April 25, 2010

Chucking Foreigners

Yeah, he scored 71 points in one game, the all-time record for the CBA. You can’t score 71 points unless you shoot unabashedly. And Americans – with just cause – are reputed to do just that.

I traipse out onto the schoolyard courts at around four in the afternoon. The near court is populated on one end by two kids shooting zealously, and at the opposite end by an older man, probably about 40, shooting by his lonesome. For some reason, I opt for the older guy.

I rebound a few of his shots and toss the ball back to him whether he makes it or misses. Eventually, once I’m confident that he doesn’t resent my presence, I loft a few shots of my own. Three in a row clang in, each time kicking off the back of the rim and right back to me, as though I had my own personal rebounder. We trade shots for all of three minutes before the man says he wants to play two-on-two with the kids at the far end. Who am I to argue?

We stroll down there to join the kids, each of whom I recognize from previous duels on the court. Immediately two more kids show up. Two-on-two has quickly become three-on-three; teams are dictated by the spinning ball. The older guy and I are on separate squads.

Within minutes, two of my foreign teacher friends appear under the basket. One of them, Toby, simply looks like a basketball player – kind of like John Lennon simply looked like a musician. Toby is 6-foot-5, lean and athletic. He is black, to boot, and there is no point in denying it: blacks hold a bit of a monopoly on basketball. The estimated 300,000,000 Chinese people who play basketball may eventually break up that monopoly, but they haven’t yet.

Just think: nine of 10 NBA All-Star starters were black in 2010; same in 2009; same in 2008; almost the same in 2007 (that year, it was 10 of 10). Alas, Toby is English, and he uses his palpable athletic prowess on the soccer field – or football pitch, as he’d say – and not the basketball court. He’s never played a moment of basketball in his life.

The other foreign teacher is John, who I’ve been told looks the part of my doppelganger. Like me, he’s a hair under 6-foot. Like me, he has light-colored hair. Like me, his skin is milky white. He rips off his long-sleeve shirt, now stripped down to shorts and a T-shirt; it’s getting to be that shorts-and-T-shirt time of year. One of the numerous Chinese onlookers joins John to make the teams even. The two-on-two game is now four-on-four.

John and I have traded some verbal barbs about playing basketball – who’ll show up who, etc. – but have never actually played each other. As such, I make a point to guard him. He shoots a shot the first time he touches the ball. It misses, but his next shot, which comes about 20 seconds later, doesn’t. It was a three-pointer, which still only counts as one. Not wanting to be outdone, I chuck a shot the next time I touch the ball. It goes in as well, and a quick sense of relief washes over me – I haven’t been totally outdone, not yet at least.

While there are eight people on the court, John and I fall into our own little game. We have no interest in trying to outperform the other players – just each other. There is no great pride in scoring on an adolescent Chinese kid, nor does balling on a 40-year-old do much for the old basketball ego. But John and I take pleasure in trying to one-up one another. We shoot it freely and often, and eventually it crosses my mind that neither of us are passing much at all.

We have, unwittingly, fallen into a stereotype: the selfish American basketball player. While many American basketball players are revered here in China – Kobe and LeBron jerseys abound, for instance, and Michael Jordan is held in high esteem – there is still prevalent resentment among native hoops fans toward foreigners who play in China’s professional league. They are thought to sully the game with their tendency to monopolize shot attempts. According to a July, 2009 New York Times article about the recent basketball boom in China, TV ratings for Chinese Basketball Association games soared once teams were allowed to import up to two foreign players. Despite that popularity, however, there are still conflicting feelings.

… foreign players [have] found starring roles — the top 15 scorers were non-Chinese, and players like Bonzi Wells and Dontae’ Jones — who had less than stellar N.B.A. careers — frequently scored more than 40 points a game. At the same time, the dominance of foreign players fueled frustration.

“Foreigners should play supporting roles, not dominate the game,” said Zhang Xiong, director of operations for the Chinese Basketball Association.

Li Xiaofeng, 20, a restaurant manager and C.B.A. fan, said: “I don’t like foreign players. They got most of the chances to shoot and score. How about our own players? They don’t have the chance to bring their skill and talent into play.

“Our Chinese players’ ability is limited by the current rule.”

Some Chinese state news media outlets went so far as to call imported players a “malignant tumor.”…

Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that John and I are tumors. But we do indeed get caught up in a little one-on-one battle, and for a while a good chunk of the shots are coming via our foreign fingertips. Like that article says, this happens all the time in CBA games. At any one time, it’s a safe bet that there will be six Chinese guys and four African-Americans on the court – the four black guys split two per team. Well, despite being in the minority in terms of numbers, there are stretches where the foreigners shoot just about every shot. And not always good shots. Wild shots. Jump shots. Ill-advised shots at the beginning of the shot clock, without any passing. A friend and I were half-watching a CBA game at a bar the other night, and he described the game as, “Get the ball to the black dude and watch him shoot.” (If that sounds crude, rest assured that Antuan is black.)

An article penned in February of 2009, appearing at Dalje.com, backs up the NYT article.

…Increasing numbers of former NBA players are turning to China’s professional league for jobs and their aggressive domination of the court has drawn criticism from a sports system dedicated to developing Chinese players.

China’s teams stepped up recruitment abroad this season after new rules allowed them to field two foreign players, a move the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) hoped would attract interest in the league and expose players to tougher competition.

High-level imports such as former NBA players Bonzi Wells and Donnell Harvey have, however, refocused virtually every CBA team's strategy around the scoring power of the foreigners, reducing stats and game time for Chinese players.

“In the past it’s been guys who were good but more team-oriented,” said Jason Dixon, a U.S. import who has played for the Guangdong Tigers for 10 years.

“This year you’re finding a lot of high-calibre NBA players.

“Even in college (Americans) are told, ‘If you want to play in the NBA, you have to score, you have to have a sense of selfishness,’ and I think the Chinese don't understand that.”

The CBA's top 15 scorers are all foreigners this season, and the reaction has not been positive.

Dontae Jones, a former Celtics forward now leading the CBA in points scored, has been described by local media such as Titan Sports as a “cancer” on the Beijing Ducks because he shoots too much.

Former NBA guard Wells, who left the league last month, was also blasted by domestic media for pulling down the stats of his team mates by scoring as many as 50 points per game -- without improving Shanxi Zhongyu's record….

CBA office director Zhang Xiong agreed that the domination of the imports had been “detrimental for the growth of Chinese players”, who now play less….

“They are here to help CBA teams play, not just to exhibit their own shooting skills,” Zhang said….

A lot of times, though, games do indeed turn into an exhibition of foreigners’ shooting skills. If nothing else, the scoring-leaders list of the CBA reads like a who’s-who of imported American players. The CBA’s top scorer is Andre Emmett, who averages 32 points per game. Emmett, 27, is a former star at Texas Tech and was the second-round draft pick of the Seattle Sonics in 2004; he was then traded to Memphis. He was a stud in college, where he averaged 18.7, 21.8 and 20.6 points per game over his final three seasons at Tech, shooting at or above 50 percent each of those seasons despite being a 6-5 guard. I remember Emmett especially well because he had some pretty good games against Kansas; in 2004, he had 29 points on 20 field goal attempts at Allen Fieldhouse. He graduated as the Big 12’s all-time leading scorer, and that record could stand for a long while seeing as anyone who scores a lot nowadays just goes pro.

Emmett didn’t score his prodigious amount of points by accident. Indeed, as a junior in 2002-03, he led the Big 12 and NCAA in field goal attempts, and the next season he again led the Big 12 in shots (and was second in the nation.) His 882 career field goal attempts rank as the eighth-most in NCAA history.

Well, Emmett still likes to shoot, and still scores a lot of points. To date, he has at least 30 points in 20 of his 32 games, and scored at least 40 seven times. On March 7, Emmett had this ridiculous stat line: 31-45 FG, 3-11 3PT, 6-6 FT, 71 points. Yeah, he scored 71 points in one game, the all-time record for the CBA. You can’t score 71 points unless you shoot unabashedly. And Americans – with just cause – are reputed to do just that.

Just look at the names of the top nine scoring leaders in the CBA. And remember, imported players are the minority; there are but two per team. (If you don’t think Pickett and Edward and White and Brown sound like Chinese names, you’re right.)

  1. Andre Emmett, 32.0
  2. Charles Gaines, 30.5
  3. Tim Pickett, 29.8
  4. Corsley Edwards, 29.3
  5. Leon Rodgers 28.5
  6. John Lucas 27.9
  7. Rodney White 27.5
  8. Andre Brown 27.5
  9. James Mays, 26.0

Number 10 is a guy named Wang.

Like Antuan said, a lot of the time it’s a matter of getting the ball to the blacks guys and getting out of the way.

The irony, though, is that Chinese people still love some of the NBA’s great chuckers. There is resentment when Americans come over and start to sully the CBA, but so long as they’re in America, it’s all good. Kobe Bryant was a downright sensation in China during the 2008 Olympics, and his jersey is still among the most popular with people here – and as of today he leads the NBA in field goal attempts. Same goes for LeBron James. He’s a star; in fact, one of the kids yesterday was wearing a LeBron jersey. He is No. 3 in the NBA in shot attempts. (In all fairness, LeBron is No. 6 in assists. So it’s not like he’s a total ball hog.) Dwyane Wade, the NBA’s fourth most frequent shooter, is another hugely popular figure here.

It is therefore an oversimplification to say that Chinese people don’t like guys who shoot it a lot. Kobe and LeBron and Wade – these guys are iconic here, yet they certainly fit the of eager-to-launch-it-American mold. In fact, those are three of the five highest-scoring players in the league. So scoring acumen is appreciated by the Chinese – as well as John and me.

We are mired in our game within the game. On one play, he is guarding me as I dribble with my left hand into the lane. I am cut off by one of his teammates – which has surely left one of my teammates unguarded. Alas, passing doesn’t cross my mind. I screech to a halt before I plow over John’s teammate, which allows John – who was a step behind me – to catch up. I am now wedged between the two of them, not an ideal spot to be. But I make a quick dribble through my legs with my left hand and split the double-team. Then, with an iota of space, I elevate and shoot a 14-foot jump shot. This is the only goal in the schoolyard that has a net, so I get to see the shot actually swish through. It’s a beautiful sight, albeit a horribly selfish shot.

To be honest, I don’t think the Chinese kids minded John and I today. We were, after all, the two best players out there, and on multiple occasions the kids were willingly deferring to us, as though they wanted us to shoot. And of course, we were happy to oblige. John and I will never be playing each other for the first time again, and thus there will never have the same incentive to try to upstage each other. We’ll get back to playing more of a team game soon enough.

Unless, that is, those articles are right. Unless we really are cancers.

It's been brought to my attention that some people can't leave comments on this blog. I don't know exactly why that is. I have enabled comments, and a few people have indeed left remarks. Even if you can't leave a comment in the Comments section, I'd still love to hear from you. If you have thoughts, suggestions or criticisms about the blog, please feel free to write me at culturalcrossover@gmail.com. Thanks for reading!


  1. First, I really gotta commend you on your writing skills. Your analogies and word play are just a joy to read, and even if you weren't primarily a sportswriter, you could certainly make it as a narrative writer on any subject.

    Let me also say how refreshing it is to hear someone just accept reality. I get so sick of people who want to hold hands in a circle and sing kumbaya and talk about how we are all created equal. Its just not the case, and big deal!!

    In many ways China is still opening itself to the world and its funny to hear fans talk about how the foreign players should be there to help "their" players. If they are on your team, they ARE your players!

  2. Iverson is also huge in China. When I was living in Xi'an, I heard countless Chinese people say how much they loved 艾佛森 (Aifosen). The Answer is/was a huge chucker.

  3. Probably in the top three of all time chuckers Mark, perfect example.

    Also, I don't know if anyone else is seeing it but I am getting all kinds of weird html coding in the paragraph breaks and the paragraphs would seem to benefit from being wider.

    The writing here is excellent, but I think the blog here could benefit from some presentation tips from ole Mark's China Blog.