Big in China
SLAM 147: Experiencing China’s passion for hoops firsthand.
They were all savvy, solid players. There was one big guy on my team, about 6-5, with long black hair pulled into a ponytail. He was wearing a black Air Jordan tracksuit and in between games, he headed over to the chain link fence to sit down and suck down cigarettes. There was one other guy about my age—40—who delighted in bodying me up and battling for boards.
The other guys were a decade younger, but their games reminded me of countless old guys I’ve played against at JCCs and Ys. They were awkward but understood angles, were tough, could hit bank shots and put in ugly looking jumpers and little runners. The big guy was skilled but lazy and kept calling weak fouls that would have led to raging arguments at an American playground. I didn’t know how to say “foul” in Chinese and don’t believe in anything but the most vicious hacks being called on the playground anyhow, but others called a few for me.
My first two shots were airballs and my left contact lens got knocked out, so I played with one eye. But I gained steam and defended the honor of, ahem, Dunk magazine, passing and defending well, getting a lot of offensive rebounds and put-back baskets and swishing a few foul line jumpers—my one sweet spot. The sore hamstring was well worth it; especially since Hoops told me to call him any time I needed anything.
The power of SLAM presented itself in the unlikeliest of times and places. My Chinese teacher Yechen was a quiet intellectual who would eventually leave Beijing to become a monk on a holy mountain. He once took me to an ancient Buddhist temple deep inside one of Beijing’s maze-like hutong neighborhoods.
We found it after a long stroll, trailed by yapping street dogs at our feet and an army of cats silently hopping along the roofs above. Small kids in padded winter clothes peered at us from behind their parents’ bikes and doorways. I felt a million miles away but closely observed. At the entrance of the peaceful little temple, an old man sat inside a ticket booth. I looked over his shoulder and laughed; the walls were plastered with SLAM posters of KG, Kobe and LeBron.
“Do you like basketball?“ I asked in Chinese.
“Oh yes, very much,” he said.
“I work for that magazine,” I said, pointing. He smiled and waved me in.
NBA players kept coming to China. I interviewed TJ Ford in the shadow of a giant statue of Chairman Mao when he was visiting a sports university for an adidas camp. There, I also watched Dwight Howard dunk on a teenaged Zhou Peng, then the camp MVP, now a member of the Chinese National Team. The blurry video I took of this moment just to show my friends at the SLAM Dome now has over a half-million YouTube hits, which keep coming.
The ultimate basketball moment came during the ’08 Olympics. I was in the Wukesong Arena for almost every minute of the Redeem Team’s triumphant march to Gold, covering the games for NBC.com and SLAM. Before the first game, Officer Hoops called.
“Hello,” he said. “Is there any way you can get me a ticket to see the USA basketball team play? It is my dream.”
These were the most sought-after tickets of the Games, but I promised to try. When a friend told me that he had an extra pair of tickets hours before the game against Greece, I called Hoops right away.
“Oh my God,” he said. “I have to work and cannot get out of it. Thank you so much. Some day I will see these guys play in person.”
A few months later, the Warriors and Bucks were at the same arena, for the annual China Games exhibition. I was leaving Beijing in two months and was feeling sentimental about what was likely to be my last China hoops experience. I heard someone call my name as I walked through the hallway, just around the corner from where I had watched President Bush wish the US team well. I looked around blankly.
“Alan! Over here! It’s me, Wang!” Officer Hoops stood waving by the edge of the court. He was wearing an entirely different uniform; the military style greens of the Public Security. He was smiling broadly under his peaked cap.
“I switched positions with a friend for this game,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “I am finally living my dream of seeing an NBA game in person.”
Now I could leave China in peace. The world seemed right. I sought out my friend before leaving and made sure I said a proper goodbye.