June 7, 2010

This Might Be a Stretch, But...

As the warm water begins to replenish my body – much more quickly and efficiently than cold water ever could – I am reminded of a scene from the 1992 classic “White Men Can’t Jump.” Calling it a classic may seem foolish to some, but to basketball fans, especially basketball fans who, like I, saw that movie at an impressionable young age, it’s not a stretch.

The movie boasts some quality basketball scenes, plus it’s freaking funny. To boot, “White Men Can’t Jump” also deftly deals with the black-white divide in basketball, a phenomenon that’s painfully obvious but nary discussed. Whites can dig the movie because the main white character, Billy Hoyle, ultimately has his day in the basketball sun. And blacks, in part, may be drawn to it because the movie’s main black character, Sidney Dean, poignantly unleashes all of the white stereotypes. Plus he can ball.

Hoyle (and whites in general) is portrayed as naïve and, per skin color, out of place playing basketball. Plus his name is Billy Hoyle, which is such a perfect name for a white guy playing inner-city basketball (at least on par in the annals of all-time fictional hoops names with Jimmy Chitwood). Billy Hoyle must have either struck the writers in a split second, or was concocted only after hours and hours of deliberation. That is, Billy Hoyle is the product of either instantaneous genius or painstaking contemplation. It’s too good to be anything else.

Meanwhile, Dean (and blacks in general) is portrayed as needlessly flashy on the basketball court and something of a prick in real life. (“It’s hard work being this good!”…“I don’t mean to brag, but I’m the greatest!”…“Billy, you either smoke, or you get smoked. And you got smoked.”)

Hoyle articulates a sentiment that has crossed many a white minds when he delivers one of the movie’s more memorable quotes – memorable for its bluntness and resonance with basketball players, if not its poetic properties: “A black man would rather look good and lose than look bad and win.”

The goofy title, goofier clothes and unbroken stream of profanity may, to the lay basketball fan, give the movie a flippant feel, like it’s just some cuss-filled comedy starring Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson, who between them have been in such hard-hitters as Kingpin and Passenger 57.* But White Men Can’t Jump is more than your run of the mill laugher. In fact, nearly 20 years later and thousands of miles away, here in early June, 2010, on the courts of Jinan, China, “White Men Can’t Jump” still has relevance.

* In fact, Snipes’ movie portfolio has devolved big-time last few years. He was in seven straight films from 2005 to 2008 that were straight-to-video. I guess you take the money where you can get it after you get hit with tax fraud charges and are forced to cut multi-million-dollar checks to the federal government.

Let me reset a scene from the movie. Billy stunned Sidney when the two played for money, and soon thereafter Sidney decides that they should team up for a little hustle. Sidney makes his way to a local court, where Billy is going to meet him, so the duo can dupe some people for money. They don’t have an elaborate scheme for how to work their hustle. Instead, they’re simply going to take advantage of the one thing Billy has that no one else does: white skin. After he has talked a sufficient amount of trash and ruffled a sufficient number of feathers, Sidney declares, “Five-hundred dollars! And you can pick anybody out here. Anybody!” His opponents are enticed. They can choose Sidney’s partner. It’s like they are the captains, but instead of picking the best players, they will simply pick, based on looks, the worst one they can spot.

The target of Sidney’s hustle, a guy named Raymond, scours the on-lookers, trying to find the person who looks least likely to pose a threat in a game that will result in someone pocketing $500. Raymond’s buddy then says, “Hey Raymond, look at the chump, man,” and points at Billy Hoyle, who mosied onto the sidelines while Sidney was busy laying the seeds of this game. “Give him the chump!”

Now, why is Billy such a chump? Well, there is of course the fact that he’s white and has entered an all-black court. There’s that. But there is also the fact that he’s stretching. And despite the physical rigors of basketball – and the coinciding usefulness of a good pre-game stretch – stretching in basketball, in America, isn’t as common as one may think. It is, however, exceedingly common in China, which is why I’m thinking about “White Men Can’t Jump.” (By the way, I am white and can’t jump.)

I have always been a big stretcher. I have back problems, which, along with my current addiction to massages, has prompted me to engage in some serious stretching. There is one stretch in particular, designed for the groin muscle, that is incredibly useful but totally awkward. I stumbled upon it when I was shelving videos at my library job and ended up taking home how-to DVD on yoga. (I worked at a library? Better believe it. Just part of the post-college employment fiasco that has landed me in China in the first place.)

To pull off this stretch, you plant one foot out in front of your body – say, your left foot – with toes facing forward. You bend that knee, and then plant your opposite foot, the right foot, behind you, parallel to the other foot but with the toes perpendicular to the first set of podiatric digits. So, at this point your left foot is in front of you, toes forward, and your right foot is behind you, toes running east-west, so to speak. Your body and face are of course facing the same direction as your back set of toes.

Next, you plant the coinciding hand of your front foot – in this case, the left hand – inside of the front foot, lean forward, and place that elbow against the inside front knee. You then torque your body with that front elbow, trying to swivel your hips around as much as you can. The resulting pull on one’s groin muscle – the groin of the front leg – is incredible. For added leverage, it helps to do the stretch close to a wall. Then, as you torque your body with the elbow of that planted hand, you can grasp at the wall with your other hand and yank a little bit more. It’s a killer stretch. (Describing it, however, may be beyond my literary acumen, so please don’t hurt yourself.)

As good as this stretch may be, though, it’s hopelessly awkward. Think about it. Your legs are stretched wide, and your feet are facing opposite directions. You are twisting your body with whatever force you can muster from your elbow, which is buried on the inside of your leg. And if, like me, you are looking for a little extra
oomph, you are grasping at the nearest wall to corkscrew yourself even further. I used to do this stretch at the 96.5-percent-black gym I played at in the months after college, and I’d get more than a few stares. Just like people were starting at Billy Hoyle. Come to thin of it, this stretch may have been one reason that one particular player at my old gym took to calling me Billy Hoyle. I think he meant it is as an insult, but I of course took it as a compliment.

(It’s been my experience that stretching is a little more common among whites – and not just Billy Hoyle. My intramural basketball team used to get our stretch on before every game, even indulging one another in some partner stretches. Our favorite was one where two people sit down with their legs stretched in front of them, toes pointing toward the sky. You then press your feet against one another’s, and reach out and grab the other guy’s hands. One person then yanks the other forward – wait, maybe yank isn’t the best word to use when describing this…how about pulls. That’s a little better. Anyway, one person pulls the other, and then the visa-versa. I’ve never seen anyone doing this besides my old IM team, but the point is that whites, in my estimation, are a little less abashed about stretching than blacks.)

But whites are nothing compared to the Chinese, for the Chinese possess a zest for stretching that I had never seen before. This is, after all, a country that is known for massages, and it’s the nation which spawned Tai Chi, so the harmony and sanctity of one’s skeletal structure is treated with more reverence here – at least historically – than in pretty much any country in the world. (That is to say nothing of how they treat their lungs.)

You can see this affinity for stretching everywhere. Often times people will wave and flap their arms while they walk down the street, treating the sidewalk like a hitter may treat an on-deck circle. It’s also common to see Chinese people plop a foot upon a railing or wall and use it as a sort of stretching device. And then there are the ubiquitous exercise stations that line sidewalks all over this city and others throughout China.

Not surprinisngly, this stretching frenzy manifests on basketball courts, which serve as yet another venue in which the Chinese get their stretch on. On this day, there are any number of stretches going on at Shandong Normal U. There is the old standard where you stand with your legs spreads wide and lean forward to touch the ground. There are the arm flaps that are so wildly popular here. And there is one that my friend from America, who had chronic knee problems, used to do where you place your fingertips on your kneecap and gently move it around, almost swirling it, like your ACL is a rubber band that you’re are trying to give a few extra centimeters of elasticity.

As is the case with the warm water, I have wholeheartedly embraced this facet of Chinese culture. Like I said earlier, I have back problems, and I have for years been doing the types of quick, quirky stretches that people do here – the exaggerated shoulder shrugs, touching my toes, lunging and twisting and rubbing. I don’t know if this means I have a kindled spirit here, but maybe some kindled skeletons.

ALSO: I appreciate comments on this blog, but one of the many annoyances of publishing a blog from China is that I am apparently unable to leave comments. I do not know what is up with that; I do not know, for instance, why I can (sometimes) sign in and publish a post but cannot leave a comment. I have tried multiple proxies, and none allow me to comment. I do not want to seem like an ingrate by not responding, or like I do not care, or have not noticed; I am not, I do, and I have. I just have not yet figured out how to leave comments. I am glad that you have, though, so please continue to!


  1. I kinda figured you couldn't leave comments so I wanted to at least prod you for an explanation. Mark didn't seem to have problems doing it on blogspot over there so maybe you can ask him how he did it. I think you'll find it a lot more rewarding and will generate more comments once you are able to interact with your readers. Also, your html tags keep showing up in between paragraphs.

    Back to the topic. WMCJ was a damn good movie. It was funny, had a good hustle story and some twists, and was able to pull off so many politically incorrect comments in a way that didn't seem offensive. At least not to most people I know.

    Its amazing how many things we can learn from the Chinese and how many things they can learn from us. As I am sure your brother has experienced, having a Chinese spouse has really brought a lot of these differences to the forefront and I know I have personally taken on a lot of Chinese ways and she has taken on a lot of American ways. Just as a silly example, I now love drinking green tea and she now loves eating cheese. Both things that previously we each thought, how can that culture enjoy something that vile?

    The stretching and the warm water.. yeah makes sense. Tai Chi and the face rubbing... I'll never understand that :O

  2. Just wanted to agree - White Men can't Jump really is a classic - for a basketball player who only got into the game (from the UK) at 16 in the mid-90s it showed what basketball could be. The other one I'd describe as a classic if "He got game".

    Never got into the stretching thing before the game though... even living in China.