China Journal #4

by July 18, 2008

By Nick Rotunno

How’s it going Slamonline? I’m still kickin’ it in Beijing, where I’ve done three previous journals for you guys (check the last one here). I’m cooped up inside as I write this, with rain coming down outside (a better-weather view of the campus where I’m staying is in this picture)…

First off let me say I love the new SLAM Olympic cover. Seeing those three superstars side-by-side made me a little giddy—this team is going to be filthy, and I’m counting down the days until tip-off.

The excitement around here is palpable, and Beijing is in an uproar. Yesterday we took a closer look at the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube. We couldn’t get too close though; the sites are still on lockdown until the Games begin. But that doesn’t stop people from gawking, and it’s not just tourists—the Chinese also come out in droves. Seemingly everyone wants to see these venues. Visitors line the busy highway alongside the stadiums, cram together on an adjacent pedestrian bridge. They click cameras and point fingers, those hundreds of smiling faces that clamor for just a peek, for just a photo, a grasp at the shining realization of Beijing’s Olympic dreams. Exciting times in this storied old city.

Every day more Olympic hardware goes up—more statues, more buildings, new subway lines that will link all the venues. The Games are only three weeks away now, and with time running short the Chinese have stepped up construction efforts. The subway stop near Tsinghua University has been a dusty pile of rubble for a long time, but now the sidewalks are wider, the street is clearer, and the awful traffic congestion is beginning to improve. It’s still a crawl…but it’s at least a little better.

As for basketball, we played a couple of classics with the Chinese a few nights ago. Six of us went out to the courts around 7:00 pm, hoping to find an empty hoop for some threes. Of course, every nearby court was filled with players (and we didn’t want to walk farther in search of an empty one), so, as darkness began to fall, we organized a full-court game with a few guys who looked like they needed some competition. We divvied up Americans and Chinese into what we thought would be even teams, and then we started runnin’.

We sprinted back and forth down that dusty court, wheezed in the sticky summer night, threw stupid passes and turned the ball over countless times. It was a lot of fun, and before long it was full-on dark and we were still playing, barely able to see the ball or the rim. Shots rattled in and out; hard passes careened off our hands. I remember a clear two-on-one, dribbling through the darkness into the lane, throwing a blind behind-the-back dish to my buddy Matt. It was five feet in front of him, and when the ball sailed off onto another court all I could do was laugh out loud. The game had become ridiculous, lacking all forms of skill and coordination, but it was fun and frantic and nothing mattered. We had all enjoyed ourselves, and the smiles from the Chinese fellas told me they had too. Basketball diplomacy at its finest.

Last week we tried to round everyone up for a game, but we ended up with only four. So we decided to play against a group of three local guys shooting around outside our dorm. We had always wanted to play against the Chinese—our best vs. their best, an epic battle for international supremacy on a hallowed court in the capital city…or something like that. What we ended up with was decidedly less-than-epic. There was Tom, Nate, David and I; we substituted to keep it three-on-three. Then there was the Chinese: one very crafty little guard, an overzealous forward with an awful shot, and a timid “big” man who rarely tried to score.

It was over before it began. We were quicker, better shooters, and our ball movement was superb that afternoon (remember now, we’re not really that good, we’ve just had some sub-par competition). The one bright spot for the opposing team was their shifty guard. He played like a lot of the better Chinese players I’ve seen around here: quick and agile, undersized but very good at the smoke-and-mirrors stuff, the ball fakes and twisting layups. It seems like what the Chinese may lack in size they make up for in guile. But he couldn’t do it all, and we took advantage of porous defense and our height, passing our way to a pretty easy victory. We shot well and made some pretty little backdoor plays that made us look like seasoned vets. It was fun to roll, of course, but we weren’t trying to show anybody up … it just kind of worked out that way.

The game ended like they all do: informal hand slaps, a quick “xie xie” (thank you). We never bother with names because I don’t think we could ever remember them. So we just leave, go our separate ways and lead our separate lives, two wholly different groups of young men brought together by a mutual love of one awesome game. The magnetic, remedial powers of basketball.

That’s one reason why I think the Olympics are so cool: it is an overblown version of that short basketball game we experienced at Tsinghua. No matter what may be happening in the world, every two years dozens of countries peacefully assemble for competition. Wars are forgotten, if only for a few days. Ancient animosities are overlooked. Vibrant cultures intertwine on courts and fields. All that matters is athletic greatness – politics and economics be damned. It’s a beautiful thing, when it’s done right. Of course, there are some who would use the Olympic Games as a vehicle of terror, or as a way to prove some kind of point. But hopefully, here in Beijing, there will only be peace. Hopefully the Chinese will stage an Olympics that is not tainted by ulterior motives, nor jeopardized by socio-political zealots. Hopefully these Games will only be beautiful.

I’m glad to be here, and I can’t wait to fill you in when the torch is lit. Keep working on that J, fellas.

Photo courtesy of David McNace