The ball is overinflated and coated with dust; the court is pockmarked and dimpled: there is an obstacle course of small potholes and cancerous swells.
Playing conditions are spotty. The ball is overinflated and coated with dust; the court is pockmarked and dimpled: there is an obstacle course of small potholes and cancerous swells. I notice a few times that my foot hits the ground before it was supposed to, and look down to see a mound of concrete growing out of the pavement like a cyst. Other times the ground is a fraction of an inch lower than I anticipated, throwing me off-balance when my foot touches down. I feel my away around and learn to avoid the minefield that is the left baseline corner.
As one o’clock turns into 1:30, people start trickling onto the courts. Some more players – particularly tall ones, at that – conglomerate on the opposite baseline, watching the proceedings. Our game is interrupted when one of the players scurries to the sidelines to answer his cell phone. After a momentary pause – like he was being given a chance to end the call quickly – the guy who gave me the Mao wave does the same to the hoard of giants at the other end of the court. Six guys stroll over; four of them are taller than 6-foot-1, and three of them must be at least 6-4. If readers out there subscribe to the “All Chinese people are short” myth, I assure you that these guys dispel it. (OK, Chinese people do indeed tend to be shorter. But for the most part that is an exaggerated stereotype. Not everyone is Yao Ming, but it’s not a land of midgets.)
The spin-the-ball ritual is foregone, and the guy who keeps inviting people over drafts himself a team. He seems to be a leader of sorts, at least today. He selects himself, two of the best players from our three-on-three game and me. He either thinks I am good or thinks I am a novelty, and I don’t really care which; I just want to play.
Now, for as goofy as I may have looked with my shorts and cap, this “leader” takes the cake in my mind. He is wearing a tight long-sleeved purple shirt and tight dark-blue jeans, and his hair looks like a pinecone. The hair wrapping around the lower part of his scalp is resting at ease, but the hair on his crown is gelled to all hell. It is increasingly vertical as it nears the top of his head, propped up by some sort of hair product. I don’t know how much gel or spray he used, but I know that the hair atop his dome didn’t move an inch the whole day and that he was emanating the artificial, perfumey aroma of product from the opening tip. But whatever, dude could play.
After the tall guys stroll over there is an unstated sense that games are about to become more serious. Now it’s four-on-four, and now there are enough people on this end of the court to field three teams. Thus, if you’re team loses, you sit out. We start keeping score.
The first matchup is my team versus a squad that boasts two of the three tallest guys here, each of whom is better than 6-2. At 5-11, I am one of the taller people on my team. No matter, though, because we quickly race out to five points, which is the magic number. Each one of us notches at least one basket, and I can the winning shot on a turn-around fadeaway in the lane, a shot I practiced a million times by my lonesome during college.
The next group that comes out is totally overmatched. I hit jump shots on my first two touches and notice a palpable difference in my play. The moment we start keeping score, I am suddenly competitive: I am pissed when I miss and pretty stoked when I make it. My defense is better, my passes crisper. Keeping score is basically like two cups of coffee for my game: it sharpened me and got all hyped up.
We lose our third game against the giants who, now that they’re warmed up, start to assert themselves as the best team playing. Our team assumes a spot along baseline where all the losers wait for their chance to get back out there. I walk over to my backpack, which is about 15 feet away, to jot down a note in my Official Chinese Basketball Reporter Notebook. When I come back I am greeted by a teammate who is extending a pack of cigarettes, one of them invitingly jutting out of the pack. He is probably an inch shorter than me with – you won’t believe this – black hair and yellowish skin. He seems pretty fit, a fact revealed by his skin-tight t-shirt. Across the chest of the shirt it says “Calvin Klein” in glinty, diamond-sized studs. It’s the type of shirt that you would never see on a basketball court in the States because it might come off as, oh, a little fruity. What’s interesting, though, is that his below-waist attire is quintessential basketball: black mesh adidas sweats and some really slick black and red adidas basketball shoes. (My shoes, by the way, are black and red adidas basketball kicks. They’re sweet.)
He and his cig are staring at me, so I nod, say thank you and he lights me up. It’s not unusual to have someone offer me a cigarette and that is the climax of our interaction, the only thing we’re able to communicate. But it turns out this guy speaks a bit of English. He is 27 years-old, his name is Wang (with a short A sound) and he works for whoever it is that controls the city’s buses.
“Are you a driver?” I ask, guiding a fake steering wheel with my hands, one of which is holding a burning cigarette.
“No, no,” he says, taking a drag. “I work in office. I do the paper.”
I tell him that I’m a teacher and continue to probe just how well he knows English. I ask him how long he’s been playing basketball, and he tells me that he started in middle school but had to quit in high school because he “hurt this,” pointing to his lower-back. I ask about the NBA and which players he likes.
“The Chinese players – Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian,” he says with a smile, like he’s embarrassed at the predictability of this answer. “And James,” he adds, referring to LeBron James. “Superman!”
I laugh and agree. Indeed, LeBron is Superman. Just that morning – when it was still last night in the States – LeBron had one of the more outlandish plays I’ve ever seen, fielding an errant alley-oop pass and turning it into a reverse dunk. Exactly like Superman. (The kicker was that the guy who made the pass, Delonte West, was fouled and the basket didn’t count. But the crowd nonetheless went bonkers, and in a matter of hours videos started cropping up all over the Internet. It lent credence to Wang’s sentiment: LeBron is Superman.)
The game that is going on reaches five pretty quickly, before we are done with our cigarettes. We ditch them and go back out there, set to take on that tall team which has now won a few in a row. They continue their reign of dominance, simply out-sizing us. A pretty athletic dude is guarding me, I can’t hit a shot, and before I know it I’m being offered a cigarette on the sidelines.
We play a few more games and my team collectively decides to scatter after another loss. The team captain with pine-cone hair puts on a puffy blue-purple jacket and says goodbye. I walk over to Wang and ask for his phone number, and he responds as though he was thinking about a number exchange himself. We swap info, and he says, “Sometime you are free…some beer!” He goes bottoms-up on an imaginary beer; I nod excitedly and tell him I like beer. I then mosey back over to my bike and take off, happy at the thought that I’ve made my first friend of my Chinese basketball season.