Li Ball’s court, first introduced here, has become my go-to spot to play basketball here in Jinan. When I started this blog, I figured Shandong Normal University would be where most of my balling took place. That is, after all, where I first developed any sort of camaraderie with Chinese players, and where I thought I could establish myself as a regular with people who were more or less my own age.
Indeed, I still make the trek over to SNU sometimes. But Li Ball’s court, which is right up the street, has supplanted it as my favorite place to play for reasons that transcend proximity (although in a city of millions with shoddy public transportation, and with a motor bike that is broken as often as it’s not, proximity does play a factor). The backboards at Li’s court are glass, the balls are always properly inflated (and won’t scrape the clouds like they often do at SNU), the court is perfectly flat. The flatness of a court, at home, would be a no-brainer – like saying an infield had dirt. But in China, where cracks and divots and cancerous lumps dot courts everywhere, having a flat court is a veritable luxury.
Li Ball is the one in the white shirt.
And then there are the players themselves, starting with Li Ball, who I like to think of as the court’s Don Corleone. There he is, after the games have ended, welcoming the players over the base of the goal where he sits to cool down. “What is it?” he would say. “What can I do for you? You know I can’t say no on the day of a basketball game.”
Even if Li doesn’t possess Corleone-type power, he is nonetheless the most prominent figure at the courts. He is the one who always calls me to play; he is the one who dictates the teams; and often times instead of playing he’ll instead stand attention along the sidelines, dishing out officiating decrees and announcing the score in a way that is never questioned. This is a welcome change from the games I used to play at my old stomping grounds, 24 Hours Fitness in Kansas City, Mo. There, berserk argument would erupt about the score at least once a week. There was of course bickering about foul call, which is to be expected. But the score is the one thing that is subject to the unbending edicts of mathematics, and even that would inspire incredulous shouting and cussing the likes of which never failed to make me laugh (and cringe) with exasperation. Sometimes when these arguments would flare up, I would just dip out in the hallway and get a drink of water while people bitched about the score. All too often, nothing was settled when I came back. Part of the problem was ego; part of the problem was that if a team lost, they could be sitting for up to 30 or 40 minutes. Thus, no one wanted to lose, even if it meant forgetting/flubbing the score in your favor.
There is none of that hear, though. Li Ball is in control.
There even seems to be less smog when I play at this court.
The other players are cool too. I have been introduced to them all, but for the life of me I can’t remember their names (save the short fat dude who introduced himself as Tom). I know their faces, though, and I have even run into a couple of them out on the streets of Jinan, never far from the courts themselves. They range in age from young (a handful of 20-somethings) to old (30 to 45). Before long I’ll join that second segment of the playing population, all those 30-plus year-olds who have lost their hops and have to increasingly rely on guile to get things done on the court. Thankfully, I’m not at the age yet. I still have a few ounces of athleticism floating around in my legs, though I know it will soon leak out. There are a few other guys who still possess my sprightliness, and I invariably end up guarding them. (Linguistic note: In America, defensive lingo is always a variation of the verb have. Something like, “I have this guy,” or, “I’ll get him,” or, “I got ball.” In China, the verb for playing defense it look or watch, as in, “You watch him,” which translates to “Ni kan ta.” – “You look him.”)
Bottom line, the court is great, there are always games to be played, and everyone is nice – no malicious elbows to the head, no long stints sitting – even if you lose. As such, Li Ball is who I call if I want to play.