quickly that a: no, you wouldn’t excited about watching a waaaaay past his prime 34 year-old do his thing and b: the pre-game fluff was nothing more than a crappy cover up for the league’s unexciting on-court product. Like in almost every other CBA game over the years, the night broke down into a one-on-one scoring battle between the two opposing imports, which in this case turned out to be Quincy Douby and Stephon Marbury. The Chinese players, who looked like they were just going through the motions, seemed content to just sit back and watch and contributed very little to the overall flow of the game as a result.
By the game’s end, Douby and the North edged out 115-114 over the South, Douby finishing with an All-Star Game record 44 points. But like I said, hardly anybody was there to see it. Despite being close in the last five minutes, a good portion of the stadium had already made its way out of the stadium, driven out by sheer boredom and an overall disconnect from the game.
Besides the apathetic nature of the game, which unlike the NBA All-Star Game comes without the periodic crowd pleasing alley-oops and breakaway slams, halftime probably contributed to the exodus, too. After a predictably nondescript Skills Competition and Three-Point Shootout ended, the Slam Dunk Contest fell victim to several botched dunk attempts and a poorly executed Blake Griffin knockoff dunk by Fujian SBS’s Zhao Tailong, who dunked not over, but around a huge Anta shoe to bring home the title. Needless to say, Chinese fans, who are quite aware of Griffin’s car dunk, weren’t impressed. Tired of it all, many just got up and left.
So what can we take away from all this? Like trying to convince college freshman that learning about debates is awesome, acting like the CBA All-Star Game is this amazing thing only fools people for so long (two quarters, to be exact). If the CBA is ever going to be a sustainable and legitimate entertainment option for fans around China, it’s going to have to figure out a way to create a bond with its fans. 16 years into the league, people shouldn’t have to be saying that. But, until the league comes up with a way to make the quality of their game better, fans are going to continue to be largely indifferent to Chinese professional basketball, which is a shame; unlike English students and debates, the Chinese have a profound passion for roundball.