I proceed to walk east, along Jiefang Deng Lu – East Liberation Road (I think) – on the lookout for this college. At first it strikes me as odd that there would be a college within walking distance that I have never heard of or seen, but then again, Chinese cities have a way of hiding things, like a city in Grand Theft Auto. The combination of people and construction and traffic and sheer size endow some of these cities with a cloaking mechanism that will leave you scratching your head wondering, “Wait, how long has that been there?”
Word is that this university can be spotted by the bevy of construction taking place around the entrance. This is only so helpful, for there is seemingly construction everywhere. For someone in Jinan to say, “Look for the construction,” is equivalent to someone at a Kansas City Chiefs tailgate saying, “Look for the barbeque grill.”
I see plenty of construction, but no university. Having been told it’s a 15-minute walk, I turn around after 25 minutes, convinced I missed it, and plod back on the other side of the street. I still don’t see anything.
Through the thick cloud of noise – the honking, the construction, the groan of bus engines – I eventually hear the whack-whack of basketballs. It’s no university, but about 25 yards off to the right, appearing through a gap in the buildings, there is an apartment complex that forms a horseshoe around a basketball court. The open end of the horseshoe is blocked off by a narrow street. I tiptoe along that street and stop short of the court. I stick my hands in my pockets, lean my left shoulder against a brick pillar and survey the scene.
There are two men shooting and one watching. The two who are lofting the ball at the goal are probably 30, the onlooker probably 45. They spot me observing them and return the favor, eying me quizzically but without malice. I am torn on whether I should approach them. I haven’t, after all, ever played with these guys or on these courts, and I don’t want to be presumptuous. There is something to be said for simply watching, but still, it’s more or less habitual for me to want to play if I hear and see basketballs. And like I said, it’s beautiful today.
As I’m having this internal should-I-or-shouldn’t-I debate, a guy a few years my junior strolls past me and casually walks out onto the court. It’s like I was gawking at a pretty girl at a bar, trying to summon the gull to approach her, and a guy just walked right past me and asked her out. He grabs a rebound and proceeds to join them in tossing shots at the goal. Maybe he knew this girl before he approached her – maybe, that is, he lives in this cluster of apartments or works with one of these guys or whatever. At any rate, I feel a bit depantsed.
After a few more moments I join them. Before I even have to chase down a rebound, one of them passes me the rock – an invitation to shoot. I do and realize that the playing conditions are the best I’ve experienced in China. The court isn’t made of the usual slick, bald concrete, but instead some sort of composite, like a super-hard rubber. Now, it’s not the hardwood at Allen Fieldhouse or anything, but it’s not slick, bald concrete, either. There are no lumps or craters or cracks, and you can’t slide on it. What’s more, the ball is inflated too perfection. Ninety percent of the balls that I have played with have been more inflated than Pamela Anderson’s chest. If you hold one out in front of you and let it plummet to the ground, it will bounce back way higher than whatever height you dropped it from. They’re hard to dribble, they hurt to catch, and if you so much as graze the rim then the ball will swiftly bounce away, like a tennis ball off a racket. This ball, though, is quality, complete with a little bit of grip on the skin. And the backboard is glass. Glass! The rim is level and forgiving and – cherry on top – there is a net! Having stepped onto this court after months of suffering through the courts I’m used to, I feel like I’m biting into a steak after subsisting for months on gruel.
I have a spotty chat with the three guys, one of whom, the eldest one, knows a bit of English. They ask me a question that I don’t understand, and I shoot back, “I’m an English teacher.” A lot of times when someone spews a series of words that I don’t know, I just say, “I’m an English teacher.” I figure there are a lot of questions that “I’m an English teacher” could answer. Like, say, “What are you doing in China?” Or, “What is your job?” I’ve surely used this phrase at inappropriate moments, after being asked something like, “Do you like China?” Or, “Where are you from?”
This time, though, it seems to make sense. They nod knowingly and we continue to shoot around. Playing with this ball and shooting at this basketball is like steroids for my shot; it’s as though I’ve been playing with gloves since I got here. After warming up with some short jump shots, I scoot back to the three-point line, which is immaculately clear – a stark white against the algae-green court.
I launch a triple from the left wing. Swish. The older man – who seems more and more like the patriarch of the court, observing but not playing – says, “Hao qiu!” Good ball! The ball lands gently at one of their other guys’ feet, and I get my change, the first time that’s happened in China.
I dribble from the left wing to the top of the key and let fly with another three-pointer. Swish. Hao qiu! There is something about this goal, this ball, this beautiful afternoon – it feels so easy to shoot. I get my change again, not knowing if it’s because they are being nice or because they want to see me repeat the feat. I move to the right again, now on the opposite wing and right in front of the older man who is standing just out of bounds, observing with his hands behind his back, his shoulders and chest open in a dignified kind of way.
I shoot another one. Swish. I let out a little chuckle after the third one, not because I am impressed with myself, but because I am enjoying this more than they could imagine. Equal parts warmth and chill in the spring air; an uncannily healthy court; nice people who are lauding my shooting – and even giving me my change!
Not wanting them to get bored with this shooting exhibition, I move not to the right or left, but instead take a big step backward. I prepare for the incoming pass while the ball is in the air, taking the slightest of hops to set my feet, which touch the ground the instant the ball hits my fingertips. I shoot again. Swish.
I scoot back again and miss the fifth one. The ball bounces off the rim right back at me, but fearful that I am monopolizing the proceedings, I chuck a one-footed trick shot at the goal, a shot that has about a 1.43 percent chance of going in. Swish. Just kidding – it’s an airball.
Four of us shoot around for about 10 more minutes, under the watchful eye of the sage standing on the right sideline. I go over to the fence lining the adjacent street and peel off my fleece, slipping the neck of it over one of the iron rods. Then the sage comes over and asks for my number. He asks in Chinese, and I’ve absolutely no idea what he said. He then says, “Telephone,” in English and pulls out his cell. Now I get it. I tell him my digits and eagerly snag my phone from the coat hanging on the fence. He is calling me, and I slowly ask him his name. He understands the question and tells me. It’s Li. I store his number and put my phone away. He then tells me that they play on Tuesdays and Thursdays and that he will call me to play. I do everything I can to convey my eagerness.
Two more guys show up to play and we start a three-on-three game. I thoroughly enjoy myself even though my team loses more than we win. A seventh guy shows up and is appointed to our team by Li, who must have felt bad for us. It’s crazy, but I don’t care that we’re losing. And I don’t care that the legitimacy of our three-on-three game has been tainted by having an odd number. These are things that would usually drive me crazy. Now, though, I just can’t be bothered. Heck, I’m even oblivious to the score. Li is the scorekeeper, and when a game ends he announces as much. But I never know what’s going on until he declares a game over.
After one game, a guy goes over to check his phone. Li uses the timeout to introduce me to everyone. For the life of me I can’t remember their names. They were all quintessentially Chinese-sounding names, like Wang and Zhu and, for that matter, Li. I remember only one name: the shortest, chubbiest person on the court introduces himself as Tom.
Li eventually sheds his jacket and ditches his post along the sidelines. He is playing in dress shoes. He’s an alright player, the type of guy who you can tell was probably quite good when he was younger, the type of guy who knows what he should do on every single play but whose body doesn’t always allow it.
I end up playing for nearly two hours. I give a hardy round of goodbyes to everyone and walk out the same way I came, hoping to eventually get a call from Li.