I get to Shandong Normal at about 4:30. It’s a nice day, sunny and probably 55 degrees. I buy a bottle of water from Wang – “Refreshment Man” in previous chapters – and walk over to Court No. 1. I set down my bag, untie my shoes and peel off my corduroy pants. Under my trousers are a pair of maroon Florida State basketball shorts. (I think the official color is “garnet.”) Two bottle ladies – you know, the women described at length in the post “Trash Springs Eternal” – sit a few feet away, and they start jabbering at me.
At first I think they’re asking me the standard 20 Questions I always get in Jinan – what country are you from, what are you doing here, etc. Even when I don’t know what someone is asking me, I just start answering these questions. I’m from America. I’m an English teacher. Usually it’s what they’re looking for, and if not, they conclude that I’m too much of a dolt to bother talking to. That’s what I do with these ladies – start telling them my abbreviated bio – but they just chuckle. They’re still jabbering. I don’t understand, I tell them with a smile, more defeated than annoyed.
Finally one of the ladies reaches her hand out and touches my bald, unclothed knee. That same moment one of the players on the court – they’re waiting for me; I’m the eighth man – comes over and translates: Are you cold? he asks. The ladies laugh, realizing that I now realize what they were asking. I smile, shake my head and trot on out to the court.
We gather around in a circle, and I am struck by the fact that I recognize about half the players. Recognize – but don’t know. And this is where the interviewing thing comes in: I can’t talk with these guys. My Chinese is atrocious; my girlfriend still isn’t confident that her Chinese is up to snuff; my bilingual co-workers haven’t warmed to the idea of playing translator for me.
Thus, while I know these characters, I don’t so much as know their names. Just faces and past encounters.
One of them is guy who tried to fight me last fall. At the start of a game to five back in November, he waved off his teammate who was guarding me and declared that he would take me. He sought me out – that should have been a clue.
A few minutes in, we were tussling for a rebound under the basket. The way I remember it, he was pushing me in the back; I reached blindly to toss his hand off me; I got more body than hand. As I jumped for the rebound he gave me an out-and-out shove. The ball bounced out of bounds, and I turned to stare at the guy. I flipped my hands upside-down and furrowed my brows, asking non-verbally what that was all about. He shouted some things in Chinese then, out of nowhere, whirled his right elbow into my left ear.
I don’t know if he was trying to deck me with a ‘bow to the face and just missed, or if he was indeed simply trying to send a warning shot into my ear. Either way, he elbowed me in the head. I grabbed my ear and took a few steps back; he drew near for more.
At this point some of the other guys grabbed him, which seemed to invigorate him. His arm-waving and yelling was that of someone who wanted to throw down. I, however, have never been in a bona fide fight, and I wasn’t about to have my inaugural bout in a setting where I was in the minute minority (I had gone to the courts by myself, friendless and without allies). So I walked off the court and grabbed my things to leave.
After several seconds he calmed down and reached out to shake my hand. I wasn’t infuriated enough to fight, but I was ticked enough to scoff at his peace offering. I shook the hand of another player, a guy who had befriended me that day and left.
Luckily, it now seems to be water under the bridge. I’m sure he remembers, and I’m sure he’s sure that I remember. But it’s not a huge deal. This is one of the virtues of basketball – it has reconciliatory powers.
In late December of 2008, I was playing ball at a local gym in Kansas City. We were playing a five-on-five, full-court game, and I was hot. In a contest to 15, I hit three straight three-pointers (which count as two) on the slouch who was guarding me. After my team got up something like 8-1, a tall black dude on the other team waved off the slouch and insisted upon guarding me. He was a good player – tall, athletic, springy – but his defense consisted of little more than fouling me every time I tried to shoot it. I’d call the foul, he’d gripe at the top of his lungs, seemingly expecting me to relent on the call. Then it would happen again – foul, gripe, our ball. Foul, gripe, our ball.
Eventually, because you don’t shoot free throws, the other team caught up and took the lead; the guy guarding me scored the winning bucket, and he let me know about it.
For some reason, I was totally convinced that he wasn’t going to fight me. Berate me with cusses, sure. Tell me to get the $^%k off his court, sure. Act like a total punk, sure. But I for some reason, I knew he wouldn’t actually hit me. If he did, he’d likely do some serious damage; I knew he wouldn’t. So, in a rather uncharacteristic display of hostility, I unloaded on him with a flurry of vulgarity that had never crossed my lips. I pulled out everything I could think of short of the N word. I am not usually so brazen with my words on the court – a skinny white kid who’s never been in a fight needs to watch what he says, especially in a gym full of black dudes. But my better judgment was swimming in a pool of rage.
More than a year later, someone asked me the moment in my life when I had been the most angry. I thought about it, and listed this instance – when this guy fouled his way to a victory, and then yakked about it like he was some stud.
I remember well when I saw him again, about two weeks later. I had just laced up my shoes and popped onto the court between games. He approached me…I gulped…he said: “Hey, man. Sorry ‘bout the other day. I got a little worked up.” Before he said this, I considered him one of the most vile pieces of trash I’d ever played with. After he said this, we clasped hand, gave a little man-hug, and that was that. This is the guy who had recently caused me to be the most angry I’d ever been in my life; now we were man-hugging. The power of basketball.
Sure, without basketball we’d have never gotten into it in the first place. But without basketball, we’d have never reconciled either. The same phenomenon played out with the guy who elbowed my ear. It was basketball that prompted our hatred, and basketball that buried it.
Another player today is a lanky dude wearing glasses. He plays with abandon, like a hyena. Like the guy with the elbow, this lanky fellow has treated me as something of a challenger in the past. He sought me out on defense the last time we took the court, and the first time I ever played with him he barreled me over on the way to the basket. I remember that play well: he was dribbling on the right side of the lane, and the put his head down to drive. There are lots of whirling-dervish drives on these courts, moves where the philosophy seems to be, I’m going to get to the basket, and it’s in your best interest not to get in my way. Well, I must have underestimated his zest to score, for I subsequently took an elbow square to the chest, a blow that sent me to the ground in a heap. I didn’t call a foul, but the on-court consensus was in my favor; my team took the ball out of bounds.
As irked as I was by that move – if you can call it a move – all ill-will faded when, as I was leaving, that same guy pointed to the spot where he laid me out and said, “Sorry.” Hatched buried. I told him it was no problem and that he was good at basketball – which he is – and then proceeded to leave. I have seen him since then, but hadn’t actually played with him. Not until today.
Then there’s the baller with the slick Derrick Rose shoes. This is the guy who, back in mid-March, had summoned me upon my arrival at the courts. His shoes are markedly dirtier than they were then, as are mine; our white trim is now a sort of gray, sullied and stained by Jinan’s inescapable dirt. In America, basketball shoes are generally treated with a little more TLC. At indoor courts that I used to frequent, people would usually wear a pair of tennis shoes or boots or whatever to the gym, and only once they were inside would they bust out their basketball kicks. At many indoor gymnasiums in the States, sneakers line the side of the court, like an entryway to a Japanese household where you must take off your shoes when you walk through the door. The only difference was that people would take off one pair and slip on the next.
When we played back in March, the guy with the Roses was easily the best player on the court, and as I left I got the sense that he had invited me to join his game for the mere purpose of tearing up some foreigner – which he did. He’s up to his tricks again today, springing into the air and lofting soft shots through the netless rim, or deciding at the last moment to dart a pass to a teammate. He’s the type of player who is good enough to thwart whatever defense you play, an annoying combination of basketball acumen and the physical prowess to execute. As was the case last time, he’s the best player on the court.
These are all guys I’d like to cultivate relationships with, guys who I’d like to talk to about basketball, college, what they do for fun, their families, etc. (And, you know, what’s with the elbow to the head.) But I can’t. I can tell them that they made a good play; I can apologize for making a bad play; I can ask them if they like basketball. But I can’t really talk to them. I can’t really interview them.
Oh, well. I can still write about them.