NiuBBall’s slogan is “Basketball with Chinese characteristics.”
On Thursday night in Beijing, it beared its ugly face for the whole world to see when the Georgetown Hoyas and the Bayi Rockets engaged in a massive bench-clearing brawl midway through the fourth quarter of their exhibition game.
The big question of course is, why did this happen? It’s a question that cannot be answered simply — there is a lot that needs to be understood both about Chinese mentality, specifically towards foreigners, as well as the general Chinese on-court playing style and officiating. And then we need to put Georgetown into the equation, too.
To make it easier and more organized, we’ve posed general questions that we’ve received over the last few days and answered them in a way that will up to the million dollar of question of, how and why did this happen? First, let’s start with something easy:
Who was Georgetown playing?
The Hoyas were playing the Bayi Rockets, a professional team in the Chinese Basketball Association, which is China’s top professional basketball league.
Who are the Bayi Rockets?
Like we said, the Rockets are a professional basketball team in the Chinese Basketball Association. They are unlike any of the league’s other 16 teams because they represent the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), China’s military. Though they are far from gun-wielding, battlefield-charging soldiers, players are technically registered as such. Because of their affiliation with the Chinese military, they are not allowed to have any foreign players on their team.
If you think that would have an affect on the team’s success, think again. They are are the Boston Celtics and New York Yankees wrapped into one — before the CBA was established in 1996, the team had won a ludicrous 34 national championships. Once the professional league got rolling, Bayi rolled off six straight championships before finally losing to Yao Ming and the Shanghai Sharks in 2002. They’ve won two more titles since then, bringing their total number to eight.
Because of their storied history and all-Chinese roster, Bayi is arguably the most well-supported team nationally. They are lauded for their “Bayi spirit,” which, means as explained by veteran reporter for Basketball news China, Lin Kunyi, in the New York Times, “…you are tough, you eat bitterness and you don’t leave the court even if injured.” They are obviously a bunch that are very proud to be PLA and Chinese; important to keep in mind as we keep going.
Their most famous player is Wang Zhizhi, who became the first Chinese player to ever be drafted into the NBA when he was selected by the Dallas Mavericks in 1999, has spent his entire career with Bayi and still plays with the team today at the age of 32 (or whatever his real age is). Wang was not playing during the Georgetown game, however, because he is currently with the Chinese National Team in London.
Do on-court fights like this happen often in Chinese basketball?
They don’t happen infrequently. Both professional basketball and the Chinese Men’s National Team have been involved in a number of on-court fights the last few years. In October 2010, Team China got into a similarly nasty bench-clearing brawl against a Brazilian club team during a warm-up exhibition match for the Asian Games. In 2005, the team was engaged in an intense full-team fight against Puerto Rico after Yi Jianlian was fouled hard in the closing minutes of a game during the FIBA Stankovic Cup. In 2001, China and Lebanon had a major fight, too.
Professional basketball in China has also been marred by several on-court incidents. In 2009, Xinjiang Guanghui’s American forward, Charles Gaines, slapped Guangdong Hongyuan’s Du Feng the eff out during Game 2 of the CBA Finals. In 2008, Yunnan Bulls American forward, Gabe Muoneke, was attacked outside the locker room by several members of the Shanghai Sharks after their game was over, including National Team captain, Liu Wei, which came as a result of an on-court tussle with another Shanghai player. This season in the National Basketball League, China’s second tier professional league played in the summertime, saw a particularly nasty incident when Guangzhou FM’s American guard, threw a chair into the stands at fan after the fan reigned bottles at his courtside girlfriend during an on-court scuffle between the team’s other American import, Jartavious Henderson and a Chinese opponent.
Georgetown – Bayi was not an isolated incident.
Why have of these incidents involved either foreign teams or foreign players?
This is where the stone-cold facts end and opinion begins. Our opinion may be different than other people’s. But, since we’ve been living in China for over three and a half years (and naturally, playing and watching a lot of basketball, too), we think we’re entitled to have one.
Really, there’s two areas to really dive into here — the culture of Chinese basketball, and China’s history, government and other influences that shape that on-court culture. First, let’s get into the latter of the two, which in our opinion is key towards understanding the underlying beliefs and attitudes that may have shaped this particular incident.
From mid-19th century until 1949, when Mao Zedong founded the modern day People’s Republic of China and expelled every foreigner in sight, China suffered through what historians have dubbed “The Century of Humiliation,” the period of about one hundred years when the country was subjected to Japanese and Western imperialism. The effects of this period can still be felt today. The Century of Humiliation serves as the root of Chinese nationalism today, and it is something the Chinese Communist Party focuses heavily on to maintain support and stability within its borders. According to Liu Kang, a professor of Chinese cultural studies at Duke University, nationalism has probably “become the most powerful legitimating ideology” for the CCP post-1978, when Deng Xiaping re-opened China to the outside world.
As a result of the CCP’s reliance on nationalism to create Chinese unity, there exists a level of anger towards Western countries stemmed from a belief amongst some Chinese that China and its people are still stereotyped as weak and passive. To combat that thought, China must stand up to foreigners to reflect the strong and modern country it has become today.
That attitude that China needs to show its strength and ability to the foreign world is especially prevalent on the basketball court. Perhaps part of the reason can be explained by the education Chinese athletes’ receive. All of the domestic players who compose the CBA’s population, and the Chinese National Team as well, are products of China’s state-run sports system. Typically admitted into basketball academies from the ages of 11-14, children are taught hours upon hours upon hours of basketball, and hours upon hours upon hours of nationalistic propaganda. Remember: these are government run schools and since players are being housed, clothed, fed, trained and paid by the state, players are expected to be grateful to the system that raised them and to bring glory to China by winning on the court. Since national pride is built upon China’s history of being humiliated at the hands of foreigners, there is an especially large feeling amongst players when they play against foreign teams that they need to do anything they can to shed those Western stereotypes that label them as soft and passive.
Maybe it’s valid — when Yao Ming entered the league in 2002, a number of high-profile members of the media predicted that he’d be a bust, and when Yi Jianlian was working out for teams in the weeks leading up to the 2007 NBA, he was dubbed “Chairman Yi” by an especially influential member of the media. Maybe everyone had their own reasons — Yao was definitely a big unknown coming into the Draft and Yi probably deserved to be called out for not playing against other prospects — but, in China, many felt the two were being labeled negatively by Western press strictly because the two were Chinese.
So if you are an international team coming to China to play either against a college team, a professional team or the National Team, you need to know that the Chinese feel they have a huge foreign-placed chip on their shoulder, and they’re going to play extra hard as a result.
And, as we’ve seen in many situations, throw fists too, if they feel that’s what it takes to prove themselves.
So are Chinese teams specifically looking to fight foreign teams,?
No, I don’t think Chinese teams go into games looking to fight. But, I think they come into games prepared to fight if that’s what it takes to prove themselves as tough. And that mindset comes as a result of ingrained nationalistic sentiment based on China’s history of humiliation at the hands of foreigners.
Why do these fights happen, then?
This is where the on-court culture of Chinese basketball kicks in. The Chinese play a very physical brand of basketball. One reason why, as Sarah Kogod over at NBC Washington writes, is because some influential people in China, none bigger than big Yao himself, felt that the “non-contact style prevalent in the China Basketball Association was producing players who were not tough enough for the international game.” The result: An edict from the CBA to referees instructing them to essentially swallow their whistles and let teams destroy each other.
As one can imagine, the Chinese game has become a lot more physical, especially on the inside where body-contact is a staple. Four-year NBA vet, James Singleton, who played this last season with Xinjiang Guanghui, a dude known for being extremely physical down low, thought he was “gonna end up killing somebody” once training camp started after he went through a couple of practices with the team’s uber-physical big men. But as James and everyone figures out quickly when they start here, it’s not personal towards foreigners. That’s just the way they play.
But, when Chinese teams play against foreign teams — teams they feel they have to stand up extra tall to — they play a lot harder, which means they play a lot more physical. And in Bayi’s case, a CBA team that doesn’t get a lot of opportunities to play against foreign opponents in their home country, the desire to really give it their all against Georgetown maybe would have been greater than say, the National Team, who plays in international competitions all the time.
Yeah, but American teams play physical, too! Georgetown plays in the Big East, arguably the toughest conference in the country!
No argument from you on that one. But, the standards of what is deemed physical in China and in the States are quite different. And a lot of that has to do with the refereeing.
In the Big East, if you two-arm chuck somebody in the chest, you are going to be whistled for a foul. Same thing if you two-arm bear hug someone from behind on a rebound. Ditto for elbowing a dude in the chest. Etc, etc. In China, a lot of that isn’t called by design. So it’s very easy for foreign players to get really frustrated really quickly.
Well, fine. So the refs let them play here. But, come on — a 57 to 15 foul discrepancy? They’re only letting the Chinese play!
Referee bias is certainly another aspect that played into this incident. Beyond calling the game looser than their American counterparts, Chinese refs and the people who they report to think that any scenario that involves a Chinese team losing by 20 or 30 points a foreign team reflects poorly on the country. After all, does getting blown out send invoke an image of a strong China to the rest of the world? And does it create confidence within Chinese borders? So they often call more fouls against foreign opponents to keep the game close. I myself have played on several foreign basketball teams that have been the victim of brutally unfair refereeing designed to keep our Chinese opponents in the game. And yes, it’s frustrating as hell.
Plus, Chinese refs just aren’t very good to begin with. And it’s not just in international competition, but also in the CBA too. Chinese referees have a reputation for being poorly trained, under-qualified and corrupt, a toxic combination for anybody with a whistle hanging from their neck. Though they’ve never admitted corruption, the CBA readily admits it has a problem with the quality of officiating. To combat the problem, the league has hired foreign referees in recent years to stand in during the semi-finals and finals. It doesn’t solve the overall problem, however, since nothing is being done to train and develop high quality officials.
So why did things escalate into a bench-clearing, chair-throwing brawl? Don’t refs have any control over games?
They should have more control over games, but they don’t. In my opinion, the referees were the number one reason why this went down. On one end, you have Bayi playing what they think is globally accepted basketball, which in fact, by absolutely physically destroying Georgetown, they’re playing what many countries would label very dirty basketball.
On the other end, you have Georgetown, who is getting more and more frustrated until their emotions turn into anger by the fourth quarter. The Hoyas are a big-time NCAA program, a Big East team nonetheless — they’re not going to back down. And as Georgetown ups the intensity, so does Bayi, who feels that Georgetown is thinking these soft Chinese will just crack as the game gets tougher. So both teams are getting angrier and angrier with each other. And with no refs stepping in the middle to tide all of this rage building up, you get a very explosive situation.
The refs for sure should have gotten control of this game a lot sooner, especially considering that there were other smaller altercations earlier in the game, including one Bayi player going over to the Hoyas’ sideline to yell at Coach John Thompson III.
Instead, what happened by the fourth quarter was an understandably angry Jason Clark taking exception to what in essence was an attempted football tackle in the backcourt by Bayi center, Hu Ke. And after that — mayhem.
If you watch the video, its clear to see that Bayi rushes in with the intention to fight and not to break things up once Clark and Hu have their altercation. Is that common behavior?
It’s not surprising to me that Bayi went all-in they way they did. The same thing happened last year in the Team China – Brazilian club team fight. In the States, when you step to someone, there is typically a moment where the players involved ask themselves: “Do I really want to do this?” Most of the time, the answer is no. There’s a lot to lose by fighting, like a suspension, a fine or both and not a whole lot to gain beyond maybe “proving” yourself as a man or a woman. Which in the end doesn’t really matter if you’re suspended or kicked off the team altogether.
When it’s China vs. The World, though, in the Chinese’s eyes there is everything to be lost by backing down from a fight. Running away from a physical confrontation makes the players as Chinese appear weak. That’s a stereotype they’re trying to disprove, remember?
So when the two stepped to each other, Bayi took that as their time to step up and fight. And when they fight, Chinese tend to have a nasty habit of ganging up guys and throwing chairs.
Where was security? Why were fans chucking stuff at the Georgetown players?
Welcome to the world of Chinese security. Known as bao an’s, Chinese security guards are nothing more than mall-cops. They are all over China — they guard apartment complexes, school entrances, office buildings, parking lots and whatever else people think needs guarding. They have little to no training in how to actually keep their post safe. I’m not surprised at all that they didn’t get involved.
As for the fans, bottle throwing is very typical behavior in these types of situations. So typical in fact, that the CBA has banned the in-stadium sale of concessions to prevent fans from hurling things at the court during fights or when they’re unsatisfied with corrupt officiating.
Is there anything that could have been done to prevent this?
In my mind, the blame mainly lies with the in-game officials. It was their job to manage and control this very emotionally volatile game, and they didn’t.
But I also have another opinion that may differ from a lot of other people’s. And it may be one that people disagree with.
Georgetown came here to China on a Goodwill Tour. I’m sure they weren’t expecting an intense basketball game from their Chinese opponent. Instead of being told what basketball is really like here in China for a visiting foreign team — really physical, really corrupt and really intense — they were figuring out how to use chopsticks and being briefed by the U.S. State Department on what it means to represent the United States abroad. They had no idea what they were getting into.
They also, as Gabe Muoneke explains in his amazing, must-read post on HoopsHype (I’m serious, read it) about the Liu Wei/Shanghai Sharks post-game fight we mentioned earlier, gave Bayi reason.
Look, I know what happened. I know the refereeing sucked. I know they were being cheated. I know they were being punked. And I know that they were essentially being physically manhandled. But, the thing is — this is what happens here. They should have known a bit better. And as much as I can understand Clark’s exception to being nearly run over, he should not have stepped to dude like he was going to fight him. Because you know what? That is valid grounds in China to fight. That’s a reason. At the end of the day, its a stupid exhibition match whose final result means nothing in the grand scheme of Georgetown basketball. You play the game, you do your best to suck it up and get through it, and you go home safely.
Because China isn’t America. And Chinese basketball isn’t American basketball. Next time a team comes here, be it professional, college or international, I hope someone properly explains what “Basketball with Chinese characteristics” really means.
Jon Pastuszek can be followed on Twitter @NiuBBall or on Sina Weibo @NiuBBall