An Opportune Time to Talk Chinese Basketball

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Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times writer Jim Yardley traveled from New Delhi to join former Sonics coach Bob Weiss for a discussion of Yardley’s new book Brave Dragons. On Tuesday February 21st at the Seattle Central Library, Weiss and Yardley discussed Bob’s experience coaching Chinese basketball, and Jim’s coverage of it as a expat journalist.

Yardley had been living in China for six years, writing about culture and politics as it related to the US, before he hit upon writing about basketball. (Chinese basketball teams are allowed two foreign players per team, and often those players are Americans.) “Basketball would be an interesting prism to talk about the US and China that didn’t feel like homework.”  It was a rich subject matter for Yardley, and a large part of the book deals with coach Bob Weiss. His fish out of water story, how he tried to impose his coaching style on Chinese players, and the many differences between the two cultures is largely what was discussed at the Koolhaas Library.

Weiss is gregarious, and listening to him speak about his experiences abroad was a delight. The two men prefaced their talk by expressing their deep respect and love for the Chinese people, and then they proceeded to talk about their surprises and missteps along the way.

Weiss and Yardley at SPL. Photo by Tom Mohrman

In the US, basketball is a game that showcases personal expression. In China, personal expression is discouraged. “They don’t want any players to shine,” says Weiss. This was something that immediately caused friction between Weiss and the existing power structure with the Brave Dragons. Weiss said, “I learned very quickly that one of the things I was going to have to do was build up their confidence.” This was to fight the deeply-ingrained sense of discipline, and the pervasive belief that the average Chinese player is physically inferior. Above all, discipline and defense are seen as virtues.”Bob treated them like professionals,” Yardley commented. It was a new experience for the team, and it caused concern for the team’s owner.

“They want you to come over there and do it the American way until it’s not the way they do it,” said Weiss.

In China athletes lives are rigorously controlled. Weiss gave the example of married players being required to live apart from their wives, and their intimacy with their partners being scheduled. According to Yardley, “sports is one of the least reformed aspects of Chinese culture.” He gave the example of an Olympic-level badminton player who always wanted to play basketball, but due to early physical testing it was determined that he wouldn’t be tall enough. It wasn’t his choice.

This talk was merely an overview. Along with the more sensational differences that they discussed, they also talked about their exceedingly warm memories of Chinese hospitality. Yardley discussed the billion person strong migration that is the lunar new year and all the madness that that entails, and simply the wild strangeness of living in a culture that seems wildly out of control while simultaneously having an overwhelming need to maintain control. The experience changed both of them, and their discussion of it was fascinating.

With the current sensation that is Jeremy Lin, Brave Dragons couldn’t have been released at a more opportune moment. This book is an ambitious look at the collision of cultures that happens when you have American athletes and coaches interacting with one of the most vestigial parts of revolutionary China. Read it.

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