The 2011 Nike All-Asia Camp left us with several impressions of Chinese basketball, some good, some bad and some not yet still figured out. That’s to be expected — China is too big of a place with too many things going on at once to see things only in black and white.
One thing that’s been on our mind has been the potential long-term effects a camp like this will have on China. Though the coaching was excellent and the drills were highly structured, we wonder: How much did the Chinese players actually learn? Of the ones that did learn, how many will actually put in the work to improve their game? And to what degree can Chinese coaches use the things they saw down in DongGuan with their own teams back home?
The answer we got from the people we asked was pretty muted. Shoulder shrugs and raised eyebrows, mostly.
“Probably not a lot,” said once coach.
Understandably, it’s tough for Chinese coaches to just go back to their gym and change their entire practice structure. Even if they wanted to, the deeply ingrained old-world USSR-style training system is still alive and well inside of Chinese gyms. Two-a-days, and sometimes three-a-days are the norm, each session lasting up to three or four. In place of concentrated intensity, monotony and causality dominate practice sessions as weary players pace themselves not only so they can finish the day in one piece, but so they can finish the week, the month, and the year with all their bones and muscles in place.
Changing that culture is something that can only be controlled by the specific teams and the Chinese Basketball Association, who can guide teams down a general path. Coaches don’t have much of a say. The sobering reality makes one wonder if something how useful the All-Asia Camp is for China. It’s true that players get exposure through the Swoosh that they wouldn’t normally get in the CBA, and are being exposed to some great coaching. The benefit in the short-term is easy to see. But when everyone goes home, then what?
OK, fine. So it’s almost systematically impossible for most of these coaches to go back and transform the dynamic of their team’s training regimen. But, let’s just say that, with a snap of a finger, everything could change and coaches could be free to implement an entire Western-style practice environment. In that case, coaches would only need to understand how to teach the concepts, and the players would need to learn how to execute them.
In essence, the camp would need to make sure the foreigners and the Chinese understand each other. Sounds simple, honestly. Just get some good translators who have been blessed with loud voices and go to work.
Yet, as anyone who witnessed Dave Hopla’s camp-wide shooting clinic on Day One could clearly see, the camp’s on-court interpreters, who consistently struggled to get key points across to Chinese players throughout drill stations and clinics, were severely under-qualified and under-experienced for such an event. Opting to hire a bunch of low-cost (if any cost) college students, most of whom have no background in basketball coaching, to come in and be the voices for professional coaches resulted in a lot of glazed over looks from players and an equal amount of contorted and confused faces from the over-matched translators.
To be fair, it’s not just an issue at the All-Asia Camp. It’s a problem that plagues most of the Chinese basketball. And it’s a huge shame, because its solution is so simple: Find good translators.
Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald in late May, Brian Goorjian, who coaches for the DongGuan New Century Leopards, talked about the challenges of working with a language barrier.
“There is common theme among the [foreign] coaches. It’s really hard to trust what the interpreter is saying,” he says. “You can’t communicate. You can’t have a sit down [chat] like I was doing. I have been really enjoying that aspect of being here like I was at Richmond [Football Club] this week where we were just sitting down and talking and exchanging ideas.”
Bob MacKinnon, who we regularly chatted with throughout the year last season when he was in Tianjin, repeatedly told us the same thing. And for him, it was a much bigger issue that it was for Goorjian because Tianjin is a small-market team with a minuscule budget. Their interpreter, although a good guy and well liked by MacKinnon, was just another college student and was in well over his head translating English to Chinese on a professional basketball team. While Coach Mac could be seen on the sidelines doing his best to get through to his team, the interpreter — due to his low-key personality, his inexperience and language level — couldn’t replicate the same feelings his coach was trying to convey.
The language is problem that almost all foreign coaches — and foreign players — are faced with. Well, almost all. In Shanghai, Bob Donewald is flanked by the same interpreter who sits by his side on the Chinese Senior National Team. Working together for more than two years, the two have an obvious chemistry that can clearly be seen when coach and interpreter seamlessly alternate on the mic during press conferences like Ghostface Killah and Raekwon on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.
And in DongGuan, which is among the most professional and organized teams in China, it seems as if Goorjian has also finally found a capable translator he knows and trusts.
“He is loyal, he is honest, I have no concern because the year before I had a different scenario,” he says.
“What the other coaches are talking about I totally understand. You are yelling at somebody and he [player] is smiling. You are thinking that in the conversation I said a lot of words, yet the interpreter hasn’t said much. So now you are thinking the interpreter said I was an idiot.
“This [new] guy now doesn’t have to digest anything. He just sprays it right along next to me with the same emotion and energy. That is a big reason for our success.
“You learn key words. I have key phrases that I can say so the flow of practice doesn’t stop while I am talking to [my interpreter] Chung and Chung is talking to the players. The language is the hardest part.”
It’s simple: If your team has a foreign coach, make sure you’re interpreter can speak English well, and make sure he brings the same level of energy as the guy he’s translating for. Last season, three teams got this right: Xinjiang, who’s impeccable translator, Roger, is arguably the best in the league, DongGuan and Shanghai. Was it a coincidence that those three teams all had zero problems with their foreign players and coaches? Was it luck that Xinjiang and DongGuan both made the semi-finals?
We can talk about all of the big issues and all of the obstacles that prevent Chinese basketball from meeting its huge potential. But, in basketball, it’s sometimes the little things that matter the most. And if China is serious about wanting to learn from the West in order to better itself, then making sure everyone understands each other should be placed at a premium.