China Journal #6

by July 31, 2008

by Nick Rotunno

What’s new SLAMonline? I apologize for not writing much over the past couple of weeks; things are really starting to get busy in Beijing. In case you missed my last posts, you can read all of them right here.

All of us volunteers have been working hard at our respective venues, training daily, learning the numerous nuances of Olympic flash quote reporting. The Games are only a week away now, and we have to be ready for action. Personally, I feel prepared for what’s to come.

As for Beijing, this city is ready to burst. The Chinese are scrambling to complete construction on all the venues, roadways, security stops, subway stations, etc. It’s really a chaotic scene around here, but Beijing has never looked better. The roads are freshly paved and newly widened; in fact, many of the streets have a brand new lane, meant only for Olympic traffic. The lanes are marked with the Olympic logo: five brightly colored rings, painted fresh on black asphalt. Every light pole flies a “Beijing 2008” banner that snaps in the smoggy breeze, while the ubiquitous slogan “One World One Dream” is plastered on everything from buses to billboards. There are even new lanterns hanging along sidewalks and roads (those bulbous red ones you see at every Chinese restaurant in the States), as if this city needed to look more Asian.

Olympic volunteers are everywhere. We’re easy to spot: loud blue shirts with wavy stripes and white collars, yellow credentials dangling from our necks – nice and ambiguous. For every foreign volunteer there are probably twenty Chinese; the tennis venue where I work is overrun with snappy locals who are always brimming with enthusiasm. Speaking of the tennis venue, it’s really a beautiful place – row after row of well-kept courts ringed with white seats, just about ready for competition to begin. Center court is the crown jewel, where all the biggest matches will take place, the games that will decide who wins gold.

Even though this has nothing to do with basketball, center court warrants a description. It’s designed to look like a flowering lotus, with grandstands that sprout from the concrete like petals, self-supporting despite their steep 50 degree angles. Inside, the arena is illuminated by diamond-shaped spaces between the grandstands, which funnel sunlight onto the blue playing surface. The effect is a naturally lit, intimate venue that should be a wonderful place to watch tennis. Altogether the stadium holds 10,000 people, and the whole building is a well-conceived architectural accomplishment – not surprising, considering that most of the Beijing Olympic venues are extraordinarily unique.

Anyway, that’s where I’ll be working during the Games. But, since this is a basketball blog, I suppose I should talk a little about our favorite game. I have some unfortunate and very sad news to report. A team of University of Iowa Hawkeyes lost a heartbreaker to a scrappy bunch of Tigers from the University of Missouri on Sunday night, 21-17. The game was a hard-fought battle, and it was really a mess. We played full-court with a partially deflated ball, and the turnovers came in droves. Never before have I seen two teams so desperate to beat themselves. Both sides clanked shots and threw errant passes, dribbled like morons, made complete fools of ourselves. It was ugly, and when the last shot went in (a ridiculous three that banked in from the top of the key), I walked off the court in disgust, my shirt drenched in filthy Tsinghua sweat, my pride trampled and left to die on that dusty court in Beijing.

It was a difficult loss to swallow. In fact, it’s still a lump in my throat, which is why we’ve scheduled a rematch for tomorrow. I’ll let you know how it goes, but I’ve already pulled a LeBron and guaranteed victory. Bold, you say? Indeed.

On to happier thoughts. I’m happy to see that Team USA is looking strong, with that resounding win over Canada and a successful training camp in Las Vegas. I know that the team has arrived in Asia for their big pre-Olympic swing, but I haven’t heard much else. If there’s any way to sneak out to a practice, I would love to watch one, but unfortunately that kind of thing requires some pretty serious credentials … (I may need your help with this one, SLAM).

The more I look over Team USA on paper, the more excited I become. This is a team destined for gold, or so it seems. Just look at these guys. We have Kobe: the Black Mamba, the cold-blooded assassin. He’s the best player in the world; an absolute killer. Then there’s LeBron – the unbridled athleticism, the raw power, a terrifying player to guard. I’m glad to see his ankle should be alright. Then of course there’s the floor general, J. Kidd, one of the smartest players I’ve ever seen – I can’t wait to watch him run the show (by the way, you’re a damn good team when Chris Paul is your backup point guard). And we can’t forget about Carmelo. He’s a filthy international player, smooth as jazz in a New Orleans speakeasy, and I love his game. Add Michael Redd to the mix, the pure zone-buster with the liquid left hand … it’s over. Pop the champagne and plan the parade, boys and girls, ‘cuz this one’s in the books.

Okay, I have to be cautious now. Nationalistic exuberance is all well and good, but sick as Team USA is, there are some squads out there who can ball. Dirk’s obscene talent makes the Germans an automatic dark horse. I’ve talked at length about the Chinese and their ability to make an impact (although I must admit, their guards will be their downfall). Manu and the Argentineans can play; they’re a worry. And Spain, with the Gasol-Calderon-Rubio trio, is certainly a favorite to medal (by the way, Rubio is ridiculous – YouTube him right now). There’s also a host of other countries hoping to make a name for themselves in Beijing. The Olympics are the world’s biggest stage, and you never know how good a team can be when the chips are down.

But still, there’s something about this version of Team USA that makes me think our gold medal drought is about to end. It goes beyond mere talent. Maybe it’s the reserved but fiery temperament of Coach K, a man who simply hates being beaten. Maybe it’s the audacious golden guarantee that LeBron threw down. Or maybe it’s the look in all their eyes, especially Kobe’s, the look that says we’re done coming in third, coming in sixth, we’re done with upsets and spoilers and semifinal losses that send us home too early. We came to play, and we came to win. Yea, I like that look.

Alright, before I let you go, I have one more thing to say. I understand that because my posts are grouped under the “streetball” heading, some of you may be disappointed with my content. I apologize for this. I’m not exactly hitting the streets looking for the best ballers in the city; I’m just playing some recreational ball and enjoying the sights and sounds of pre-Olympic Beijing. If you’re looking for Hot Sauce and crossovers, this may not be the blog for you. But if you want to know what playing with some Chinese students is like, with a lot of extra stuff thrown in, then stay tuned. This place is going to get real interesting come August 8th. Thanks fellas; I just don’t want to disappoint anybody.

Ok, time to get ready for a rematch. Talk to you soon.