I planned on going to go to the university today to interview refreshment man. I was able to fumble through a small conversation with him the other day, deducing that his name is Wang Sheng Heng and that he is 60 years-old. Wanting to continue the conversation – but being incapable of doing so by myself – I coaxed a bilingual Chinese coworker into translating for me. Alas, it’s really cold, and neither my coworker nor myself feel like making the trek over there. I won’t be able to build off that interview today, but I should be able to soon.
Still, though, I want to play basketball, and each of the four courts in the schoolyard boasts kids playing. So I layer up and stroll down there to get in the action.
When I arrive, one court houses a four-on-four game while the other three are home to simple shootarounds. I approach the nearest court, where three kids are shooting lazily, noncompetitively. One of them – the tallest and thickest one – is wearing baggy jeans with a back-pocket adorned with the Denver Nuggets logo, a baby-blue and yellow emblem set atop a background of the Rocky Mountains. The Nuggets were my favorite team in college – per proximity – and I get a chuckle out of his pants. The other two guys are wearing Converse brand sweatshirts. This, too, induces a smile because Converse is probably the oldest basketball-based brand in America, and by extension the world. (For me and for many basketball fans, Converse was immortalized in the 1986 film “Hoosiers,” starring Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper. The movie is about a small-town basketball team – the Hickory Hoosiers – and their run to an Indiana state title in 1954. The Converse connection is this: the team sported Converse basketball kicks, just like pretty much everyone did back in the 50s. Anymore Converse gets dominated on the basketball market by Nike and adidas, but there is still a contingent of Chinese teenagers rocking Converse basketball gear. Jimmy Chitwood would be proud.)
When I say that these kids are just shooting around, I mean it. They aren’t playing any American games like HORSE or 21 or Around the World. They are simply shooting for the hell of it. And unlike most Americans, they aren’t giving “change” to the person who makes a shot. The practice of change is a staple on American playgrounds and in American gyms. If you make a shot, you get to shoot again; you get your “change.” I couldn’t tell you the exact origin of the word. Maybe the idea is that hitting a shot is money, and if you give money then you get change in return. Don’t know. I just know that more often than not, if someone makes a shot in the U.S., they get a chance to make another. Well, that’s not how they roll here in China, and especially not on this particular court. These kids are shooting wild, outlandish shots: fadeaways and running hook shots and long three-pointers (you can still make out the faint sketch of the three-point line). The thinking seems to be, if there is no chance of getting the ball back anyway, then why not have a little fun?
Their flippant attitude is punctuated when one of them – the one wearing the Nuggets jeans, who is the apparent ringleader – busts out his cell phone and dials up some rap music. It’s an English-speaking song, and these kids surely have even less of an idea what the lyrics are than I do. But they still enjoy it. The Nuggets kid starts to dance, and everyone just laughs along. It’s a fun scene.
All the while, I just keep shooting whenever a ball bounces my way. I had a massage about an hour beforehand, so I am taking it easy, not wanting to undo any of the magic that was bestowed upon my back and shoulders.
I am the fourth person on this court, but eventually numbers five, six, seven and eight mosey over. Before long I am invited to play in a four-on-four game. I agree, and we circle up around the ball, ready to let inertia determine the teams. The kids seem to think that I don’t understand how this procedure works, but of course I have figured it out (after several baffling games). I nod knowingly, imploring them to carry on as usual. They start spinning the ball.
Teams are divvied up. We don’t keep score. I feel obliged to pass each time I touch the ball. I am grateful for the chance to play a little basketball, and I want to ingratiate myself with them. Plus, they are way younger than me, and I wouldn’t get much of a kick out of showing them up.
Eventually, though, one of the kids on the other team starts guarding me really tight. I instinctively feel obliged to do a little something, so I shoot some long, closely guarded jump shots. I do this a few times, hit a few threes, the other players applaud. “Good ball!” they yell in Chinese. I was wrong: I do get a kick out of showing them up.
After about 30 minutes, a ball misses everything and takes a wicked bounce off a crack in the concrete, jutting quickly off the court and toward our apartment. I chase it down, reach to grab it and toss it back onto the court, to no one in particular. I decide that this is as good a time as any for me leave, seeing as I’m growing weary of the cold even if they aren’t.
I yell “Bye bye!” to them, an expression that, like hello, most Chinese people know. They yell back, and I turn to walk wondering: maybe playing an amicable round of basketball with these kids is a good way to defuse the animosity between them and us foreign teachers. After all, this is the same group of scoundrels who yell at us and tagged our building (before nearly burning it down). Yet when we play basketball, there is no hostility, no bitterness. I don’t care about past transgressions, and because we’re playing together, the incentive for them to shout things at me is removed. We aren’t enemies. We’re teammates, friends, people who are simply enjoying a game. I say all of a dozen words to them, but no more are necessary. I would venture to say that that basketball game is the best that any foreign teachers has communicated with those punk students in a long, long time. At least since I played basketball with them last winter.
That night when I come back from dinner, I see kids playing basketball as I round the last corner before the apartment. Two kids are shooting lazily in the soft illumination emitted from the light lining the courts. They see me and shout. But it’s not the usual chorus of smart-ass “Halloo!!!”s. They shout, “Come here!” Those two words, coupled with the patter of the ball, are the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard come from the students. I will make a point to use this language, basketball, to talk with them some more.