All sorts of animals have season-triggered rituals – some birds migrate south, some penguins huddle up and breed, and some people can’t keep their minds off college hoops.
The nice weather last week can now officially be called a tease. It was brutally cold this weekend, horrid yesterday, and today, Tuesday, I wake up to find everything pasted with snow. I am sure there will be no basketball today, for even if this predicted high of 32 degrees manages to oust the snow, everything will probably be wet. And if it’s wet in Jinan, then it’ll likely be a nasty wet, a crud-filled wet.
Dirt has a way of spawning here, multiplying like a cancer and seeping into everything – clothes, desktops, eyes, everything. Because of all this sediment, you will be hard-pressed to find a post-rain or post-snow surface that isn’t grimy. It’s funny – cars actually seem to get dirtier after a rain because all the airborne crap starts to stick. This will probably happen to the courts today: they won’t be cleansed by the wetness, they’ll be sullied by it. And regardless, it’s damn cold. I am thinking about going over to the Shandong Normal courts, just out of curiosity to see if any crazies are playing despite the elements. But I seriously doubt it. Too snowy, too wet, too dirty.
Thus, let’s talk not about basketball in China, but basketball in America – or rather, watching basketball in America from China. It is, after all, early March, and early March carries with it an almost religious significance for myself and the American basketball community at large. Religious significance might seem like a melodramatic exaggeration. It’s not. (I just came across this from a recent Sports Illustrated article by Joe Posnanski: “In Kansas – not unlike in Indiana, Kentucky and North Carolina – college basketball is religion.” True fact.)
Now, I promise that this blog will never devolve into a “What am I doing today?!” type of thing. I’m not going to write about where I am traveling to or what my stilly students did in class or how tasty (or nasty) a recent tofu dish was. This is an analysis of how and why basketball is played and enjoyed here in China, and what can be gleaned about Chinese culture via basketball.
But per weather, today does not look like much of a day to play basketball. And per the date – March 9 here, March 8 in the U.S. – it is a perfect day to discuss March Madness. March Madness, after all, is a month-long holiday that has defined early spring for as long as I can remember, and this is the first time ever that I am not Stateside to witness the proceedings. The only other time that I spent months away from America was when I studied abroad as a college junior. Alas, I did that in the fall semester; not wanting to miss the NCAA Tournament was a serious consideration in choosing the fall.
Despite being thousands and thousands of miles away, I’m finding myself, as always, infected by March Madness. All sorts of animals have season-triggered rituals – some birds migrate south, some penguins huddle up and breed, and some people can’t keep their minds off college hoops.
I may be in China, but I have nonetheless kept painstaking tabs on college basketball this season. There is a network of Web sites that have allowed me to watch as many games as I please. Now, I don’t know exactly how it works, but somehow or another basketball nuts are connecting their computers to their TVs and streaming – in sometimes startling clarity – the goings-on of all sorts of sporting events. Sites like ChannelSurfing.net and Justin.tv and DailySportsLive.com have allowed me to indulge in online broadcasts of the same games that I would be watching back home. (And the fact that newspapers are all online, and for the most part all free, allows me to ingest all the news and analysis I care to. It’s ironic, in a way: newspapers’ irrationally charitable attitude about giving away content on the Web helped kill them financially and is one of the factors that prevented me from ever getting a job. Now it’s one of the things that keeps me sane.)
Indeed, this is a golden era of online media: technology has raced past the laws governing it. After all, I can watch the obscurest of contests and not have paid a single cent to the cable companies that are broadcasting them on television. Nor, for that matter, am I paying subscription fees or giving traffic to Web sites that broadcast games online on the up-and-up, like ESPN.com or BigTenNetwork.com, each of which has extensive, quality options for watching their programming. Think about it. Pretty much every game you watch has that disclaimer about how “The rebroadcast, reproduction or retransmission of this program is prohibited without the express, written consent of the NCAA (or NFL or NBA)…” You may have developed the ability to block out that tired announcement, but it’s there, and it tells you in plain English that circumventing the conventional, licensed television-watching methods is prohibited and indeed illegal. Translation: you aren’t supposed to put this stuff on the Internet.
Well, having those laws is like having a speed limit on some nary-driven gravel road in the vast outskirts of Kansas. The rules aren’t followed, and because the Internet is even more vast and ungoverned than that road in Kansas, they can’t be enforced. (Luckily the Chinese government has let online sports slip through the ever-expanding Great FireWall of China, which restricts access to more than a few Web sites...including this one.) And it’s not just big-time NBA games and the Super Bowl that get broadcast; college basketball abounds. I’ve watched Kansas versus Cornell, Northwestern versus North Carolina State, Missouri versus Vanderbilt. Games litter the Internet, even offbeat, meaningless games with teams like Canisius and Harvard and East Tennessee State.
But what really makes this time of year so great, and what I’m finding I love even though I’m in Jinan, is that there are no more offbeat, meaningless games. The month-long climax of college basketball essentially begins today – well, yesterday in the States – with the first round of conference championship games, and by extension the first round of automatic NCAA Tournament bids. If there are games on TV (or the Internet) that feature obscure teams, those teams are vying for guaranteed berths to the NCAA Tournament.
My morning starts by watching Siena take on Fairfield. Fairfield leads by 15 at one point, but Siena nonetheless forces overtime and punches its third-straight ticket to the Big Dance. After that I write for a while and catch the end of Appalachian State versus Wofford; Wofford prevails (despite almost blowing an 18-point lead), and they, too, are tourney-bound. I love that huge comebacks were staged in each game. It speaks to the fact that these contests are so outrageously important to the players, players who almost certainly won’t play in the NBA, and who almost certainly will get pasted in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
When you watch, say, App. State take on Wofford, you are seeing these 18-to-22-year-olds at the most dramatic moment of their lives. The players will graduate and become bankers and real estate agents and high school coaches. Yet here they are on national TV, being eagerly watched by basketball nuts all over the country – and world. These games epitomize the transcendence of college basketball – so transcendent, in fact, that an American living in China can’t get enough.
My favorite team isn’t one of these upstarts like Wofford or Siena. Rather, I am pulling for the Kansas Jayhawks, one of the most haughty, tradition-rich programs in the nation. This week the Jayhawks reassumed the No. 1 spot in the polls after a pair of thrashings over archrivals (No. 5 Kansas State and at Missouri). As was the case when KU won its last national title, in 2008, this team is loaded with experienced, NBA-caliber talent. Junior center Cole Aldrich is a surefire top 10 draft pick. Senior point guard Sherron Collins will probably get drafted in the second round (or go make boatloads of dough in Europe). Sophomore forward Marcus Morris is looking more and more like a first-rounder, and freshman wing Xavier Henry – while young – is one of those NBA-ready teenagers whose age belies his talent.
I could go on all day about Kansas. So I’ll just close by saying this: With the madness of March officially starting today, I realize that the distance won’t damper my excitement. Which, depending on how Kansas fairs, could be a blessing or a curse.