Q+A: Jim Yardley
Author on Yao, Lin and the Chinese basketball system.
by Alan Paul / @AlPaul
Jim Yardley was my friend and neighbor throughout the three and a half years I lived in Beijing. We ate, drank and hung out together often, usually sharing our tales of adventure. As the New York Times Bureau Chief, Jim knew the country inside and out, as evidenced by the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting he shared for an in-depth series on the Chinese legal system.
There were only a couple of small slices of Chinese life I felt I understood better than Jim—and one of them was basketball. I was, after all, SLAM’s man in China. So I was surprised when he told me that he would be writing a book—about basketball in China. I was not, however, the least bit surprised to realize that my friend had penned a masterly work when I read the final product, Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing.
Jim Yardley does not do half-way and he immersed himself in the Chinese Basketball Association, in the process capturing much of what makes China so wonderfully contradictory—vibrant but stilted, incredibly modern but remarkably moribund.
Jim immersed himself in the subject, spending a year with the Taiyuan Brave Dragons after the team—the laughing stock of the CBA—hired ex-Hawks and Sonics coach Bob Weiss, the first former NBA head coach to take over a Chinese squad. Careful SLAM readers will recognize the Brave Dragons as the dysfunctional team God Shammgod played for when I profiled him in 2006.
Brave Dragons is a must-read for any hoops fan with a hankering to understand what is and isn’t happening in China.
SLAM: I was struck by the way you very clearly and rightly wrote about how Chinese players and fans have this ingrained sense of athletic inferiority—that they can’t be as good as Americans. Does that help explain the real power of Yao Ming?
JY: Yao Ming’s success in the NBA was huge in bolstering national pride, not only because he was so big—thus defying the clichés about Chinese being small—but because he became an All Star. Chinese love winners, and Yao was a big winner. But probably more interesting is what is happening right now with Jeremy Lin.
Lin has roots in China but his family is from Taiwan. He is 6-3—tall but hardly a giant—and is disproving all the preconceptions held by many Chinese, including coaches, about their own physical inferiority. I’ll never forget listening to a coach tell me that Chinese players were the equivalent of substandard raw materials, as far as producing basketball players. The best way to improve them, these coaches argued, was through relentless and repetitious drilling.
Lin is proving that someone with an Asian heritage can physically compete, even dominate, against the very best athletes in the world. Of course, Lin is American, and, without sounding jingoistic, I don’t think that should be discounted; he grew up in an environment where he was better able to develop his individual skills. His parents also sound like they were incredibly supportive. And, most of all, Lin sounds like a very determined guy, and, in the end, talent rarely rises without determination, too.
SLAM: I don’t think that people who haven’t spent time there could really understand how deep that feeling is. I believe that Lin could be a transformational player since he is essentially normal sized (compared to Yao).
JY: You are absolutely right. The whole Chinese basketball system is consumed by the search for another Yao, or at least for other big players. Lin forces that equation to be changed. There are plenty of 6-3 players in China. But why aren’t they developing the way Lin did by growing up playing in the United States? I think that question will resonate and, I hope, will help change the typical Chinese training methods.
To some degree, it is already happening. Some of the best young players are being identified and sent to the USA, Australia and Europe for coaching and conditioning.
SLAM: One of the oddest things about watching Chinese basketball is how lazy the players seem to be. Once you start to understand it, it becomes obvious that that’s only because it’s a defense mechanism because they have to work so hard—six days a week, 50 weeks a year. The insanity of this is obvious to every foreign observer. Do you think it is becoming more apparent to people within the system?
JY: You’ve made a crucial observation about the vicious cycle of how Chinese players are trained. They practice roughly 11 months a year, living as a team in a dormitory, often drilling and running two or three times a day. Players get worn down, also because most teams follow outdated weight lifting regimens and offer mediocre support from medical trainers.
So, yes, many players learn to loaf out of pure survival. They want to extend their careers, which means a certain amount of self-preservation is required. I do think many coaches are aware of this, but their response, usually, is just to push players harder in practice. Many Chinese coaches believe that players have to drill constantly, and practice daily, over months, to improve. It is pretty self-defeating actually.
The good news, though, is that many teams are starting to change, and these are the teams that are winning. The dominant team in the Chinese league—the Guangdong Southern Tigers—also happens to be the most enlightened, as far as training techniques.