By Alan Paul

Two and half years ago when I first moved to China, I visited the large police station where visas are approved for the first time. I didn’t speak a word of Chinese and was blown away by the massive building, manned by serious looking officers in crisp blue uniforms and filled with thousands of Chinese and quite a few foreigners waiting in long lines to get their papers straightened out.

I was awed and humbled and didn’t speak a word of Chinese and decided not to speak unless spoken to. We were with the mighty Mr. Dou, WSJ driver and government affairs minister, and he cut to the front of the line and dropped our huge stack of papers onto the desk in front of a pretty serious looking police officer. The guy starts going through all the papers, stamping them, looking intently. Suddenly, he stops, reads closely, looks up at me, smiles and says, “I very like Slam.”

I couldn’t have been more surprised if he started singing a Muddy Waters song.

He asked me a few basketball questions — “what do you think of Yao Ming?” “Who do you think is the best basketball player in China?” Then we went and got in another line and he came over and talked to me some more. He was clearly a hoops fanatic.

I’ve seen officer Hoops every time I’ve gone in since and we’ve continued to talk ball. He is a nice guy. I gave him a Slam or two along the way and he asked me last year if I would ever play ball with him and his officer friends. I said sure, then I never heard form him again.

A couple of weeks ago we went in to get our get our 2008 visas and he wasn’t there. I was kind of sad. I asked the officer helping us where “the basketball officer” was and he laughed. He knew who I meant and said he was off that day.

A few days later Officer Hoops contacted the WSJ office manager and again said he’d like to play ball with me, gave her his number and asked me to call. Then he called me last Sunday morning and invited me to join him that afternoon. I couldn’t say no. I had to check this out.

So I grabbed a cab and headed down, having no idea where I was going. It wasn’t all that far away, a large park on the side of the bustling 4th Ring Road. It has been damn cool and I assumed we were going to an inside gym, but this was a large complex of outdoor courts. I aid 10 rmb (about $1.50) admission and entered. There were about 7 or 8 full courts – all of them running 4-4 half court games. Around the edges there were three or four soccer pitches as well. All of them were packed, with several hundred people out there huffing and puffing. I saw one other Caucasian guy on one of the pitches.

I have never been a great basketball player and I am way rusty. I have not played a game in years and not at all since I came to China. Also, these guys had been playing for a while and I was fresh out of a cab and thrown into the game for my first run in three or four years.

It didn’t help when I walked on the court and he asked me, “Can you dunk?”

I laughed but didn’t say, “These days I’m not even sure I can touch the net but 23 years ago under the guidance of my man Ice, I almost dunked a tennis ball at Davis Park. I did get it through the rim.” Instead, I just said, “Uh, no.”

“Oh,” he replied. “You just work for Dunk magazine.” Then he repeated that in Chinese to his buddies and they all laughed.

My first two shots were airballs.

The other guys were pretty good. I have watched enough Chinese pickup games to have a decent sense of what it would be like. These guys play all the time and they are good, savvy, solid players. The oldest guy was 40 and he was pretty good and strong as a bull – he took great delight in battling under the board with me and using his broad back to block me out. Most of the other guys were early 30s.

Their style of play, however, reminded me of old guys at the JCC or Y – savvy, understanding angles, tough, ability to hit bank shots and put in ugly looking jumpers and little runners. There was one big guy, on my team, probably about 6-5. He was wearing a Jordan warm-up suit and had a ponytail. In between games, he sat down and smoked cigarettes. He was pretty good but kind of lazy and prone to calling weak fouls. I didn’t know how to say “foul” in Chinese and don’t believe in anything but the most vicious hacks being called ion the playground anyhow, but they called them for me a few times.

Anyhow, it was fun. I got my contact knocked out with in the first few minutes, saved it, wrapped it in a taxi receipt and played on with one eyed vision, which didn’t seem to hinder me much. I gained steam as we played on and did fine. Got a lot of offensive rebounds and scored on putbacks, hit a couple of foul line extended jumpers – always my one and only sweet spot beyond two feet and passed and defended well enough to not humiliate myself.

The honor of Dunk magazine was defended and as I was limping away on a gimpy hamstring my new friend told me when to call him any time I need anything. Which is worth way more than an unstrained hammy.