Friday, December 14th, 2007 at 12:53 pm  |  22 responses

A little Chinese pickup ball

Alan Paul gets some action on the other side.

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.

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  • Jared

    Awesome write-up…way to defend DUNK

  • http://www.mybleedingfingertips.blogspot.com/ Myles Brown

    Im glad this wasnt the kind of story that the header lead me to believe it was. Not that theres anything wrong with that. Maybe you should’ve told them that you dont dunk cause youre “Old School”. Or that you were actually Paul Allen.

  • http://www.slamonline.com Ryan Jones

    Alan Paul is a family man, Myles. Not to mention a longtime favorite around the DunkDome.

  • http://www.mybleedingfingertips.blogspot.com/ Myles Brown

    I do enjoy the Old School. Very much so.

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jDNFKbNn7Xc SMK

    Myles likes stories with happy endings I guess.

  • Chukaz

    Dunk Magazine is the sh*t, man. It don’t get any better than Dunk Magazine.

  • http://slamonline.com Ben Osborne

    Go Alan.

  • Clement

    Nice writeup Alan…
    I never played pickup in China before but I played a lot in HK and Taiwan back in the late 90s. I remember in HK getting called for a lot of fouls just for stripping the ball clean as they took the phrase “hand is part of the ball,” but in reverse if that makes sense…

    The best was how I showed up on the court in Wan Chai’s Southern Playground, looking very much the foreigner (I was all Fab 5′d out with my baggies, shaved dome and black socks) and immediately, all the games stopped and a group of 5 immediately challenged me and my crew to a game.

    Good news was we didn’t have to wait for a game as everyone in the place stopped to watch us play. Bad news was we missed our first dunk attempt to which people in the crowd start yelling in Chinese the equivalent of “No NBA Showtime Here”…or something along those lines.

    I’m glad you had the chance to experience what it’s like to play pickup when you are truly the minority. It’s quite the experience; and it truly makes the point of ‘basketball being a common language.’

    Hope all is well and keep up with all the great articles. You should hook up with my boy Edcon when the Olympics rolls around in ’08. He was Kobe’s MC for his Supernatural Tour in HK and a reporter for TVB. He’ll be in Beijing covering basketball and is a really funny guy.

  • Can

    this just sounds like a lot of the pickup games here in Vancouver. Lots of chinese guys that like to play a very strange style to say the least. The strangest i’ve experienced was in Korea though. Never before have i seen so many banked 3 pointers (which i thought was weird until i stomached a KBL game on tv and saw all the “pros” doing it). I think all over asia they call tick tack fouls and love the pump fake, two dribbles, pass… and over and over again. There is some talent in Korea though.. dont let Ha Sung Jin (that 7’5 waste of space) fool you!!

  • http://wheeltoheal.blogspot.com Pat Is Five

    Not as weird as a little Serbian pickup ball. I was rolling through Belgrade last year, and its true they can all shoot.. but the rules are wack.

    -We played half court 3s, and there was no clearing the ball/taking it out. If you stole it or grabbed any defensive board (not just an airball), you went straight back up for the layup. So strange. AND after you score, you run out of bounds under the hoop and inbound without checking it up. Since my buddy is 6’5″, everytime we got a hoop, I’d just scamper out and toss up an alley, over and over. It felt cheap and weird.

    -Basically, the only time you check ball up top is after a foul is called. No clearing. No checking up after a hoop. Just runnin’ layup lines. So.. I learned that not only are Yugos the best shooters, but probably the best inbounders in the world too.

  • alan paul

    Thanks for all the feedback. Great tales. I def. need to keep this going. It felt good just to play on top of all the other unique aspect. I don’t know how I let it become such a long time between runs. I do play ice hockey and some soccer now. I just adapted to my surroundings.

  • mdshui

    I lived in China for a while last winter; and I know what you mean. You really can’t play any defense out there; it is so incredibly frustrating. But I really liked it because it made me feel like a superstar ’cause no one could stop me. Now I…am stopped. A lot. They tended to play really weak basketball; not bad, really, just…you know, weak; like VC. Lost of jumpers, way too much passing, no defense, and some of the lamest calls in the world. WIth that being said, it was still a ton of fun, and I got to know some of the guys pretty well.

  • MagicMike2k7


  • TC

    I have been playing pick-up balls in Taiwan for the last 2 years. I played in Shanghai once before and what Alan said about the cheap foul calls are very true. Most Chinese like to make pu**y calls and it’s just very strange and different from North American pick-ups. If they can adjust to a more physical style of play, then more asians will make it to the NBA.

  • http://whitehoteboysworld.blogspot.com white hot eboy

    DUNK RULES!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • gdon

    I don’t understand the fascination with Tracy McGrady in those parts of the world. (I’m from Hong Kong, but don’t remember much since I came to Canada when I was just two). Everyone loves T-mac… no matter how washed-up he is. -maybe that’s unfair, but he sure isn’t his Orlando-self.

  • snyper48

    Yo Pat here in Angola we play with the same rules as the Yugos and I always tell the americans I play with that our rules make the pick up game much more faster and exciting cuz in a blink of a eye you pass from playing offense to playing D and protect the basket

  • Pat Is Five

    snyper, you make an interesting point there. Being Asian myself I can say most people in Vancouver avoid the FOB (fresh-off-the-boat) runs… no concept of toughness, only ticky-tack calls and perpetual arm bars. Ironic, isn’t it.

  • Alan Paul

    You know, I was humiliated for that big guy calling such wussy calls but no one argued a single one which i thought was odd.. in america, these calls would have led to screaming matches.

    Snyper, that is an interesting point.. it’s all what you’re used to. We were tossing it back to the three line.

  • Winslowalrob

    I played up in Sichuan with some PE teachers who NEVER called fouls. These guys played the Y game you described with some of the highest basketball IQ I have ever seen live. We also played with some of their friends who were either cops or bosses (tons of guanxi basically) who batted me around like a rag doll. God those dudes were strong. Suffice to say America lost a lot of face.

    The ticky-tack foul thing is kind of bizarre. I think its a generational thing. If you are playing against cats over 28 who learned about the NBA by watching Jordan, they play rugged and never call fouls. If they are young guns watching T-mac, Wade, and Lebron (underrated floppers and generally whiny players) they call EVERYTHING. Its not an Asian thing, they just picked up the worst concepts from the NBA. I have been to some courts in VA and DC that have just as many players calling Ticky-Tack fouls, usually after 30 seconds of dribbling and a one-handed fadeaway trey attempt.

  • http://oytun.co.uk bootlace

    Haha, this description of Chinese ball is spot on. Their game is surprisingly effective at times because it is so bizzare. Like you cant anticipate what they are gonna do because their movement patterns and awkward releases/moves arent something ‘normal’ ballers are accustomed to.

  • http://stu@restorationministries.net stuart Lyon

    Alan Paul
    Are you from the infamous Paul brother clan in pitttsburg/penley park, mellon park,point park college and connie hawkins league. When is the article on Jeep Kelley coming? Sonjny Lewis?