China Journal #5

by Nick Rotunno

Hey Slamonline, how’s the weather back in the States? In case you missed my last post, you can read it right here. Before I get going let me send a shout-out to my buddy David “McNasty” McNace, who supplied me with these great photos of Tsinghua. He’s a first-rate photographer and a damn good ballplayer to boot. Thanks, David.

It’s hot in Beijing today, as usual, but luckily we’ve had a lot of blue skies lately, a rarity here. Usually the air is thick with smog and dust, and at night the clouds are always low and looming. But the past few evenings I’ve seen the almost-full moon overhead, and even a star or two, so maybe the Chinese have been serious about improving their air quality prior to the Olympics. I certainly hope so, because I feel for any athlete who has to compete outdoors in this oppressive heat, drowning in humidity. Add smog to the equation and it’s a tough day to play anything. Believe me when I say that streetball here is a challenge.

Speaking of basketball, I’ve read that Yao Ming has made a successful return to the Chinese National Team. He scored 11 points in limited minutes as China rolled over Serbia in a first-round game of the Stankovic Cup (a big pre-Olympic tournament). Then, versus Angola (a game the Chinese surprisingly lost, 72-71), Yao was nearly his old self, dropping in 16 points and adding seven rebounds. Those are some very good numbers for a big man nursing a bum foot. His return is obviously good news for the Chinese team, and very bad news for the assorted frontcourts of the world.

As I’ve mentioned before, I think that with both Yi Jianlian and Yao healthy the Chinese will have a tough team – maybe even a team that can give the Americans problems. While the US frontcourt is certainly nothing to scoff at, those two bigs can really play. And don’t forget about the aged yet strangely dashing Wang Zhizhi, a skilled forward/center who scored 18 points against the Serbians and has been a staple on the Chinese National Team for decades. Though considered a huge bust when he played for the Dallas Mavericks, Wang still has NBA experience, and he will still get his buckets.

Of course, our guards and forwards are among the best in the world (and Kobe is probably the best player in the world, period), so while Yao and Yi may score in bunches I don’t think we’ll get beat. But that first-round Olympic game between the US and China is shaping up to be a barnburner, especially here in Beijing, where probably half a billion people will be watching at home. While I haven’t seen the basketball stadium in person yet, I have seen pictures, and the place looks gorgeous. Come game time it’ll be brimming with fans, a raucous atmosphere that could breathe life into an otherwise-outmatched Team China. I think the game is going to be tense and exciting, and I can’t wait to tune in.

Sadly, there are a few Olympic volunteers who actually get to cover basketball firsthand (those lucky jerks). A contingent of Tar Heels from UNC will be on-site for all the games, and every single one of them has tickets to the US-China first-rounder. I don’t know why the Iowa kids couldn’t get hoops; it’s not like North Carolina has some kind of storied basketball tradition involving several National Championships and one global icon … I guess I’m just bitter about it. But I do laugh at them for having to cover their arch-nemesis, Coach K – I find that hilariously ironic.

Now, I’ve been chatting a lot about Teams China and USA, simply because they are the teams I naturally have the most interest in. But of course, there are many teams that will be competing in Beijing this August, including several squads from far-flung corners of the globe that are just happy to be here. They may not have realistic medal hopes, but they are teams that could be spoilers.

As a buildup to its upcoming Olympic coverage, Chinese television has been airing a lot of old sporting events on a couple of channels that we get in our dorms. There has been a lot of basketball on lately, whether it’s a random NBA playoff game (yesterday I watched a Lakers-Spurs game from the ’08 conference finals), or a match from the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Not surprisingly, whenever there is an international game on, one of the teams is usually China. However, I have also been able to watch some lesser-known teams play ball, and it’s been very interesting.

I’ve noticed that Asian teams, in general, play an extremely up-tempo style of basketball, with half-court offense nonexistent and a run-and-gun mentality that reminds me of an undersized Phoenix Suns or Golden State Warriors. For instance, I was watching the Korean team the other day (I can’t recall if it was North or South), and every player was built like a guard: all medium height, lightning-quick, and capable of handling the ball. The low post was largely unoccupied or ignored, and the ball movement was crisp and fluid. Every time there was a defensive rebound, the point guard sprinted down court, either trying to score by himself or dishing to a teammate who would also drive. It was exciting ball, really a track meet, and the game never slowed down.

The Koreans played a lot like the Chinese fellas that we’ve been ballin’ with out at Tsinghua (at a much higher level, of course) – with that same drive-at-all-costs mentality and a recklessness around the rim that is really electric. I think it’s a style that has developed in the Far East because so many players here aren’t very tall, but they are very quick. Teams have adapted to the personnel they have available, and the effect is fun to watch.

Any team that plays with that kind of urgency throughout the game can be dangerous, I think. Naturally, there are still all the downsides of going small: no rebounding, no shot blocking, and a vulnerability to dominant inside players. But there’s always the chance to run somebody out of the gym, and don’t be surprised if a little-known team from a little-known place stuns one of the big dogs in Beijing. I’m definitely looking forward to watching teams from all over the globe play their own style. Luckily, Team USA can play up-tempo or slowdown, so no matter what anyone throws at us we should be prepared. Plus, we’ve got Coach K running the show.

Ok, time to wrap this one up. Thank you all again for your comments, hope you’re enjoying the posts. Expect some words on Chinese culture and sights next time. Until then, take it easy slammers.