Counting down in Beijing

Obviously Alan Paul remains SLAM’s main man in China, but AP is so big now, with his Wall Street Journal bylines and blog, that we need a little back-up for this summer, when the sports world’s focus will be on the Olympics. We’re not big on some of the Olympic events, but the basketball alone should be extremely compelling. Thankfully, Nick Rotunno is over there now and he’ll be keeping us up to date on both the general vibe in China and some specific coverage of Team USA. Who’s Nick Rotunno? We’ll let his first entry explain. Stay tuned to Slamonline all summer long for more from Nick.

Hey, what’s up SLAM readers? My name’s Nick Rotunno, former University of Iowa student and current 2008 Summer Olympics volunteer. I’m writing from Beijing, the capital city of the People’s Republic of China. For the next two months I’ll be living in this sweltering hot, vibrant, beautiful city, bringing you some firsthand accounts on what it’s like to play street ball in China.

I’m staying at Tsinghua University until September 1, one of the best universities in all of China, living large like a college kid in a run-down dormitory with a community bathroom and a grungy old shower. Right across the street is a big complex full of basketball courts, around 20 of them, and the kids are runnin’ every day. Soon as I get settled in, I’ll be out there playing ball.

Once the Olympics get rolling on August 8, I’ll be spending a lot of my time watching tennis matches, interviewing athletes, and jotting down flash quotes. But I won’t forget about bball, and hopefully with a little luck (and if SLAM pulls some strings), I’ll be able to see Team USA live in living color. Be it a practice, game, or just bumping into Kobe on the street, I’ll be keeping you up to date on the Olympic basketball tournament and, especially, Team USA.

Well, that’s me, and that’s what I’ll be doing here in the Far East. So far, my first impressions of Beijing have been a mix of pros and cons. This city is a very muggy, sweaty place, with dingy clouds of smog hanging in the air, grimy run-down buildings and millions of wandering pedestrians. There are countless skyscrapers, fast-food joints, and basketball courts. Yao Ming is everywhere. So are bicycles, along with carefree taxi cabs that careen through the streets with reckless abandon, often veering just in time to avoid a man walking in the street. But Beijing does have its own charms, and you can feel the pulse of all these people here working, playing, building, the hum of a city that never rests, that is always on the move. It’s an exciting town.

As for the Olympic sites, Beijing has truly outdone itself. I drove past the Beijing Olympic Stadium yesterday, where track and field along with the opening/closing ceremonies will be held. This is the building most people call the Bird’s Nest, and it did not disappoint. The structure is an architectural marvel: a twisting, twining mass of steel supports that all mesh together into a big “nest” of metal – forming the exterior walls of the stadium. You have to see it to believe it; just type in “birds nest” on Google and you’ll find it. Amazing stuff.

I took a walk around campus yesterday morning, and I realized just how many basketball courts there are here. Close to 40, and I haven’t even seen the whole campus. There’s a big park near my dorm with a ton of courts, and then a little farther on is a giant patch of concrete that looks like a parking lot, bristling with hoops, around 17 full courts in all. Just past those, across the street, are another three sets of fenced-in courts, nine in all. There’s so many, it’s mind-boggling.

Basketball is clearly huge here, but it’s certainly not the only popular sport. Across the way from my dorm are several tennis courts; just past that a full-size soccer field. Every morning the kids are up playing something – I looked out my window at six in the morning yesterday and I heard a basketball bouncing. It’s ridiculous how active everybody is, shooting hoops in the shimmering heat of a smoggy morning, or chasing down a soccer ball in the orange twilight. Even on weekends they’re up early. No wonder everyone is thin; I’m probably the fattest guy around, and with the food they serve up around here, that’s not going to change.

I’ve played in my first couple of pick-up games already. The first time I went over to the courts, I was there maybe five minutes before this wiry cat came bobbing up to me. He was tall and lanky, with a scraggly patch of beard sprouting from his chin. He asked in very good English if I wanted to play with him and his friends. I said why not, so we gathered around the court and they motioned which team I was on. The language barrier was negligible at this point; we all spoke the language of basketball.

The game began in earnest: half-court, four on four, a quick moving, pass-first kind of game that was enjoyable despite the morning heat. These kids could play. They all wore the same jerseys (except one, who had a white Rockets jersey on – go figure), and when I asked if they played together on a team, they answered yes. Then I asked the first kid I met how old they all were; he said he was old, 26, and the rest varied in age but the youngest was 20. I was surprised by that. For all I knew they were in high school, they all looked so young. All good shooters, there was one player who was far better than the rest. He wasn’t on my team so I didn’t talk to him much, but he was damn good, a pure-low post presence who could also handle the ball and drive hard. His footwork was phenomenal, some of the best I’ve ever seen in a pickup game. That guy scored in bunches.

As for my own meager contributions, I missed a lot more shots than I hit. Maybe it was the jet lag or the jungle humidity, but for whatever reason, I was off my game. Now I’ll be the first to admit that my basketball talents are nothing special, but that morning I was particularly torrid. I wish I had had a better showing; after all, I am an ambassador of the American game in this far off land. Unfortunately for me, the Chinese definitely outplayed the American. We wrapped up after two games (at least I think it was two – I couldn’t tell the score), and I walked back to the dorm dripping with sweat and heaving for air. Tough conditions: probably close to 85 degrees by that point, and suffocating humidity. The Chinese didn’t seem to mind the heat.

A few notes on how the games were played: like I said, it was half-court, four-on-four. Take out past the three-point line, just like in the States. The traveling rule was also interpreted liberally, another American characteristic. But there were several differences. Make-it-take-it was the norm, and there were no “checks” at the top of the key. As soon as the offensive team grabbed the ball, it was time to play. I had to get used to that. More than once I wasn’t prepared defensively after a made basket, expecting a lull while the ball was checked. It was easy to get burned. Also, when the ball goes out of bounds, there is a pass-in from the sidelines, rather than just setting it up at the top like we do back home. The court was international, of course, with that flaring wide lane and lengthy three-point line. From what I’ve seen, not many people pop three’s. It’s mostly get the ball and drive, then kick, then drive again. Your defense has to be in top shape.

Anyways, this post is getting long, so I’ll hit you up later. Hopefully in the next few days I’ll get my jumper flowing. I’m gonna go enjoy the A/C for a little while.

Anyways, that’ll do for my first post. Hope you enjoy reading about my basketball experience here in China, along with a little dash of Beijing culture and society thrown in. I better go work on my chopstick form, or I might starve out here. Take it easy fellas.