Big in China
SLAM 147: Experiencing China’s passion for hoops firsthand.
When I moved to China in 2005 I really didn’t know just how relevant basketball would be to my life there. It ended up being central to many things – just like always.
Basketball has been a sustaining force in my life for as long as I remember and there was something incredibly reassuring about keeping it so central in Beijing, where so much else seemed to be turned upside down.
I’ve been writing for SLAM since 1996 and it’s in my blood. It’s part of who I am – and that doesn’t change even when you move halfway around the world. But I never could have anticipated it opening as many doors there as it did. The power of SLAM is vast and wide.
Thanks for your interest. Check out the story below. Hit me up with any questions. And, of course, buy my book here.–Alan Paul
This story is adapted from Big In China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising A Family, Playing The Blues and Becoming A Star in China (Harper Collins). Available now in all formats at all retailers. Copyright 2011 by Alan Paul. For more information, please visit alanpaul.net.
by Alan Paul / @AlPaul
When I moved to China in 2005, I wasn’t sure what I’d be doing, other than exploring my new home. We were going because my wife had a great job offer with the Wall Street Journal and I craved adventure. But I was leaving behind my beloved gig as a SLAM Senior Writer, or so I thought. SLAM opened a Beijing bureau, with me as its chief, as a favor, so I could get a sought-after journalist credential. I wasn’t sure how relevant basketball would be to my life in China, but it didn’t take long to realize that being a hoops insider there could not only open some unexpected doors, but also be a lot of fun.
Days after arriving in Beijing, I was hiking the Great Wall with Tracy McGrady, in town to launch a new shoe. He was at his peak, a five-time All-Star coming off a season of 25.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg and 5.7 apg. Here, he was a true superstar because every Rockets game was televised due to Yao. I hiked the Wall by T-Mac’s side, trailed by a pack of Chinese journalists. I chatted with him and his pack of friends and trainers and watched him bargain (poorly) for souvenirs. I was there when he insisted on climbing up on a musty camel for a short ride—the only time I ever saw anyone do so even after I visited the same place and passed the same animal dozens of times. I had been covering basketball players for a decade but had never witnessed anything quite so intimate and silly; back home, we stumbled all over ourselves to get the kind of inside access that was now just falling in my lap.
I also learned a lot riding around with a van full of adidas execs, who explained that the Chinese market was a battleground. This is why McGrady’s visit to Beijing was preceded by a visit from LeBron James and followed by Allen Iverson, and why giant billboards of all of them loomed over the city. Our little convoy was escorted through the city’s slow-moving traffic by police cars and motorcycles with flashing lights, evidence of McGrady’s—and the NBA’s—status in China.
A few days later, I visited Beijing’s massive central police station with Mr. Dou, the Journal’s Beijing driver and fixer. Like most people in his position, Dou was at first intimidating, a former military man who was loyal, efficient and skilled in maneuvering the Chinese bureaucracy. It felt good to have him on our side, even if he seemed a bit puzzled by me, as a male tai tai (lady of the house), who was married to the boss and didn’t have a job.
We were at the station to secure our long-term visas. My approved journalist credentials as SLAM’s Beijing Bureau Chief were attached to my application. I was intimidated by the long lines of people waiting behind rows of desk-bound, uniformed officers, but Dou walked directly to the front and dropped our papers in front of an officious- looking cop. The officer began reading through the papers, marking every other page with a chop, the ink stamps without which nothing is official in China. Suddenly, he stopped and looked up at me. I braced myself for whatever the problem was.
He smiled and said, in rough English, “I very like SLAM.”
I had been a SLAM senior writer for a decade and knew that the magazine had die-hard readers. But I did not realize how far its reach extended. I thanked him and he asked, “Who do you think is best Chinese basketball player, after Yao Ming?”
I had no idea: “That’s what I’m here to find out.”
Mr. Dou watched this conversation with the shocked expression of someone listening to cats chatting. He and the officer had an animated discussion, and Mr. Dou looked at me and chuckled. Something had changed in the way he regarded me; I had earned some face.
I saw this cop, whom I nicknamed Officer Hoops, every year when I renewed my visa and we always talked ball. It made the visits easy and fun and once greased the wheels despite some mistakes on the application. Afterward, he ran after me and asked me if I would join him for a run some day. “Sure,” I said. “Just call me.”
Hoops called on a Sunday morning a few weeks later. I jumped in a cab and showed the driver the address Hoops had texted me. It was winter and I assumed we were going to a gym, but we pulled up to a large complex of outdoor courts, each running 4-on-4 half-court games, ringed by a few packed soccer pitches. I paid 10 rmb (about $1.50) admission and entered.
My game—mediocre at its peak—was rusty, as I had not played in the two years since arriving in China. I walked on the court and everyone stopped to check me out. I knew what they all were thinking: “This is the American basketball guy?”
“Can you dunk?” Hoops asked.
I laughed but didn’t say, “I’m not even sure I can touch the net, but 23 years ago under the guidance of my man Ice, I squeaked a tennis ball through the rim at Davis Park.”
I just said, “Uh, no.”
“Oh,” he replied. “You just work for Dunk magazine.” Then he repeated that in Chinese and everyone laughed.