It’s Wednesday, March 3, and a dreary 43 degrees outside. But according to the seven-day forecast, this is going to be the best day to play ball for the next week. Thursday calls for rain, Friday will be 34 and windy, and Saturday starts a four-day temperature plunge culminating in a horrid Tuesday that WeatherBug.com has summed up with a picture of an igloo. They predict a high of 19. So today is the day.
I hop on my bike at about 12:30 and make the 20-minute trek to Shandong Normal University. I make the left turn through the gates of the campus and I am greeted, as always, by a towering gold-colored statue of Mao Zedong, the former leader of China’s Communist Party who died in 1976. (Lest this site gets banned, that’s all I’ll say about him.) This statue, like so many others, shows Mao striking a waving-to-the-crowd pose that can easily be mistaken for a waving-down-a-taxi pose. His right arm is fully extended, his fingers outstretched. In front of Mao is a common area where, presumably, people can gather and hang out. But even though today will boast the best weather for the next week, it’s still kind of crummy outside. No one is gathered in front of Mao, and I cruise on past.
A minute later the basketball courts appear on my right, encased by an ugly-green iron fence with thin poles standing vertical every five inches. There is no one on the near courts behind the fence save one guy who is shooting by his lonesome. I ride another 50 yards until I reach the main entrance where, sure enough, I see some people playing. On one court there is a five-on-five half-court game, and on another there are five dudes just shooting around. There is only action of two of the 22 courts, but at least there is action. Actually, three courts are occupied: off in the distance, that lone guy is shooting by himself, over and over. I’m intrigued by his routine because it is one that I’ve done a million times. While I am gazing around, one of 20-somethings in the five-man cluster extends his right arm and waves me over, slightly reminiscent of the Mao statue. That settles it. I’m playing with them.
I flip down my kickstand and peel off my backpack and fleece jacket. I move to take off my brown corduroy pants, under which are a pair of dark red Nike basketball shorts, but I hesitate. There is no one else out here wearing shorts, partly because it’s still kind of chilly, and partly because, in China, men pretty much always wear pants. Today there is a sampling of different types of pants: blue jeans, sweatpants, those goofy wind-breaker-warm-up things. But no shorts. After a moment’s deliberation I decide I’d rather be the outcast wearing shorts than play basketball in cords. So I go ahead and strip down and trot on out to the court wearing a white long-sleeve shirt, the red shorts and a black stocking cap. I am the only person wearing either shorts or a stocking cap; there will be no fitting in today.
They have five guys already, so I am the missing link for three-on-three. First, we need to decipher teams. In the States, there are generally two ways that teams are picked, at least where I’ve played. Most often, you shoot for teams – that is, the players gather at the three-point line (or free throw line) and start shooting. The first three to make it are on one team, the other three form the second team. (This is also the best method if there is an odd number and someone must sit. If you’re sitting, it means you didn’t make it. It’s merit-based.) There are variations of this, like the first person to make it is on Team A, the next person is on Team B, the third person Team A and so on. The other common way of splitting up teams is having the first two people who make shots be “captains” and simply choose who they want.
It’s different in China. The six of us gather around in a small circle, and one guy holds the ball out in front of him like he’s offering it to the other five players. He then spins it like a top and lets it come to a rest on his fingertips. Every ball has a small black circle where you can pump air into it, and that’s what we are looking for as gravity and friction bring the ball to a halt. Whoever that black circle is facing when the ball stops spinning removes himself from the circle; he’s been selected. The process is repeated however many times it needs to be until the teams are deciphered. It took me a several trips to the Chinese blacktops to understand what exactly was going on when we circled up like this. For a while, I wondered if the guys were treating the basketball like some sort of Magic 8 Ball, spinning it and waiting for an answer. In a way, I guess that is what they are doing.
The game starts and no one is keeping score. This isn’t uncommon here, but it’s still strange to me. Back home, the score is everything. The import of keeping score has been immortalized in a few notorious exchanges from 1990s basketball movies, White Men Can’t Jump and He Got Game, both of which are worth watching.
This is from the 1992 film White Men Can’t Jump, starring Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson.
Sidney Deane (Snipes): Hey. Hey man, what’s the score? Yo! Chump! I’m talking to you! I’m talking to the fucking air.
Billy Hoyle (Harrelson): My name ain’t chump, it’s Billy Hoyle.
Sidney Deane: Billy Hoyle. Billy Hoyle! Billy Hoyle! Okay Billy…can you count to ten, Billy?
Billy Hoyle: Yeah.
Sidney Deane: Good. What’s the score... Billy?
Billy Hoyle: I don’t know.
Sidney Deane: Then you’re a chump.
Billy Hoyle: I may be a chump, I just said that wasn’t my name.
And this is from the climactic scene of the 1998 drama He Got Game, featuring Denzel Washington and NBA All-Star Ray Allen. In this scene, Jake Shuttlesworth (Washington) is trying to get his son, Jesus Shuttlesworth (Allen), to sign a letter of intent to a certain university.
Jake: I’ll play you, one-on-one, to 11. I win, you sign. You win, you do what you wanna do…
Jesus: You wanna play me one-on-one?
The two then duke it out on the court, announcing the score after every basket. Jesus eventually prevails, prompting this:
Game time. What you looking around for? That’s game – 11-5. Someone call a stretcher. Stick a fork in him – he’s done.
The importance of the score isn’t some Hollywood fabrication. Everywhere I’ve ever played, the losing team sits. And there are two intrinsic truths to that practice: (1) there can’t be a losing team unless you’re keeping score, and (2) sitting isn’t as fun as playing. My friends and I back home always took great pride in winning as many consecutive games as we could – monopolizing the proceedings by “holding court.” The score is omniscient. People declare the score after every made basket, and it’s not at all uncommon to hear arguments about the score. It’s important.
Needless to say, when no one is keeping score, it isn’t as competitive. And there’s something about that that just seems odd. The notion of having a winner and a loser is, to me and to most American basketball players, intrinsic to the game, even pickup games played outside. And it’s not like people only keep score when dudes are waiting and we need a way to regulate playing time. I keep score when I play one-on-one with my brother or friends. I keep score when there are four of us – and no one waiting – playing two-on-two. Three-on-three, four-on-four – unless I’m shooting around by myself, I have always kept score. Hell, when I was younger I’d sometimes play imaginary games and keep score when I was by myself.
One time last fall, before it had gotten cold, I was playing in a game where no one was keeping score. An English-teaching buddy said to me, “You look bored out here. You about to fall asleep?” I chuckled and proceeded to snare a rebound, as if to prove I wasn’t bored. Thing is, I was bored. The incentive, the competition had been removed; keeping score is part of the game. Not always here, though, and that’s one of the things I’ll be watching this summer: Why do these guys play games – of seemingly indefinite length – where no one keeps score?
Our game starts and there is no sense of urgency, turnovers aren’t a big deal, defense is generally lax, it’s just different. We are playing make-it-take-it – if you make a shot, you get the ball back on offense – which is how it usually is Stateside. This, and maybe pride, is the lone incentive to score – simply so you get the ball back.