This kids speaks a little English beyond just “Tracy McGrady,” so I throw on the voice recorder and start to ask him questions. The line of questions that my girlfriend mapped won’t work as well on a kid like this, so instead I ask why aren’t people playing basketball?
“There are exams,” he says. What exams? “P.E. exams.” What do you do for the P.E. exams? “Play basketball.”
Occasionally I look at the kids stretching over by the hangar, continuing to ask more about the exams. It turns out that middle schoolers from all over the province have descended upon the capital city of Jinan and upon this particular university. He ticks off different cities where kids are from, and the list stretches all across Shandong Province (although he himself is from Jinan). I never get a good answer for why everyone has to come to one spot to take these exams. Maybe, I wonder, this is a sort of meat market. Maybe it has something to do with China’s practice of plucking up elite athletes and funneling them into government-funded training academies. A 2008 article from the Telegraph in England focuses on one such academy, Shichahai School:
Sport is a serious business at the Shichahai School, which is one of more than 300 elite, and controversial, government-funded academies devoted to training the next generation of Chinese athletes….
Such intensity reflects the competitive role of sport in China. The vast majority of professional athletes emerge from the specialist schools, rather than from university or amateur clubs.
His English and my Chinese prohibit this line of questioning from unfolding. But nonetheless, kids from the entire province are here, and they are being scoped out while they play ball. I’m convinced there is a chance that they’re being scouted.
There are a few other things he mentions as part of the exam: running, long jump and – this one was non-verbal – shot-put. But basketball is the main event. The kids are stretching zealously – jumping up and down, dribbling between their legs, running in place. It looks, basically, like they’re getting ready to play in a big game. What’s more, there is a crowd of people gathered to watch them. The onlookers vary in age. Some of them are the same age as the kids stretching, but others, like the ones I had that initial “conversation” with, are much older, at least 30 or 35 years-old. People have lined the fence, standing shoulder-to-shoulder to watch these kids get loose.
And that’s nothing compared to the lengths people are going to to see what’s transpiring behind the concrete walls of the hangar. Some of them are balancing precariously on the half-inch-wide fence to try to steal a glance, and several more have literally climbed trees to catch what’s going on. They are perched like monkeys, peering through a gap below the rooftop and above the walls, all to see the mysterious basketball games inside. There is no such fanfare for the track and field events taking place on the far side of the court. Kids are jumping and running in anonymity. But basketball has seduced the masses, even simply watching the kids stretch.
I am resigned to the fact that I won’t be playing any ball at the university today. I say good-bye to the McGrady fan and head home. Kids are playing in the courtyard when I get back. I play with them for a little while, baffled by my day of basketball that included decidedly little actual basketball.