Zhou Peng and Stephon Marbury exchange words midway through the third quarter. Moments before, Zhou intentionally took Marbury out while he was in mid-air shooting a three-pointer. (Photo: cfp.cn)
Guangdong – 101 @ Beijing – 108
As I settled into my seat, took my coat off and looked around MasterCard Center (formerly known as Wukesong Arena) last night shortly before tip-off for Game 1 of the CBA Finals between the Beijing Ducks and Guangdong Southern Tigers, two thoughts immediately entered my head:
First, this nice cushy seat is way better than anything in Shougang Gymnasium.
Second, holy schnikes! There is not an empty seat in this entire arena!
The latter made me forget where I was for a second. Whoa, whoa, whoa. 18,000 seats totally sold out? The 2008 Olympics, of course. NBA China Games, ditto. But, the Chinese Basketball Association? The running joke of China; the league who’s mere mention typically elicits a scoff and a laugh from most Chinese?
The CBA? The NBA is waaay better. I don’t watch that…
But last night, people were watching that. A packed house of 18,000 people were watching to be exact — the most amount ever for a single CBA game.
And it was awesome. There was an atmosphere. It felt like basketball should feel. It felt like the Finals should feel. Whereas most CBA games typically are played over the staccato backdrop from fans — good play, let’s cheer! Poor turnover, let’s groan! Bad call, let’s throw water bottles! — this game had ebb and flow. Fans roared during Beijing’s player intros. They shut up when Guangdong’s Wang Shipeng splashed a three to open the scoring. Once at a rolling boil, they simmered when the visitors took 14-8 lead on a Zhu Fangyu three from the corner. They worked themselves back up when Ji Zhe knocked first knocked down a three, then drove by James Singleton baseline for a lay-up. They exploded when Lee Hsueh-lin cashed a three to give Beijing their first lead of the night. And they became flat-out delirious by the end of the quarter when Beijing was going into the huddle up 37-22.
Last night even the in-game DJ, the man every team employs to play horrible, loud music during every second of every game, couldn’t ruin what was going on. The slow buildup that starts from a dribble-drive and ends with a loud, satisfied cheer of appreciation when the play ends off of a made three from the kick, swing-swing that came after it; Wukesong had that last night. Instead of artificial noise being pumped in through the speakers, fans were actually chanting FANG-shou (de-FENSE). Instead of being instructed to cheer their team on, fans did it instinctively. Instead of loudly chorusing the Southern Tigers with sha bi (stupid cunt), they were
instead just booing them loudly chorusing the Southern Tigers with sha bi.
Some things never change, I thought to myself.
Little did I know that my state of awesomeness would be soon interrupted by that same thought.
Guangdong managed to cut the lead to eight by the half, but after numerous turnovers and defensive breakdowns, they quickly found themselves down 71-52 with just over five minutes left in the third quarter. Coming down on offense, Guangdong’s Wang Shipeng drove right from the left side, ran into three defenders, stumbled and lost the ball. Wang felt like he was tripped (he was). The ref called a travel. Wang stamped up and down, ran to the official, pointed at the official, kicked the air, pointed to Marbury (the tripper), then stood incredulously at half court with his mouth open and his hands on his hips.
After the tantrum, Wang was called for T and Guangdong’s head coach, Li Chunjiang, called a time-out. Now down 20 after Marbury split the free-throws, stopping the game to calm the seven-time champs down seemed like a good idea. With 17 minutes left in the game, there was still plenty of time to stage a comeback.
But Coach Li didn’t do any calming. He did the exact opposite. He poured gasoline.
First, he ordered his two imports, Brooks and Singleton, to sit; a strange move considering nobody ever sits their two imports in the third quarter of a CBA game, nonetheless a Finals game. Maybe he was sending a message to his foreigners? Maybe he was sending a message to the league and the refs? Maybe he was throwing in the towel?
From my seat, it was obviously difficult to figure this one out. About a minute later, however, when Marbury was flat on his butt outside the three-point line, Li’s intention became quite clear — he had sent them out to hurt someone.
Shang tui! Shang tui! “Sweep the leg! Sweep the leg! Do you understand?! DO YOU UNDERSTAND?!” (H/T China Sports Review for that excellent translation).
Zhou Peng, one of four Guangdong players who represented the National Team in the 2010 FIBA World Championship, understood perfectly. Hence, the sweeping of Marbury’s leg and the attempted elbow to his face that went extra. Unable to stop Beijing from winning fairly, Guangdong had resorted to its Bill Lambier catalogue.
And with that, all the night’s awesomeness was ruined. The chant of sha bi from the 18,000 strong fans rained down, as did a couple pieces of debris. The game resumed, albeit very sloppily. Guangdong came back in the fourth and Wang Shipeng even had a chance to tie the game late with a three. It clanked, and Beijing ultimately took the game 108-101. It didn’t matter, though. By the final whistle, 73 fouls had been called. 79 free-throws had been shot Four players, Zhou Peng, Su Wei, Ji Zhe and Randolph Morris had all fouled out. And Guangdong, winners of seven out of the last eight championships, had been exposed as a dirty, classless team.
It’s the last point that makes me the most disappointed. Don’t confuse it for surprise, though. Cheap shots like the one on Marbury are common in Chinese basketball. In combination with terrible officiating, they’re often the cause of the many in-game brawls, National Team, Bayi Rockets and second-tier leagues included, that have occurred within China over the last few years. Instead of letting your game do the talking, you let your elbows do it for you.
The thing about this particular incident, however, is that the refs had the game in control for the most part. As evidenced by the high number of fouls, the game was being called with a tight whistle. This wasn’t a situation where things kept escalating until they hit Code Red. The only other pre-sweep the leg incident came in the first quarter when an in-air Marbury planted his knee onto the face of an on-ground Brooks while Marbury was going up for a lay-up right outside the charge circle. Marbury thought it was a dangerous play on Brooks; Brooks thought it was an unnecessary collision given that the whistle had gone off about two seconds before. Both got in each other’s face about it, but it didn’t carry over and affect the game in any major way.
Guangdong was just plain frustrated. Were the refs giving Beijing some home cooking? Maybe. Did Guangdong have a right to be aggrieved about the trip on Wang Shipeng, and a few other calls as well? Maybe, but that’s true of any game. Refs are always going to make mistakes.
In this case, the blame lies squarely on Guangdong and on Coach Li. And to be honest, I’m probably even more disappointed with Zhou Peng, who is by far China’s best and most versatile perimeter defender. Guys who take the challenge of guarding each team’s best outside scorer every night should have more pride in their craft. No matter if you’re getting torched; nobody should have to stoop to that level.
Yet, too often does Chinese basketball stoop to that level. Five years from now, people won’t remember Beijing and Shanxi’s semi-finals series because it went the maximum five games, the first time that’s ever happened in CBA history. They’ll remember it because Shanxi’s fans blocked Beijing from leaving their stadium and baselessly accused Marbury of hitting a fan… after Shanxi won Game 4. Five years from now, nobody will remember that outside the 2008 Olympics and possibly the 2011 FIBA Asia Championship last summer, last night was arguably the best in-game atmosphere in Chinese hoops history. They’ll remember Zhou Peng and sweep the leg.
And as rode back to my home on the subway after the game, it made me think: What a waste.