Sunday, August 5, 2012

On "Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, An American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing"

I discovered this book in reading an article in the NY Times Magazine ("Away Game," Feb. 5, 2012). That article profiled one American player and his experiences in playing basketball and entering into a new culture in China. It's not simply about NBA players in China, but rather about China and basketball and professional sports in general. It looks at basketball and American players transplanted to China and creates a fascinating picture of part of Chinese culture that I've never read about anywhere else. I'm not even interested in the NBA but the article by Yardley was excellent and piqued my interest in the book mentioned in passing.

Yardley has chosen a very clever way to examine modern China. What he does is pick a subject that most Americans will be somewhat familiar with, the NBA. Then he transplants the subject to China by following an American retired NBA coach who has been hired to coach a privately-owned team in one of the lesser-known (from the Western perspective) Chinese cities (Taiyuan in Shanxi province). We might think, well, the NBA is the NBA no matter where it lives and basketball is basketball. But Yardley quite brilliantly tells us a story that illuminates the culture and aspirations, and to some degree the history, of modern China by placing the known quantity of the NBA into an environment that is, in fact, very foreign and not particularly hospitable to American expectations about sports.

The Miami Heat need to make money by selling tickets and signing deals. Do the Brave Dragons have to make money in these ways? No, because Boss Wang is very, very rich. American NBA players roam around at will, throw their money around and make the headlines in ways good and bad. What about the Dragons' players? They live in a Spartan dorm outside the city center where they are virtual prisoners. But, what if an owner spends a lot of money to hire a new coach because he wants his team to get better, be "American" and play American-style ball? Well, you would then assume that he'd hire the best and give him leave to mold the team (except perhaps if he attended the George Steinbrenner School of Sports Management) using American methods (a wide range of kinds of fitness training suited to individual needs, forging relationships with individual players based on knowledge of their personalities and what works best with each, etc.). Old habits die hard, though, for men of Boss Wang's generation.

The story is frustrating and funny and informative in what it shows us about Chinese sports culture and its growing pains, though there is no doubt whatsoever of Yardley's sympathies with his subjects, particularly the young men who play professional basketball and want to be better players than they are. If you are looking for a book that makes fun of the Chinese, this isn't it. We get a lot of context so that we understand, for instance, why Boss Wang thinks that screaming at his players and telling them what pathetic, lazy failures they are will motivate them to improve.

If you ever thought that sports was a universal language, this book will make you re-think that assumption. You don't even have to like or understand basketball to enjoy this book.

Right now I am watching women's Olympic basketball streaming live from London. The USA and China are playing. Knowing what the experience for male basketball athletes is like in China makes me look at these Chinese women with a great deal of curiosity. That's a book yet to be written.