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The Lithuanians Are Coming! The Lithuanians Are Coming!

September 25, 2013

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Followers of this site are well aware that, after the American Del Harris left the helm of the Chinese Men’s National Team, Jonas Kazlauskas took over. Kazlauskas is a legend in the tiny Baltic nation of Lithuania, that tiny former ward of the Soviet Union that is geo-politically insignificant but fascinating in one respect. Though a struggling nation of fewer than three million, sending migrant labourers all over Europe, Lithuania is a hoops hotbed. (Some credit Arvydas Sabonis. Do you remember him?) It has one resource that a world powerhouse like China can envy from afar: Lithuania exports astounding levels and amounts of basketball talent.

Lithuania92TeamTieDye

“The Other Dream Team”, as a 2012 documentary film calls them. The great Sabonis is the giant wearing shades; the wonderfully named and gamed Sarunas Marciulionis is fourth from the right.

Perhaps you remember the Lithuania national side playing in the 1992 Olympics. Four of their stars,  including the magnificent Arvydas Sabonis, had played for the Soviet Union when they won gold in ’88 in  Seoul, the last time the Americans were content to send a college all-star team. The U.S.A. “Dream Team” of  NBA pros dominated in ’92 in Barcelona, winning their preliminary games by an average of over 40 points.  The Dreamers were a huge story (and marketing campaign), but even occasional basketball fans fell in love  with Lithuania that summer. The team had talent, but no money from home. Their warmups were outrageous  tie-dyed duds designed by an American artist; legendary stoner band the Grateful Dead were said to have  donated, too. They looked like charity cases or hipsters lost in time, but “the other Dream Team” played with  flair and real joy. The Yanks drilled them by 51  in the semifinal, but their real Olympic moment followed: in  the bronze medal game, Lithuania defeated the  “Unified Team”, the leftovers of their former Soviet masters,  and all was right in Lietuva for a golden time.

Now, you may know about Kazlauskas, Sabonis, the Houston Rockets Donatas Motiejunas, or any number of  other Lithuanian ballers past or present. Ignas Vycas isn’t somebody you should know, particularly. He’s not  a pro-level talent, but he is young and Lithuanian and left-handed, living in Dalian, and a major upgrade  in my middle-aged hoops adventures. He’s too young for the job, but he’s my new best basketball friend.

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The Ol’ Basketball Coach Goes to Beijing: NiuBBall Lives!

May 23, 2013

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Beijing Youth Politics College: No this isn’t the basketball court, but you get the idea.

Anyone who has snooped around NiuBBall’s Twitter feed or the “About Us” section should know that we’re way into pick-up hoops. So when NiuBBall contributing scribe, James Howden, sent an email to tell us that he was going to be in Beijing for a weekend, we responded in the only way we know how: Bring your basketball shoes.

And it’s a good thing he did because Howden, despite the self-deprecation and the old-fart jokes, plays pretty darn well. Possessing high basketball IQ, great fundamentals, a keep-em-honest jump-shot and an understanding of the value of the hockey assist (as all proud Canadians should), he was an extremely stabilizing and useful addition to our usual Saturday afternoon squad’s backcourt. James, next time you come we’ll try to get you some better comp. In the meantime, stay well in Dalian and good luck trying to find a decent full-court out there.

Because I have connections with cool people in Beijing – well, okay, one – my itinerary on a recent trip to the capital was not the usual middle-aged tourist fare. My weekend in The Big Smoke (literally, if you look at the skyline or scout the pollution figures) was highlighted by a Saturday afternoon not pounding the pavement at Tiananmen Square or fast-breaking into Temple of Heaven Park or (thank heaven!) being full-court pressed by the salesfolk at the pearl or silk markets.

Instead, this lone man loose in the city went hooping. My ace contact had given me a standing invitation to “get in a run if you’re in ever in Beijing”, perhaps not thinking I’d be silly enough to take him up on it. I was, and (heaven help me) I was jazzed about it. Our rendezvous was set for 12:30 on the platform at the Xizhimen station of the number two metro line, the loop that runs a rough underground rectangle of the city center. I had no idea where I was going, but I had a mobile phone and a tall young American to look for at Xizhimen – that is, until he phoned to say that he was stuck in a police station, doing the obligatory bureaucratic dance of renewing his residence permit for foreigners. He wouldn’t be able to meet me.

(Who is this masked man? And was he the ringer? Read on, friends, read on.)

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T-Mac and Tang

April 23, 2013

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T-Mac-SPURS1

Ill-fated ‘80s music duo? Fast-food lunch combo? Bachelor grocery list?

The answer is D) None of the above. Here are some notes about two bits of news that might be meaningful to you if you have both a mildly unhealthy appetite for basketball and a streak of Chi-curiosity. They are about two ballplayers whose careers will likely never come in direct contact, yet which are bizarre mirror images of each other.

T-Mac, of course, is Tracy McGrady, the former NBA scoring wizard who spent last season in what was, to some, a startingly unimpressive late-career stroll through a season with the Qingdao Eagles of the Chinese Basketball Association. Tang is T-Mac’s basketball opposite, a teenaged hoops prodigy from Jiangsu province who went to the United States for high school so that he could be a student and an athlete. Tang Zihao is called Chris Tang in the States, Chris for the point guard’s sporting hero, Chris Paul, and Tang as in the powdered sugary-orange drink, not as it’s pronounced back home in southeastern China.

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Forward to the Final Four

April 9, 2013

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Some of them really are students, I swear. But this image is disgracefully disingenuous, not that this post really wades into that swamp of “Student Athlete” dismay.

Some of them really are students, I swear. But this image is disgracefully disingenuous, not that this post really wades into that swamp of “Student Athlete” dismay.

James Howden is in Dalian, Liaoning trying to engage in every hoopshead’s favorite March-April past time: NCAA March Madness. He first checked in during the early rounds, now he’s coming back to us with a Final Four update. To all our peeps in China who can’t get to an ex-pat bar with satellite television for the national championship this morning, we wish you fast internet speeds on your computers.

When last your confused hoops correspondent waxed prophetic in It’s All About Sports! after     the first weekend of American collegiate March Madness, when his bracket was significantly  hobbled, he predicted an NCAA Elite 8 as follows.

Louisville was to play Duke. Bingo! (Okay, a number one seed against a 2; it hardly ranked with Nostradamus, but I’ll take my successes where I find them.) I picked Duke to win through to tomorrow’s Final Four, because I always do, because: A) they often do, and B) I’m a Blue Devils loyalist. Coach K is great, even if he does do too much commercial shilling, and I always argue that there is a large percentage of available high school recruits that Duke can’t even consider because they genuinely need to be students in Durham. (I hope this is still true.) Louisville was just too relentless, and too quick in the backcourt, for Duke. Lots of people forgot, as Coach Pitino stumbled from his previously shiny pedestals of unrelenting winning and (presumed) moral rectitude, that Slick Rick is really good. As a young coach, I wore out his 4-part video cassette series; this was before he even went to Kentucky.

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Hoop Crazy: My Kingdom for a Club!

March 13, 2013

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NiuBBall Linus

I miss Linus, too.

As the great Marv Albert made the call, Yes! After nearly four years in Dalian, suddenly there it was: a club for my boy. Lucked out, I did – it turned out that it operates out of my own university, and I happened to poke my head into the gym one Saturday morning in the middle of a run. Kids?! Playing BASKETBALL?! I was so excited, as like most foreigners here I am blind (can’t read) and stupid (can’t talk to most people). However, between my limited Chinese and the coach’s non-English, I managed to walk away with a sheet of paper I couldn’t understand, a vague conception of how the club operated, and a phone number. A few friendly translations, a little coaxing, a couple of months and a friend’s phone call later, I spent some weekend hours watching Son the Fourth on imitation hardwood. An old coach’s pedestrian prayer has been answered. I love it too much! as my Chinese students say. They mean so much, but in my case, my fever for the game does run absurdly hot, sometimes, even after all these years.

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Book Review: Brave Dragons

February 22, 2013

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NiuBBall.com Brave Dragons

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.

 

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Howden: Elbow Shot

February 11, 2013

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McDonald’s is not a place I often go when I’m home in Canada, but in Dalian, it’s a bit of a treat. (All things are relative, my friends.) I began this post, which begins as an adventure in middle-aged basketball and ends with a journey through Chinese health care, under the golden arches. This is a place I sometimes come to avoid the distractions of home! I am the King of Distraction. Speaking of which, here’s the story I wanted to tell.

For the second straight day, after not playing since early December, I got a call to ball. Normally, that’s not great for the ol’ body, but I hadn’t played very hard Tuesday night. When Yinghua, a former student and a pretty good player, invited me to join him yesterday afternoon, there was no NO there. Projects I was fitfully working at were shelved; even when I was perched at the keyboard, I found myself Mentally Preparing to Play as if this game actually meant something. The King, indeed, but even codgers need something to look forward to. What I hadn’t prepared for was getting decked twice, and staggering away with a pair of more or less serious boo-boos.

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Howden: McGrady’s bizarre and always surprising adventure in Qingdao

January 28, 2013

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This article was first posted January 22, and was updated January 28, at www.JamesHowden.comJames Howden is a Canadian educator, writer and worn-out hoops warrior. He is hopefully going to write more stuff for NiuBBall.com. He lives in Dalian, Liaoning.

Tracy McGrady, Wang Hai

It’s time for an update on Tracy McGrady’s sometimes bizarre, steadily surprising adventures as a basketball nomad in Qingdao, a coastal city in China. When last I wrote of the former NBA scoring champion, his Double Star Eagles were on an epic losing streak to the start the season, which eventually reached 12 painful games. Things are looking better recently, though most of my main questions remain the same. I’m not one to sneer at an athlete on the way down, but his career in China so far makes an interesting story, and perhaps a sad one.

The Eagles look to extend a recent winning streak to six when they visit the second-place Shandong Flaming Bulls tonight, who are led by Pooh Jeter, Jackson Vroman and the Jordanian forward Zaid Abbas. (Any bells ringing? Jeter played at Portland — and his sister is the gold medal sprinter — and Vroman at Iowa State.) The game may even make CCTV 5 (NiuBBall note: it did, and Qingdao lost by seven). When I last reported back in December, McGrady (Mai Di, as he is called in this country) was about to break loose for 41 points, albeit in the last game of the big losing streak. Here’s how it has looked since then.

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