I still remember trying to convince my mother-in-law to watch the superb documentary Hoop Dreams, a window into poverty, race, sport and education in America. (If you haven’t seen it, you should. The book is also highly recommended.) This was a few years ago, and she did finally watch it. The review was fairly brief: “My dear, that most certainly was about basketball! But there were some interesting parts.”
Brave Dragons by the American journalist Jim Yardley, really is about the Shanxi Brave Dragons (based in Taiyuan), their unpredictable owner (Boss) Wang Xingjiang, their 2008-09 season in the Chinese Basketball Association, and about Bob Weiss, the first former NBA bench boss to work in China, and the very mixed bag of players he had to work with. (I remember the chronically slump-shouldered Weiss, with a pained expression on his face, imploring referees or his Seattle Supersonics players to listen. Were I older, I’d remember him as a resilient, nothing-keeps-me-out-of-the-game player for the Chicago Bulls. Both of these qualities made him the perfect person to try to coach in Taiyuan under Boss Wang.) It spotlights the babes-in-the-Chinese-woods that wide-eyed young Americans, imported for their superior skill, are in adjusting to hoops with Chinese characteristics. Anybody who enjoys NiuBBall is going to love Brave Dragons, and Jon has been recommending it for months.
Jim Yardley, for years a New York Times journalist in Beijing, is a sharp observer and a fine storyteller. (He is also part of the answer to a fine trivia question, as he and his father Jonathan, someone I used to read in The Atlantic, are the only parent and child to each have won a Pulitzer Prize. So there.) Basketball fans (like you and me) will enjoy his knowing approach to the game, the details that a long-time basketball watcher sees that others would miss. It doesn’t make a hoops nut cringe, like the scenes in The Basketball Diaries do, for example. Meanwhile, non-enthusiasts (like my wife) get an agreeable taste of basketball – she really liked it – while more importantly receiving well-drawn portraits of the characters involved and the incredible context in which basketball has developed in China. (This is not Indiana. This is not New York City.) The basketball story that Yardley tells becomes a lens to view the country – its history, economy and culture – as seen through the often disbelieving eyes of the mainly American protagonists. But since Yardley was already a six-year veteran of the country by 2008, he can also tell the story in the voices of Chinese players, team officials and other observers. If you’ve lived here, you’ll find yourself nodding.
We know Boss Wang, the Dragons’ owner, is “crazy” long before we meet him, but his life is a compelling case study of the nearly legendary results of Chinese reform and opening policies, which suddenly made “multimillionaires out of semiliterate coal bosses”. It is startling to read how he applies the raging bullying techniques that built his empire to the development of his tough-loved basketball team. We also read, though, of his youthful survival of the mass starvation during China’s mad “Great Leap Forward” – eating tree bark, worms, roots – until later in the 1960s “basketball gave me the chance to leave the factory and eat for free. Basketball changed my life.” Bob Weiss, a bemused and genial American who had never even had a passport before suddenly agreeing to come to China as a basketball consultant to the Dragons, recalls to ex-pats like us our first months of wonder and dismay; he closes each of his first conversations with his wife, Tracy, by blurting “you cannot come over here!” as his phone card expires. She does, though, and finds it “like living in some crazily wonderful carnival”. (Now, that’s the spirit in which to embrace China. I try.) We also get to meet the team’s translators, its beleaguered young general manager, and also Ren Hongbing, the innovative in-game DJ, MC and choreographer of the Shanxi fans as they deliriously execute The Wave. If you’ve been to a CBA game, you’ll be nodding again, especially when Yardley reminds you of riots among the Taiyuan faithful.
The players, from Belarus, Nigeria, the States, Taiwan and all over China, are viewed sympathetically as young men who are cogs in the grinding machine of the game they love — or perhaps not, since in China the game generally chooses the player — having become a business. We learn something of the Chinese system for identifying and training athletes, in basketball chiefly via mass-scale wrist X-rays of children to project their heights. (God forbid that a kid be discovered because he’s had the chance to play and has the passion and talent to go farther with it!) “Big Sun” was expected to grow to 6’6”, and so was transferred to a sports school at 11 and handed a basketball: “He was in sixth grade and ran three miles every day before sunrise. He hated the game chosen for him.” He ends at 6’8”, and is a power forward with charmingly few skills but an apparently unlimited ability to just hang in there, an unbelievably important and necessary characteristic for the Chinese. “Little Sun” is a tiny Taiwanese guard who endures bitter persecution from one of the revolving-door coaches, a former military player whose sneering attitude towards Sun is an interesting perspective on the complex Chinese regard for its recalcitrant off-shore “possession”. Pan Jiang is another point guard, faced with the crazy-making expectations of ultra-controlling and super-contradictory approaches to the game required by Boss Wang, and by the minimum of fifteen head coaches for whom he and Big Sun had played during the few years of their Brave Dragons tenure. Only the keenest watchers of American college ball would recognize most of the unsophisticated young men who land up in China when their NBA aspirations grow cold. (Tim Pickett, anyone? Mack Tuck? Olumide Oyedeji? Robert Traylor?) They can’t believe the dorm living and the relentless practice drills that their local counterparts endure, not to mention the hour-long post-game scream-fests of Boss Wang.
An exception to the relatively unknown athletes who try to re-ignite their professional dreams – or just make some coin – is “the great Bonzi Wells”, a talented but notorious gunner who has worn out his welcome back home. He is parachuted into the team in mid-season, another product of the Boss’s manic enthusiasm for all things NBA, and observes of Donta Smith – the American scorer he has been brought in to replace – “we can’t lose that guy”. Oh-oh.
Bangqi Weiersi, as Wells is known in China, comes to Taiyuan as the highest profile player ever to play in the CBA, a precursor of men like Stephon Marbury and Tracy McGrady who are here selling shoes, prolonging their diminishing pro careers, and basking in the glow of Chinese fanboy (and girl) adoration. (Marbury first came to Taiyuan, too, and then was suddenly ditched before his second season. Maybe he didn’t allow the 60-year-old Wang to beat him when the owner joined in a team scrimmage, as Yardley observed. Maybe he walked out during an after-loss struggle session.) The Great Bonzi Wells Experiment, with all its basketball, cultural, media and homophobic implications, comes in for wry attention from the author. “Bonzi Wells would not have been America’s first choice as ambassador-at-large for America’s game.”
Yardley also paints a vivid picture of Taiyuan, an ancient centre of Chinese culture and a current hotbed of feverish industrialization and development, though culturally backward in the view of the Beijing or Shanghai elite. (We’ve been stared at in our city, Dalian, but never in such exotic zoo-like fascination as we were in a 2011 visit to Taiyuan. On one visit to a park, my British friend plus her kids and mine, having stopped to tie a shoe or discuss our route, were surrounded by a hundred or so gawking locals. A family friend, a young lad from an Iranian background, was hissed at on suspicion of being Japanese. Yardley has a similar story of the bitter anti-Japanese feeling that is never far from the surface here. A girl in northeast China once confronted him about whether he was Japanese. Learning that this quite Anglo-Saxon man was American, she says, “Good. Because we won’t let those devils beat us again next time.” She was about 8.) Yardley calls Taiyuan “the boiler room of China…the furnace”, and details how “Chinese reporters in other cities were flabbergasted that Weiss [and later Wells] was associated with Taiyuan, as if he were a fancy piece of new technology that had been shipped to the wrong place”. It’s also a spectacular place to witness the astonishing disparity between the glitteringly rich and the crushingly poor in this country, though the breathing is not so great.
“Any foreigner in China exists somewhere within a sliding scale of unknowingness,” Yardley writes. (Oh, yes, I nodded.) The book fills in many blanks, as he offers detailed historical asides about, for example, the first Opium War in the mid-19th century, and how it began China’s “century of humiliation” at the hands of Western warships, businesses and governments. In the midst of this, he notes, the YMCA planted the roots of basketball (and evangelism) in China in 1895, four years after James Naismith nailed the first peach basket to a Springfield, Massachusetts gym wall. “The YMCA needed to become,” Yardley writes, “a Chinese organization,” and it did, accounting for its continuing presence in the country (though with a much different approach than elsewhere). He contrasts this with the NBA’s imperial approach to its “NBA China” ambitions, which foundered due mainly to the league’s lack of understanding that the Chinese will not allow anybody else to run their show, not anymore. From Guangzhou to Shanghai, Yardley uses road trips of the Brave Dragons as walking tours of the history of the game and of the country, its industrialization and opening-up, and how sport and entertainment fit into the burgeoning, youthful, consumer face of an ancient society.
A quick re-read of Brave Dragons, in the wake of our second experience of the Chinese Spring Festival and New Year, also reminded me what a good writer Jim Yardley is. We’ve been here for two changes of the year, and fled the country for the two in between. (The fireworks drive me nuts.) Yardley, though, spending the lunar new year festival with the family of the Dragons’ DJ, writes this exemplary passage:
I’d always wondered about the moments in Chinese life where Chinese take joy in being Chinese….China was consumed by a churning relentlessness, a pressure cooker wrought by the national mandate of restoring Chinese greatness….Yet the price was that daily life was a grinding stone. Everyone worked hard, often separated from family, as rebuildling and rebranding Chinese greatness was a round-the-clock enterprise. Drive past a construction site at 3 a.m. Men were working. Drive past a textile factory at 4 a.m. Women ere working. Work, work, work, work, work. When was the payoff?
I came to believe that Chinese New Year was the best representation of that single moment when people could exhale….Migrant workers put down their hammers or walked away from their sewing machines and went back to the countryside, like some of the Brave Dragons players. Gifts were bought. Houses were cleaned to sweep away bad luck. Firecrackers were lit as symbolic reminders of the mythical beast…[who] feasted on livestock and crops until farmers realized he was frightened by the color red and the cracking noise of fireworks. Those running the race to the future paused to remember the past…
Aside from its implied rebuke to my resentment of the weeks of pre-spring explosions, Yardley shows here – as in his discussions of corruption, or knock-off Spalding basketballs, or the earnest booty-shaking of Chinese Basketball Association cheerleaders – that he is a gentle but penetrating observer. Speaking of Baobu Weisi’s unpredictable luring to Taiyuan by Boss Wang, and all the bizarre and quirky outgrowths of that out-of-the-box decision, Yardley writes: “The experiment had not produced the expected result. Money had been spent to hire an NBA coach to serve as a…technology transfer to upgrade an inferior Chinese product, the Chinese player. Yet not long after this savior arrived, the product had proved immutable, the transfer incompatible…because of the system that produced the raw materials and the people that controlled the system…” Reading this book teaches much about that system and those people.
Brave Dragons is an entertaining read, and an eye-opening one. If you come for the basketball, you’ll leave with a deeper understanding of China. If you come for a perspective on Chinese culture, you’ll walk away appreciating that sport can tell us as much about life as any human enterprise can. Jon is right to recommend it.
A slightly different version of this review appears at www.JamesHowden.com, alongside other essays on life in China, good books, and other things that come to the writer’s mind.