BOOKS APRIL 11, 2012
by Jim Yardley
Knopf, 320 pp., $26.95
LAST SUMMER, WHEN a labor standoff imperiled the N.B.A. season, J. R. Smith was one of several American players who opted for a sure paycheck by signing to play in China. In his first and likely only season in the Chinese Basketball Association, Smith became an immediate sensation, leading the league in scoring, and bringing international attention to his team, the Zhejiang Golden Bulls, which plays its home games in Yiwu, a manufacturing city known, thanks to its principal export, as “sock town.” Though he piled up impressive statistics, Smith’s run in China ended with mixed results. All season he remained aloof from his teammates, separated by an unfamiliar language, and he ran afoul of management, who claimed that he had been faking injuries. Smith was named a league All-Star, but the Golden Bulls missed the playoffs, bringing Smith’s year abroad to an early end. He is back in the States now, having recently joined the New York Knicks for the remainder of the American season. In China, his former employer is withholding a third of his salary, claiming that Smith skipped too many practices.
J. R. Smith is not the only basketball mercenary to have done a tour in China, nor is his uneven experience a particularly unique one. A glance at the statistical leaders from the past season reveals a list of names, mostly American former collegians or benchwarmer pros, which might be faintly familiar to the casual fan. International players dominate the C.B.A., and landing a talented star can immediately improve the prospects of a middling team. Yet as Jim Yardley writes in Brave Dragons, a narrative of the year he spent with a team from the coal-belt city of Taiyuan, the league is wary of its foreign imports, limiting roster spots for internationals to two per team. Basketball is China’s most popular sport, a fact that creates, in itself, a kind of existential national crisis, since a more perfect version of the game is played elsewhere, in the United States. Chinese players, Yardley writes, “had been taught to regard themselves as defective,” and “considered themselves genetically less capable of excelling at sports that require a combination of power and speed.” Foreign hired guns raised the level of play in China, but they were also a constant reminder of domestic inferiority. Could there be another way to improve the Chinese game?
Yardley, the former Beijing bureau chief for the New York Times, introduces an unlikely innovator in Boss Wang, a blustery nouveau riche steel baron and owner of the bottom-dwelling Shanxi Brave Dragons, who looked to America not just for on-court talent, but for “a higher basketball consciousness.” He identifies that consciousness as Bob Weiss, who in 2008 became the first former N.B.A. head coach to be hired as a consultant in the Chinese league. It is a mark of the awe in which the Chinese hold American basketball that the bald and bespectacled Weiss—who during his American coaching days often appeared glum and slightly defeated—could overnight become Babu WeeSuh, the guru savior of the Chinese game. Yet upon his arrival Weiss is eyed jealously by reporters and fans in other cities, as if he were, as Yardley writes, “a fancy piece of new technology that had been shipped to the wrong place.”
It quickly becomes apparent that Weiss is, if not exactly in the wrong place, then certainly in a strange one. At the team’s first press conference, Boss Wang proudly introduces his new hire, before offering a bluntly uninspiring prediction: the Brave Dragons will finish tenth. Weiss is originally hired as a consultant, but is then suddenly promoted to head coach, before being demoted and then re-promoted at points during the season. It never becomes clear what his precise role is, other than being made subject, along with his players and staff, to the whims of the idiosyncratic owner. At times he shares power with a Chinese coach, Liu Tie, who is retained for his ability to impose discipline on the team. Boss Wang explains his organizational model to Yardley, saying that Weiss “is accustomed to dealing with lots of high-level principles. Our players are very young, very raw.” Weiss is occasionally incredulous, but mostly remains an affable and open-minded protagonist in a narrative that works, on one level, as a familiar fish-out-of-water story.
Weiss isn’t the only fish gasping for air. At point guard is Little Sun, an earnest Taiwanese player who becomes the object of disdain for his Chinese coach, who chides him for playing “Taiwan independence defense.” There is the Nigerian big man Olumide Oyedeji, who had done a stint in the N.B.A. and now is in China, as he explains, “looking for money and trying to explore different ideas and different mentalities.” Oyedeji is joined by another giant, Ruslan Rafaelovich Gilyazutdinov, a broken down and out-of-shape Kazakh whose brief tenure is defined by his favorite expression of dismay: “It was boooooolsheeet.” Into this scene at midseason arrives Bonzi Wells, a talented American with a long history of conflict with coaches and teammates, who at the time, was perhaps the biggest basketball star ever to play in China. In the sentimental Hollywood version, this ragtag group of has-beens, never-was, and eager rookies gunning for a shot at fame might have coalesced for a championship run. Yet for the Brave Dragons, the big time is somewhere else, and even tenth place seems unlikely.
They are all certainly a long way from the N.B.A. If the game on the court resembles a stiff and generally diminished version of basketball, then the surrounding spectacle, as Yardley describes with a gently mocking fondness, is the American stadium show magnified to odd proportions. Most Chinese gyms aren’t heated, so fans sit hunched in their winter coats, warming themselves by furiously banging together plastic “thunder sticks” and rising often to do an especially frenzied version of the wave. During breaks between quarters, there is a mad rush to the wings, where most everyone, it seems, lights up a cigarette, creating a large plume of smoke that slinks back into the gym. Cheerleaders dance in camouflage pants paired with slinky tops, while the Brave Dragons’s house D.J., Reng Hongbing, spins an eclectic East-meets-West mix of loud music that Yardley sees as a kind of art: “His experiments could be excruciating at times or, as I would come to appreciate, they could be small moments of genius.”
Reng Hongbing’s musical fusion is never replicated on the court. Bonzi-fever spreads through the country, but like the other fancy pieces of “technology” brought into the league, his talents are misdirected and mostly go wasted—he dominates the scoring but spoils the team’s chemistry. The other players stand around in awe of his talent, and no one dares ask him to pass the ball. A Chinese journalist would later write, “Bonzi is like a dish full of nutrients. The CBA is just not able to digest it right now.” Bob Weiss is largely wasted as well. Boss Wang is enamored by the freedom and movement of American basketball, and hires Weiss to teach his players to play more like the stars they see on television. Yet he never cedes control, meddling with the team during practices and games, and insisting on antiquated training programs notable for their emphasis on running. Here Yardley gets at an essential point about Chinese basketball, and about China and its interaction with the wider world. The Brave Dragons wanted to play American basketball, but couldn’t be too American. A team official explains to Yardley:
An American coach is like a seed of a very good American plant, an American species. But if he wants it to grow a flower in the soil of China, it is very tough. Other seeds from other countries have a hard time growing here.
Chinese basketball is a more physical game than its American counterpart—fouls followed by fights are not uncommon. Last year, a massive and quite terrifying brawl broke out between the Bayi Rockets, a C.B.A. squad, and the Georgetown University men’s team, which was visiting China in what was touted as a “goodwill tour.” Video quickly went viral online. Watching it, you notice a marked desperation on the faces of the Chinese players as they punch and kick and chase their American opponents around the court. Later, as Georgetown leaves for the locker room, fans begin throwing plastic bottles from the stands. The season that Yardley followed the Brave Dragons was also peppered with startling moments of rage. Boss Wang holds hour-long shouting symposiums following games, which the foreign players often tune out by wearing headphones. At one point, in a moment of blind anger, he even hits one of his players during a game. Fans, meanwhile, are convinced that the contests are corrupted by bought officials, in a system known as “Black Whistle.” At a pivotal moment in the Brave Dragons’s season, the home crowd throws “plastic water bottles, lighters, crumpled paper cups, even cell phones” onto the court to register its disgust. Perhaps what is missing, for everyone, is the essential ingredient of fun.
N.B.A. commissioner David Stern has been selling fun for decades, spreading hoops gospel throughout the world. In the years leading up to the Beijing Olympics, he began to put a plan in motion to create a branded pro-league in China, perhaps pairing with the C.B.A. But a series of cultural missteps and misunderstandings stalled the deal. China was perhaps the only frontier that Stern couldn’t cross, despite mutual interest and curiosity. The lasting image from Yardley’s entertaining, insightful, and extensively reported book, comes from an impromptu scrimmage involving Bonzi Wells. Shortly after his arrival, Wells received an odd request: the sixty-something Boss Wang wanted to play him in a pickup game. It happened in a closed gym, and lasted about fifteen minutes. Later Wells said that the owner wasn’t much of a player, but one thing stood out: “He was strong.”
Ian Crouch is a contributing writer about sports and culture at newyorker.com.