China Journal #2

by July 01, 2008

By Nick Rotunno

Hey, what’s up Slamonline? How’s life Stateside? In case you missed my introductory post, you can check it out right here. Sorry I haven’t posted in a little while, things have been busy around here. But before I get started I just want to say thank you to everyone who commented on my last post; I really appreciate the support. And I enjoyed the Hawkeye love, of course (moment of silence for Iowa City, please. That is one helluva college town that recently drowned in several feet of river water). Thanks everybody.

Anyways, Beijing is caught up in Olympic fervor. With the Games a little over a month away, everyone is busily preparing for the coming onslaught of athletes, spectators and journalists. This whole city is one clamoring mass of sweat-stained construction. Look in any direction—every skyline has a crane and every street has a bulldozer. Haggard workers smoke cigarettes on the side of the road, dirty faces that peer at you through black pearl eyes. They chop at the concrete with picks and shovels, widening roads, spreading thick asphalt. It’s tough travel anywhere. With Beijing traffic at its usual standstill and the streets a cratered mess, even the shortest of cab rides can turn into an endless journey. What’s worse, the weather here has been uncharacteristically soggy, turning everything to muck. I’ve been in China nearly two weeks, and it’s rained almost every day. The temperature has been cooler as a result, but the humidity is still awful.

Obviously, slippery conditions are not conducive to a lot of basketball, but I’ve still managed to get out there and play. Even when it rains overnight the courts are usually pretty dry by morning, so my fellow volunteers and I have been playing a lot of early ball. We even had an afternoon game when it was pouring, an absolute muddy mess, the ball dying in puddles and slipping out of wet hands. It was a lot of fun. We’ve also played a bit more with the Chinese. The other night we went out around twilight, hoping to find an empty court. We couldn’t. Those dedicated kids were out in force, and every space was filled. So, through a humorous mixture of grunts and hand signals, we managed to convince two of the Chinese guys to play with us.

My buddy Tom was on their team, and let’s just say he didn’t really enjoy himself. Things started off with a bang, though. Tom’s threesome jumped out to a quick 4-0 lead, with our new friends leading the way, hitting every shot. But then they turned cold. Real cold. I think these two fellas had been watching a few too many Jason Kidd highlights. They kept throwing underhand passes and trying ridiculous behind-the-back fakes, which would have been pretty cool, except that there just wasn’t a whole lot of talent between the two. I think they had potential, but they were trying some moves that were way out of their league. Tom grew frustrated and stopped trying; my team rolled to an easy 10-point victory. The two Chinese were amiable guys, and I think they enjoyed themselves. But it’s all about fundamentals, kids!

While the street skills may be sub-par at times, there is no shortage of basketball love. When I went shopping in a ritzy section of downtown Beijing, I was greeted by a block-long Nike billboard featuring Yi Jianlian flanked by two other Chinese Olympians. As I stared up at the gargantuan Yi, his piercing midnight eyes staring right back, I realized that the NBA has truly arrived in China.

Aside from advertisements, League jerseys are everywhere. I’ve seen the Rockets and Bucks, of course, but also Lakers, Celtics, Mavericks … a ton of ballers rocking the NBA threads. I even bought two pairs of hilarious socks, available at a local Tsinghua University convenience store. One gold-and-purple pair has the number 24 on the tube, with the name “Bryant” stitched above it. The other pair is Celtics-colored with KG’s name and digits. When I wear one of each, I’m a walking NBA Finals.

A couple days ago I was strolling to dinner when I noticed something odd on the courts: a full 5-on-5 game (halfcourt, of course), with every player wearing a Boston Celtics uniform. Not just jerseys, mind you, but the whole shebang—shorts and everything. One side wore white, the other wore green. Now, the outfits were not official NBA apparel, just the cheap knockoff stuff they sell everywhere around here, but it still looked amazing. Unfortunately, their fancy threads didn’t make the players any better, with countless shots clanking off the side of the rim. I watched for awhile, then I laughed very, very hard. Beijing can be a hilarious place sometimes.

I kept track of the NBA Draft via Internet, and I was pumped when the Baby Bulls took Rose at number one (did I mention I’m a Chicago kid?). It’s time for a new era in The Chi … with Rosey leading the way. Apart from my own excitement, however, the draft didn’t generate a whole lot of noticeable buzz around here. Even the big Yi Jianlian deal failed to make waves. Of course, my understanding of the Chinese language consists of about five words, so anyone could be having a basketball convo right in front of me and I probably wouldn’t catch it. But from what I could tell, not many people noticed the draft nor the Yi deal.

Speaking of Yi, I think the Chinese will have one helluva team if both Yao and Yi are able to play. That’s an intimidating frontcourt no matter where you’re playing, let alone on China’s home floor. And with this Dwight Howard injury popping up at an extremely bad time, the U.S. could be in for a battle when they take on the Chinese. There’s a rumor going around that the Chinese National Team will be practicing here at Tsinghua University—I’m going to look into it. Hopefully I’ll be able to catch a practice and see how good these boys really are, but it’s a long shot. Chances are the whole gym will be on lockdown. It’s worth a try, though.

With the Games so close it’s getting pretty damn exciting around here. I can’t wait for the basketball to begin, especially if I can catch a game in person (another long shot – those darn media credentials are elusive). But even if I can’t see Team USA live, I intend to watch every game at one of Beijing’s finest watering holes, get uproariously drunk on Tsingtao beer, and shout “USA! USA!” all through the night. I will be that American yahoo in a bar full of Chinese fans, and I will be magnificent. Rock and roll.

Alright, time for me to wrap this one up. I think I’m gonna go pick a scrap; every day more foreigners arrive at Tsinghua, and I want to get an international game going.