Simply put, there are few Americans in the world better qualified to talk about Chinese basketball than Jason Dixon. Spending a total of 10 seasons with the Guangdong Hongyuan Southern Tigers from 1998-2001 and 2003-2009, Dixon helped Guangdong to five CBA titles before having his #15 retired in December 2008. To date, only one other player, Shanghai’s Yao Ming, has had their number hung from the rafters of a CBA stadium.
In 369 career games, by far the most games ever played by a foreign import player, Dixon averaged 17.7 points, 10.2 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and 58.2% shooting.
In a league where import players are constantly coming in and out, sometimes only weeks after signing, Dixon’s decade-long career was remarkable not only because Guangdong won so much, but also because he was around for so long to be a part of it all. And after sitting down with him for a bit before Guangdong’s huge Game 4 win at home to tie the CBA finals at 2-2 against Xinjiang, it was easy for us to see why he’s been here for so long: Humble, relaxed and friendly, Dixon was interrupted several times during our interview by teammates, team employees and well-wishing fans, all of whom greeted him as a close friend and a valued member of the community.
Dixon, now retired from professional basketball after winning an the AirAsia ASEAN Basketball League for the Chang Thailand Slammers, is back in familiar surroundings working as an assistant coach with his old squad, Guangdong. We talked about the new gig, his playing days in China and more in our sit down on Friday.
NiuBBall: So you’re back from playing a season in Thailand, how did you get hooked up with the job? Did you have it lined up with Guangdong ahead of time?
Jason Dixon: I came [to DongGuan] this Christmas to visit. We’re having dinner and the owner said, “When you retire, we have a job for you.” I was like, “Alright, cool.”
NiuBBall: Do you see yourself doing coaching long-term?
JD: They told me for the first year, we’ll just take it year by year and see how I do. As more days go by, I’m actually fitting into it. I wouldn’t mind doing it long-term. With coaching, there’s no retirement age, you can as long as you want. So I figure this is a good start. With the NBA influence coming in here and all that stuff I could do that, or at least some major college or something. I was coaching little kids in the summer, coaching my son, but you do that for fun. It’s cool, but as far as making money, I wouldn’t mind coaching at a major college. I told people, first I want to do freshman or junior varsity [high-school], because those kids are still young and you can still teach them. But, now that I’m doing professional, it’s a little bit easier. It comes a little bit more natural.
NiuBBall: What kinds of things does the team have you do?
JD: For now, its just player development with the big guys. It’s cool because they’re starting me off, giving me a little piece, and then as time goes on they may give me some more responsibilities. I guess as I show that I’m mature enough to handle it.
NiuBBall: You’ve been with this team for a long time, has knowing all of the players you’re working with made the transition easier?
JD: They like me, which is cool because I have the respect already. As a foreigner coming in here as a coach, they listen to you. But, they think you’re going to leave and go back to America, that you’re just here to get the money. And you know, some of them learn. The thing is that they know the stuff that I tell them to do is the stuff I do myself. They’ve seen me work hard, they’ve seen that I’m always in shape, so they can’t say anything back to me, like “You’ve never done this.” Everything I’m telling you, I’ve done, so don’t say a word to me. So the only thing they say now is, “You didn’t shoot that well” [laughing].
NiuBBall: As a foreign coach, what are some of the challenges in working with Chinese players?
JD: The language barrier is always tough. And their work ethic is a lot different than Americans. I don’t want to call them lazy, but when they work out its very laid back. At home, we say do a drill and kids go hard as hell. Here, it’s just like “Eh, we’ll do the drill.”
NiuBBall: Why do you think that is?
JD: Honestly, it’s because they play ball all year. They’re exhausted. So it becomes monotonous to them. I honestly think they lose the love for the game. In America, you can go get a pick-up game and at this pick-up game, nobody knows who you are. You can do whatever – if you want to dribble the ball, no one is going to say you can’t do it. Whereas here, you go to practice, you have a position. If you’re a big man, you’re not supposed to dribble and that get’s old, it get’s boring. I have ideas to kind of see if the players respond to it. My original idea I had was to just let the kids play five-on-five, have some kids come to gym and just say, you guys got 60 minutes to play five-on-five and whoever loses has to run “seventeens.” The coach was like, “We’re going to be fired if you do that” [laughing]. The kids don’t love the game. One of the things about Americans is they have love [for basketball.] Even Europeans love the game.
NiuBBall: For sure. One of the biggest elements of the off-season is playing pick-up, that’s how a lot of guys refine the skills they’ve been working on in the gym by themselves.
JD: Exactly. It’s how people improve. I think they’re starting to understand a little bit. You never improve during the season, because the season is when you want maintain. The off-season is when you improve your shot, you improve your dribbling skills, footwork… So, them having me in the summer, I think they have that confidence that maybe I can take their big men to another level. The problem is, all of their big men are on the National team. They won’t be here with me. I’ll just have the younger guys.
NiuBBall: You played with the team for 10 years. I think that’s incredible given the turnover rate with foreign players in this league. Why do you think you were able to play here for so long? How were you able to adapt so well?
JD: Personality is one thing. I’m the kind of person who gets along with everybody. And then, there’s winning. They’re going to go with someone who plays hard and wins games. I think we only had one season when I was here when we didn’t do well, there was one year when we finished in sixth. Every other season that, we’ve been at least top four. If it’s a proven thing, why would you go away from it? The year that I actually did leave, we did terrible. Then when I came back from Europe, we started winning championships again. Now the stuff they’ve got going on, it’s so far past what I’ve done. But before it was like, “You’re putting us in the finals, so we’re going to keep bringing you back.”
NiuBBall: How big of a role has the city played in everything? Do you like living here?
JD: I do, I love the city. The city has grown. It has a lot of foreigners here. It’s like a small college town, everyone knows everybody. If someone does something, everyone is going to hear about it. There’s enough restaurants where I can only eat foreign food. I don’t really eat Chinese food. So it’s grown a lot. The first three years were rough. I’d just sit in my room and play PlayStation. But, you know we travel so much, you’re really not home. You look forward to Beijing, Shanghai and Ningbo. You hate hate the Xinjiang, Jiangsu and Liaoning trips [laughing]. But, now everyone loves coming here. When I’m here, I make sure I take everyone out, I get them a burger, a steak, whatever they want. Guangdong is the place to be at now.
NiuBBall: Do you think foreign players need to have a certain type of make-up, a certain type of personality to play here? Why do you think some foreign players don’t last long out here, especially this year with all of the NBA guys?
JD: I think some of these teams don’t know what they really want from a player. They’ll look at stats and they’ll say “That guy scores a lot,” or “That guy rebounds a lot, we want that guy.” But, they don’t understand chemistry and I think that’s the main reason. It’s chemistry. If you come here and you demand to take 40 shots a game, that takes shots away from the other players. Some teams will tolerate it if you’re winning, but if you’re losing they won’t want you here. Some guys have bad attitudes. China’s actually tough. If you’re not in a good city, it can be really tough. With the NBA guys, I think it’s even harder for them because they’re coming from traveling on team planes, this whole lap of luxury. You get out here and it’s not the lap of luxury [laughing]. It’s rough. It’s an adjustment.
NiuBBall: In that sense, is Guangdong different from other teams where they look at a foreign player in terms of how he fits into the existing team, as opposed to just bringing a player in because he can put up huge numbers?
JD: Yeah, I think they are different. Because in reality, you’re not going to come to this team and score. Take David Harrison. Last year I came here for Christmas, and David had come over from Beijing where he was getting the ball a lot and he was upset. I said “Dave, you’re not going to get the ball here.” You have five National team players on this team, all you can do is grab rebounds. You’ll score about 15 points a game.
NiuBBall: Plus there was Smush [Parker].
JD: Plus there was Smush. Plus you have that rule [foreign players can only play at the same time for two quarters], so you’re not going to score. Get your 12-15 points and 10-12 rebounds. On this team, your job is really easy. More or less they want the big men to come here and defend every other team’s big man and [Mengke] Bateer. Bateer, Tang [Zhengdong], and Wang Zhizhi. Everything else isn’t that hard. It shocked me because when Dave got hurt, they didn’t rush to find another big man. They took their time and they still were winning a lot of games. It just shows that they don’t need a big man to come here and take shots. Those days are over.
NiuBBall: Who was best player, local or foreign, that you played against?
JD: Man, that’s tough… for foreigners, it’s tough to say. There’s been a lot of great players who’ve played here. For locals, its definitely Wang [Zhizhi]. He’s left-handed and he’s taller than me, so I couldn’t really do anything. Liu Yudong was tough too. That dude, he didn’t miss a shot! Foreigners, it’s really tough to say because there’s been so many. I looked at it as, you’re a man and I’m a man, and we’re going to go head-to-head. A lot of people say, if you’re seven feet tall and you’re in China, you must not be that good. Some of those guys were not [laughing.] Some of them were really athletic, but there’s more to the game than that. Earlier in China, the level of Americans was different because of the pay. The pay reflected the competition. I really can’t think of the best foreigner.
NiuBBall: A lot of people have said Quincy Douby might be the best foreign player of all-time.
JD: He’s on a team with Bateer! He can shoot. He’s definitely a great shooter. But, if you look at his whole game, I don’t want to sound like I’m hating on the guy, but all he does is shoot! I mean, he drives to the basket, but he doesn’t guard anybody. I think people say that because he makes a lot of noise. In China, they love the three-point shooters, but to say he’s the best in the history… I’d say you have to look at a guy like Lee Benson. I don’t know how he does it, but game after game he’s got 30 points and 20 rebounds. How do you say he’s not up there? I mean, having Bateer down there makes the biggest difference. Xinjiang has always had good foreigners, even when teams couldn’t pay a lot.
NiuBBall: For the first time in team history, Guangdong is in a close series and isn’t necessarily favored to win. What’s the mood in the locker room been like? Have you noticed a difference in mood and attitude with this year’s team in comparison with other years?
JD: They’re aware their backs are against the wall. We have two huge games coming up. We got to get them both. This team, they’ll play one good game and then they’ll play a bad one. The thing is, we got to win two back-to-back. We know we have to come here and win two.
NiuBBall: Is there something missing from this year’s team that maybe they had in years past?
JD: We don’t have the inside game that we used to have. And we still have the young guys, too. The guys are getting older. Somebody asked me, “Are they still hungry?” Some people think they don’t have that same fire. I think maybe they’re burned out. They had the Asian Championships, the Olympics, the China Games… its insane. I wouldn’t say they’ve lost their fire, they’re just burning out! You play so many important games and you don’t have that same emotion.
NiuBBall: I saw that Yi Jianlian is now back in Guangdong rooting his old team on after his season with the Washington Wizards is over. You obviously played with him for a while, why do you think he has struggled to live up to expectations in the NBA?
JD: I wouldn’t say he’s struggled. I think people had this high expectation of Yi and I don’t know where that high expectation came from. To be quite honest, Yi didn’t dominate the CBA. He only played three years in the CBA and his first two years, I don’t want to say he was a nobody, but he wasn’t dominant. His third year he did what he was supposed to do. He got noticed, made noise, but for some reason people were like he’s going to go [to the NBA], he’s going to be a starter, he’s going to average this and have this great career. I had to bite my tongue about it. He doesn’t have great ball handling skills. He has a great outside shot and he’s very athletic. But, it’s politics, it’s China. Teams want the Chinese market. I would say Yi hasn’t had a great career, but it’s been a healthy career. How many players go into the NBA for a lot of years? He’s got his years, he’s got his pension. I think Yao just raised the bar… But, I wish him the best of luck. I’m curious about what happens when he comes back to play for this team. What’s going to happen then? It’s going to be so unfair.
NiuBBall: You think after he’s done in NBA, Yi’s going to come back and play again for Guangdong?
I think he would because he’s such a nice guy and the team has such a good relationship with him. I think he would do it for one or two seasons. That’s going to be so unfair.
NiuBBall: You’ve been in this city for so long, do you have any side projects off the court that you’ve been working on?
JD: I’ve had ideas, but it’s hard because you’re playing three games a week and you’re always on the road. It’s kind of hard. People have told me “You should do something, you have a name in the city, you should do this.” And when I try to pursue it a little bit, you know it’s like, we have three games this week. And when the season’s over, I don’t want to be here. I want to go home and see my kids. Now that I’m a little older, now that I’m actually here for a while, I can actually be here. There’s a few ideas, people want me to start my own basketball academy. But, here it’s not like how it is at home. It’s not like it is back home where after school, parents want their kid involved in some type of sport. Here it’s like they want them playing piano or ballet, doing something “intelligent.” But, I may try it. My daughter is coming out here to go to school next year at an American school. I figure it’d be cool to start something new. I asked [the team] about [starting a basketball academy] and they were the ones who told me about kids being into piano and ballet… Asia, I guess.
NiuBBall: Jason, thanks a lot for the sit down. Good luck with coaching and everything else.