The best image I can conjure is the door of a sauna. Regardless of what may be going on in the area outside a sauna, the door acts as a barrier, thwarting any cool, dry air that may otherwise seep into the room.
I’m quickly learning that, during the summer, Jinan is that sauna. The inversion to which Jinan is subject keeps the city’s bountiful heat, humidity and smog on the ground, allowing it to accumulate into a dizzying tonic that you can almost reach out and grab. Now, I’m from Kansas City, so I grew up with heat and humidity. But there is something different about the heat and humidity in Jinan, probably because it is infused with such a healthy dose of pollution and airborne crud. It’s hard to describe without having actually walked around in it. Just trust me that it’s gross, oppressive.
Still, where there are basketball courts and free-time, I can’t help but want to hoop. So my buddy Jonathan, who you may remember from the swindle post, and I decide to head over to Li Ball’s court at about 4:30. Maybe there will be people playing, and if not, oh well; we’ll play each other. The heat is a little less oppressive than it was a few hours earlier, but not much. After all, the inversion in the atmosphere does to ground-level heat what a tourniquet does to blood: it prevents it from going anywhere.
We are sweating by the time I stop at a little shop to buy water three minutes into the walk there. I spurn the refrigerator and its cold water and instead buy four bottles of water that are the same tepid temperature of the little shop in which they were sitting. Jonathan, who seems to be almost annoyed by my affinity for warm and hot water, informs me that he has three bottles that, for the past three hours, have been cooling in his freezer. I shudder at the thought of feeling the sharp, prickly feeling of ice-cold water shocking my insides; I forgo my usual public health announcement that cold water causes cancer, while hot water prevents cancer (and even relieves stress!).
After a lazy 10-minute walk we round the corner into the apartment complex which houses Li Ball’s court. As we make the turn, we realize that, like a pair of high schoolers didn’t bring No. 2s to the SATs, we didn’t bring a ball to the basketball court. And there is no one else playing, which means no balls anywhere. This is a distressing revelation, for it means that one (or both) of us will have to retrace our steps back to the apartment, and then once again back to the court. It’s annoying on a practical level, and downright aggravating in light of the fact that sweat has already seeped through our shirts.
At this moment I hear someone call my name from behind. It is no doubt a Chinese person, for the V is David is not pronounced like a V, but instead a W. There is no real V sound in Chinese, which insures that there is no real way for a Chinese person who didn’t major in English to ever say my name right. Take a moment to try to say David without even touching your top set of teeth to your lips; that’s how David sounds when a Chinese person says it. (This no V thing also seriously complicates teaching the number “5.” Invariably, it comes out sounding like “fi” with a W and three vowels tagged onto the end: fiwaue. At least when my kids try it.)
The person who said my name is a regular at Li Ball’s court, someone, if memory serves, who has been there every single time I have. He is a totally normal looking man, probably about 40. Average height, decent looking, a full head of hair that is combed to the side. I have a rapport with this guy, so we exchange pleasantries the best we can for sharing a combined 48 words.
I tell him that we do not have a ball: Women meiyou qiu. I learned each of these words on Jinan’s basketball courts: women, or we, I learned from people saying, “Our ball”; meiyou, or don’t have, I learned because people shout it when someone takes a stupid shot; qui I learned because…well, that’s a no-brainer. The man nods understandingly and tells me that that is no problem. He either does not understand the quandary or knows where a ball is at the apartment complex.
The latter is true. When we step foot on the court he points to the near baseline and seems to tell us to stay put. He then walks slowly to the other end of the court, the way you walk when it’s a million degrees outside. He mosies past the other baseline and opens what appears to be a closet on the ground floor of the apartment. Sure enough, he emerges with a ball and rolls it from about 50 feet away. It’s a strike, beelining to my feet as though guided by some invisible force. He waves and walks off; he’s not playing today.
Jonathan and I play a few games of one-on-one before the heat-induced fatigue/laziness reduces us to just shooting around. Our unspoken conclusion seems to be that, with the weather the way it is, there really is no point to turning this into a rigorous exercise session; that could do more harm than good. So we just shoot around, sweat and chat.
We spend a good bit of time talking about basketball, about his Celtics, about whether or not Tom Izzo would make a good NBA coach, about how Derrick Rose is going to be better than Dwyane Wade over the next five years but no pundits want to say it. Eventually, though, our conversation turns to soccer. We are in the throes of the world’s greatest sporting event, the World Cup, and soccer is on our minds.
After a few minutes, I say something about soccer that is without a doubt true: I could have been better at soccer than any other sport, including basketball. Jonathan quickly and earnestly responds, “Yeah, me too.”
To me, this is pretty incredible: Two guys who embraced basketball over soccer, though they both acknowledge that they could have been better at soccer.
My body is much more built for soccer than basketball, the sport which stole my heart and ultimately prevented me from ever cultivating my potential soccer talent. I am a hair under 5-11, which is hardly an ideal height for basketball, a sport which, more than any other, discriminates in the favor of vertical giants. What’s more, I am not a great jumper. I have the hops to shoot jump shots, but not to really soar the way that would be required if I were ever to become a truly formidable athlete on the basketball court. I’m also thick through the legs – mom used to call me “Thunder Thighs” – which seems to be a common denominator among some of the world’s best footballers.
Body aside, my ability to play soccer belied how much I cared about it. That is, I was always good in little league even though I never played or cared about the sport. Had I cared, who knows? The skills that are required of basketball – limitless energy, ability to understand passing angles, knowing how to play physically but not recklessly – made me a good soccer player when I played on rec teams all through grade school. But once middle school hit, and once I started devoting my weekends to basketball tournaments and trips to inner-city gyms in Kansas City, Mo., soccer was nixed from the mix.
Jonathan’s story is not dissimilar. He played soccer all through grade school, but he never really devoted himself to the sport the way he did basketball. He is tall and strong and coordinated, and like me his build is more suited for the pitch than the court. (Importantly, he is tall only on a normal-person scale, not a basketball-player scale. He’s probably 6-3, which is the height of many quality guards. That is not, however, the height of quality forwards, which is what Jonathan always played growing up.)
So, here we have two fairly athletic 24-year-olds, each of whom played soccer, and played soccer pretty well, even though we never really cared about it. Alas, each of us spurned soccer in lieu of basketball, a sport that, per the physical abnormalities required to play it at an elite level, we couldn’t really thrive at.
That’s not to say we wasted our time with basketball, or that we harbor regrets about our sport of choice, or that we aren’t good at basketball. I was, after all, invited to walk-on at my Div. II university on the strength of my buttery shooting touch, and I will always be good enough to get picked up when I played at random gyms because the ability to rain jump shots is a skill that even the tallest and springiest of basketball players don’t often possess. And while my basketball experiences with Jonathan are confined to the courts of China, I’m sure that he, too, will never have trouble playing pick-up ball because, even though he’s short by NBA standards, he’s no midget. An athletic six-foot-three guy, like a guy who can rain jump shots, will always be a commodity in non-competitive hoops.
But the fact that we never devoted ourselves to soccer is a telling (and damning) testament to the sport’s place among American youth. Just think: The United States hosted the World Cup in 1994, when we were both impressionable eight-year-olds. We both watched that Cup (and all ensuing Cups) zealously, for while we ultimately didn’t choose soccer, we nonetheless appreciate and enjoy the game. Still, we couldn’t be bothered to dedicate ourselves to soccer: Despite the fact that so-so white athletes are the minute minority in the upper-reaches of the basketball world, we made the conscious choice of basketball over soccer. That is, we chose a sport (basketball) in which we were resigned to relative mediocrity over a sport (soccer) in which we had the physical tools to compete at a higher (if not elite) level.
And this is what has always happened in America, and likely what will continue to happen, even with the endearing 2010 U.S. squad’s jaunt to the knockout round in this year’s World Cup. Kids rarely choose soccer, even if it makes sense for them to do so.
As I watched the States’ final game again Ghana, I couldn’t help but imagine what it would have been like had, say, LeBron James opted for soccer. Every time Landon Donovan lofted a searching ball into the box – balls which invariably skirted across the tops of the U.S. players’ heads – I fantasized about LeBron soaring in to head one home. And while guys who, like LeBron, are 6-foot-8 don’t oft succeed at the highest levels of international soccer, you can’t convince me that he wouldn’t be a kick ass soccer player. He is a true physical anomaly, a never-before-seen mix of power, athleticism and coordination. Remember, had a scholarship offer to play wide receiver at Ohio State, even though he was the nation’s best high school basketball player. Someone who could have played at one of the top football universities in the nation but instead opted to become the first overall pick in the NBA Draft surely could have learned to play soccer, right?
It’s easy to envision a number of top-flight American athletes playing soccer. What if you put Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson out on the wing? Or the majestically coordinated Chris Paul in midfield? Had these guys been born in any other country in the world, they would have likely been trying to cultivate their immense physical attributes into soccer skills. Instead, they’re playing American sports. Which is exactly what Jonathan and I did.
Look, I’m not saying that Jonathan and I would have been anything special at soccer. Could we have played in high school? Yes. Could we have played at a small-time university? Maybe. Could we have played in the World Cup? Certainly not. But even if we aren’t world-class caliber athletes, our story rings true across the country: Kids who knew full well that they were better suited for soccer still chose to devote themselves to basketball. And are still devoting themselves to basketball.