May 8, 2010

First-Team All-Swindle, II

When Jonathan asks about particular players, Goel nods knowingly and – in a feat that many US basketball fans couldn’t achieve – proceeds to list their numbers.

I write for a few hours and then watch basketball to round out the morning. There is a 9:30 a.m. tip between the Spurs and Mavericks, but before the game starts there are highlights reels galore – the Top 10 Blocks of the Year, the Top 10 Buzzer Beaters of the Year, etc. Then there is a Jason Kidd commercial in which he’s advertising his Peak brand shoes. Kidd is one of the handful of U.S. players – along with Shane Battier and Ron Artest, to name a few – to have been signed to deal with Peak. The commercial is hokey – there are tight shots of Kidd trying to get around his defender while he says something in English about how, on the court, “You are your own worst enemy.” Then, after he makes a move around the defender, the opponent is revealed to be…Jason Kidd! Artsy, huh?

Other NBA-on-TV notes:

• There was no game yesterday* because there was an all-day commemoration of the earthquake victims last week.

* This was originally written on April 21.

• During the Mavericks-Spurs game, Dirk Nowitzki receives a curious technical foul. I never figure out why he was T’ed up because, alas, the announcers are speaking Chinese.

• At one point Caron Butler is shooting two free throws during a Mavericks run. After he cans the first shot, he turns to the home crowd and waves his arms to rile them. I’ve never seen anything like it: someone about to shoot a free throw who is nonetheless imploring the crowd to make noise. They oblige; Butler hits the free throw.

• The Spurs really annoy me.

After a few hours of watching the NBA playoffs, it’s off to SNU, where hopefully I can allay my heart-pounding anxiety over graduate school, jobs and my life in general. I immediately start talking to a Chinese guy who I meet on the sidelines named Goel. He is wiry, probably about 20 years-old, and wearing a button-down flannel shirt and jeans. He ends up playing with my buddy Jonathan and I, and after we lose a game, Jonathan takes to asking Goel some questions.

Jonathan was born in Boston – and likes to let people know that he was born in Boston – and with the NBA Playoffs now underway, he has been particularly enamored with his Celtics. So Jonathan sets out to test (a) Goel’s English, (b) his NBA knowledge, and (c) whether or not he likes the Celtics.

Well, Goel doesn’t only speak English, and doesn’t only know about the NBA, but also likes the Celtics. When Jonathan asks about particular players, Goel nods knowingly and – in a feat that many US basketball fans couldn’t achieve – proceeds to list their numbers.

Rondo? “Yes. Very good. Number nine.” Allen? “Ah...Twenty.” Garnett? “Yes. Number five. He was the best until he injured. His knee is...freak.” Seeing as Goel was at a university and playing basketball, it’s no stunner that he knows a bit of English and knows a bit of basketball. But to list off players’ numbers? That’s above and beyond. Thing is, he wasn’t done waxing eloquent about the NBA.

Once Jonathan finishes his masturbatory line of questioning about the Celtics, I ask Goel about my favorite player, Steve Nash, who plays for the Phoenix Suns. Nash’s list of endearing qualities abound. First off, he’s a joy to watch. Watching him is like those days in high school when teachers would flip on a movie: a true reprieve from the sometimes overwhelming monotony of the NBA. He is the point guard of the highest-scoring team in the NBA, and as such it’s his responsibility to orchestrate and moderate a breakneck pace the entire game. He does this as well as anyone ever has, and in 2010, at age 36, became the became the oldest player in history to lead the league in assists. In addition, he is a 6-2 point guard who happens to have the efficiency of a power forward – this season, for instance, he shot 50.7 percent from the field. That was better than any guard in the league save Rajon Rondo (Number nine!), who shot 50.8 percent...but took less than one-third as many three-pointers as Nash...and scored three points less per game.

What’s more, Nash just doesn’t look the part of a big-time basketball player. And I’ve stepped into enough all-black gyms – and been immediately written off because of my appearance – to have a special appreciation for someone who thrives in the face of stereotypes. I even spent the summer of 2005 being called “Steve Nash” at a local gym because, like Nash, I had long, shaggy hair, and because, like Nash, I was one of the rare white dudes playing.

The Suns were being broadcast on Chinese television one morning last month, and, because Nash was on, I made my girlfriend watch for a little while. “Him?” she asked almost incredulously. “He is your favorite player?! He’s so...spindly.” That’s not the word I would have used, but it’s an apt one nonetheless. Nash is indeed spindly, which, in my mind, makes him that much more likeable. The point guard position is getting more and more freakish – guys like Derrick Rose (who is a hoss) and Deron Williams (who is built like a running back) and John Wall (who one pundit described as having “extraterrestrial athleticism”). Point guards are getting bigger and stronger and, more than anything, younger. Yet here’s little old Steve Nash – literally, he’s little and old – still producing outlandish numbers and eye-pleasing basketball. (One more Nash tidbit: During the 2003 All-Star weekend – a couple months after the US had invaded Iraq – Nash addressed the media wearing a shirt that said, “Shoot baskets, not people.” Love it.)

Turns out Goel is impressed with Nash, too. “Nash is amazing,” he says. “He is – how many years? He is 32 years-old? And he is still incredible.” Nash is actually 36, but who’s keeping track. “A player who is very old and is still good like Nash is amazing.” Touché, Goel. Touché.

Goel rounds out his impressive interview with Jonathan and myself when he nails the final question: Who is the best? A lot of people in China will say Kobe Bryant. An increasing amount will say LeBron James. And there is still a segment of the population that will say Tracy McGrady (more on that here). But Goel displays an appreciation for history – and an understanding of the game – when he answers.

Who is the best player? Jonathan asks. To which Goel – like it was a moronic question – blurts out, “Jordan! Of course Jordan!”


Goel, Jonathan and I are joined by another foreign teacher named John (who was introduced here). John has a husky build and, it turns out, a bit of a mean streak on the court. Jonathan and I had spent the previous hour building a repoire with the Chinese players in attendance, but that guan xi is washed away in John’s first game. He plays with an intensity that is foreign to these courts, at least this court on this day. He uses his elbows to get rebounds. He refuses to accept other players’ foul calls. At one point, while being guarded tightly by someone on the other team, he thrusts the ball into the guy to clear space – shoving him, basically, with the ball. Yeah, John was getting fouled, but such an unabashed display is still uncommon. The thought that he was in the wrong never crosses John’s mind.

I’ve played in games here at Shandong Normal University where John would have fit right in. A lot of dudes here do seem to relish getting after it and playing with a fire (Cliché Alert! Cliché Alert!). Those games, though, are usually closer to the entrance, closer to Court No. 1. That seems to be the epicenter of competition, and the further you get from No. 1, the more laid back it gets, like the concentric rings of a dart board where the bull’s-eye is Court No. 1.

Right now, we’re about four courts away; the competitive residue doesn’t stretch to these parts. And while Jonathan and I are both competitive, we have the wherewithal to see that today, here, things are amicable and not intense. We were keeping score, but we were also laughing. There were fouls being committed, but they were also being called and acknowledged. There were people chasing down rebounds, but very few of them came with elbows attached – until John arrived. Jonathan and I cringe at the way John is playing and hope that he realizes we aren’t playing our district rival on a Friday night. He never does.

Even with John’s, uh, zest, our team’s winning streak ends at two. Thus, Jonathan, John, Goel and myself walk over to the sidelines. My eyes are trained on the pile of bags, clothes and water bottles sitting at the base of the hoop. My backpack sits there, next to Jonathan’s, a water bottle resting invitingly atop each bag. We guzzle down some water and give that deep, quenched, post-drink exhale. Goel, though, can’t find his water – or his bag. He looks around like someone who is late for work and can’t find his keys. He peels back shirts and backpacks. He looks all along the sideline, and then looks again in all the spots he just looked. Nothing.

“What’s wrong?” Jonathan asks.

“My bag. It is not here.” What’s in it? “My money, my ID card, and my phone.”

He continues to look and John asks if he wants to call his phone. (Don’t think John’s a bad guy. Just competitive.) Goel gratefully says yes and calls his phone. The thief answers, and we listen to Goel speak in Chinese, trying to decipher what is going on by reading Goel’s face.

He hangs up and says that the guy who answered wants 200 yuan. Goel is to meet him later, with 200 bucks, and then he will get his things back. We extend our honest condolences – really, if could have been our stuff that got jacked – but Goel doesn’t seem too upset about it. He’s taking it in stride.

Goel says that he will need to call the guy back in a few minutes and asks if it’s OK if he uses John’s phone. John doesn’t hesitate – of course he could use it. Goel makes another call and I sit down next to Jonathan, on his left, while Goel paces back and forth a few feet away. Quietly, I say to Jonathan, “Feels like a swindle.”

“What do you mean?”

“Just seems a little weird, doesn’t it? His bag is gone but he doesn’t seem to care. Now he needs to pay a guy 200 bucks, but he doesn’t have his wallet. I give it five minutes until he asks us for 200 yuan.” I can’t tell whether or not Jonathan agrees with my cynical conspiracy theory. But he at least thinks it’s interesting. “I never thought about that,” he says, shaking his head and smirking just slightly.

My suspicions pique when Goel says to John, “Can I take your phone?” John is more than compliant. “Thanks! I’ll be back in five minutes.” Goel then jogs out of the entrance, past Court No. 1. Upon exiting the gate, his jog turns to a sprint. I think – but don’t say – There goes your phone, John.

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