I write and watch basketball until about 1:00 and then eat lunch (yogurt and rice with Tabasco sauce), at which point I head out to run some errands. To my shock, the snow has been zapped by a surprisingly feisty sun, and I get to thinking that people will be playing basketball after all. It’s still chilly – right at freezing – and when the scattered clouds float in front of the sun it is downright frigid. But there is something in the back of my mind telling me that people will be playing over at the university. If they are, then that kind of vouches for the whole premise of this blog. Playing basketball on a day that begins with snow on the ground? Yeah, that’s pretty dedicated. Should people be at the university, I’ll stop by and shoot some hoops. And if not, good riddance. It’s cold.
I plod onto the exceptionally crowded 123 bus at about 2:30. There are no seats. I end up sharing a tiny area with a man’s massive suitcase, which is so egregiously big that it should have paid bus fair. I lean forward and cling to a railing that hovers over a woman who, per the sardine-tight surroundings, is stripped of the comfort usually afforded to those who have seats.
The bus ride mercifully ends about 30 yards from the main entrance to Shandong Normal, and I mosey on in. As is usually the case, the campus offers a respite from the bustle of the streets. The groan of buses (punctuated by incessant honking) is replaced by the welcome quiet of campus (punctuated by birds chirping). I am eyed long and hard by a cute college girl who seems baffled by my presence as I walk toward the courts. My curiosity about whether or not people will be playing today is answered with the faint patter of basketballs. It turns out that, yes, people are playing ball today.
Where there is shade there is snow, but the basketball courts at SNU have very little shade. They are located on the far west side of campus, beyond all the school buildings and student housing. In fact, the courts are so devoid of shade that it’s not only not snowy, but also not wet. Maybe the snow that seemed so prohibitive this morning wasn’t actually that bad, or maybe the sun has simply had hours to do its thing on the courts. But regardless, it’s dry and sunny, if cold.
I am greeted, as always, by the refreshment man. “Hello!” he says from behind his zipped-to-the-top coat and stocking cap. “Hello!” I reply in kind. I didn’t bring anything to drink – after all, I didn’t really think I’d be playing – so I stop to buy something. All I have are 100 Yuan notes, and all I want is a 4.5 Yuan Gatorade. “Sorry,” I say in Chinese, “I don’t have 4.5.” He shoots back, also in Chinese, “No problem!” For this I am grateful, because often times you will catch grief for pulling a 100 Yuan bill out of your pocket; people are prone to whining about having to break a 100. This is especially annoying because 100s are the only denomination you can get from ATMs. I’ve had cabbies make me run into supermarkets to break 100s so I can pay them with smaller bills, and I’ve had supermarkets roll their eyes about having to break those 100s. Refreshment man, though, takes it in stride.
Before I have put away the wad of change, a guy who is actually older than refreshment man – who is usually the elder statesman of these proceedings – approaches me with ball in hand. He wants to play with me, and he points to the furthest goal from where we’re standing, a good 100 yards away. He is wearing slightly puffy snow pants, like what a child might wear to go sledding, and what appears to be about five layers of shirts, topped off with a loudly colorful vest. Thinking this should be pretty funny, I don’t even consider turning him down to join a court where college-aged kids are playing games. I open up my hand and arm toward his selected court, like a hotel doorman giving the non-verbal “After you!” to a guest. We walk over.
As we approach the basket, I realize that it is totally decrepit – even by Chinese standards. More often than not, the buckets at Shandong Normal have defects. They’re too high or two loose or titled up or down. This goal, though, is downright archaic. It is leaning hard to the right, like a drunk haplessly trying to stand upright. The peach-basket goals that Dr. James Naismith fashioned in basketball’s primitive days may have been better than this piece of crud. Despite the other vacant courts surrounding us – there are people playing, but it’s not crowded – this is the hoop the old man has selected. Out of deference to my (way, way) elder, I am not going to argue. Besides, if he can handle it, I can handle it, right?
I put down my backpack on the court, about 15 feet outside the three-point line. The man starts to talk with his mouth and his hands, both of which are almost surreal. His teeth are straight enough, but they look like a color card for yellow: from a light, sunny yellow on the tips to a rich, lush, almost-brown yellow toward the gums. The bottom front four are what the late Bob Ross – he of the epic one-man art show “The Joy of Painting” – would call “yellow ochre”: a rich, full-bodied yellow. His hands are shrouded in cotton gloves with two missing fingers – the right index and thumb. Based on his homely appearance, it is entirely unclear whether these missing digits are intentional (for gripping-the-ball purposes) or whether his gloves are simply tattered. I feel almost embarrassed to be wearing my loud, expensive basketball shoes.
I toss a few shots at the hoop with his ball, trying to warm up a bit. I’m still freezing. After about 30 seconds, he takes the ball, plants it on his hip, and heads to the top of the key. He begins explaining the rules of the game he wants to play. I have no idea, of course, what he is saying. I catch the occasional “lán qíu,” which I know means basketball, but other than that I am lost. I nod politely, smile, and signal for him to get things started.
He toes the three-point line dead-on from the basket and rests the ball on his right hand, parallel with his shoulder. His left hand is dangling, a total bystander to the shot. His right foot is a little bit behind his left, so his body is not quite square to the goal. Then, with the amount of exertion needed for a 75-year-old man to chuck a ball at an 11-foot high goal that’s more than 20 feet away, he corkscrews his body and unleashes a shot – which is as much throw as it is shot. This motion sends his right foot and right arm jutting forward. Awkward as it looks, it is decently effective.
I deduce that the rules dictate we trade turns shooting, like the American classic HORSE. So I grab the ball, walk to the three-point line and shoot. I jump as high as I can and, at the peak of my ascent, let fly with a shot. My shoulders are square to the goal; my elbow locks on the follow through; my wrist makes the gooseneck upon my release.
My shot has been painstakingly manicured. Of course, it misses badly, pathetically.
We keep trading shots, and I began to develop some vague idea of what’s going on. After each make, the guy will raise one finger high into the air before the next shot. It’s as though he’s sending a signal to someone on the other side of the court. After a second consecutive make, there will be two fingers. The best I can tell, you are allowed one miss without it damaging your score. But if you miss two in a row, then you are docked a point. For instance, if you make one shot, then make another, then miss one, then make one, you will have three points – each make is one point, and the single miss is forgiven because it was followed by a make. However, if you make two in a row and then miss two in a row, you go back to one – the consecutive misses costing you a point. So, a make, miss, make, would be two because there are no consecutive misses. A make, miss, miss would be zero.
For a while, he is kicking my ass. He runs his score to three and I keep teetering between one and zero. Because of the cold, the comically mucked-up rim and the fact that I’m not at all warmed up, I simply can’t knock down any shots. (Of course, it was just as cold for him, he was shooting on the same rim and he seems to be pushing 80, so I realize these are bunk excuses.) He gets to four and then five and we start a new game. I’ve never been beaten by anyone so old. He seems to enjoy his victory.
All the while, college-aged players are stopping to gawk at us: a 24-year-old white-skinned foreigner playing a shooting game with a late-70s Chinese man. It’s bizarre to me, too, and at no point does the shooting ritual seem normal. There are three-on-three games unfolding a few meters away, and the losing squad – which is sitting because it lost – spends its time gazing at us. So do people walking along the adjacent walkway. So do people passing by en route to another court. Every so often the old man will talk to me, and if I’m lucky I pick up every 20th word. I just keep smiling and shooting, unsure if he understands just how crummy my Chinese is. Or, for that matter, if he cares just how crummy my Chinese is.
I finally hit a few shots during the second game. The old man gives good-natured groans whenever he misses, and before I know it I’m winning 4-0. I finish him off and he says something that I don’t understand. One of the onlookers, however, knows a speck of English; he tells me that the guy wants to shoot three more shots, a sort of rubber-match to determine a winner.
The whole time we are pretty jovial; I simply can’t get competitive over a shooting game with someone who is way older than my dad. But he seems a little irked at how the last game transpired, and he wants revenge. He shoots and misses each of his three extra shots, two of which miss agonizingly, flirting with the inside of the rim before popping out. He always maintains his post-shot pose – right foot forward, hunched over with his arms dangling below his waist – until the ball either misses or makes. When it misses – which is does with increasing frequency as the game wears on – he pops out of that pose quickly, like he’s irritated. When he makes, he breaks his stance with a saunter.
I make one of my three shots and we call it a game. We’ve been shooting around together for about 20 minutes, and because he’s three times my age, he’s probably getting tired. He walks away but leaves an impression on me; his zest for basketball is intriguing. I look forward to playing with him in the future.