Because I have connections with cool people in Beijing – well, okay, one – my itinerary on a recent trip to the capital was not the usual middle-aged tourist fare. My weekend in The Big Smoke (literally, if you look at the skyline or scout the pollution figures) was highlighted by a Saturday afternoon not pounding the pavement at Tiananmen Square or fast-breaking into Temple of Heaven Park or (thank heaven!) being full-court pressed by the salesfolk at the pearl or silk markets.
Instead, this lone man loose in the city went hooping. My ace contact had given me a standing invitation to “get in a run if you’re in ever in Beijing”, perhaps not thinking I’d be silly enough to take him up on it. I was, and (heaven help me) I was jazzed about it. Our rendezvous was set for 12:30 on the platform at the Xizhimen station of the number two metro line, the loop that runs a rough underground rectangle of the city centre. I had no idea where I was going, but I had a mobile phone and a tall young American to look for at Xizhimen – that is, until he phoned to say that he was stuck in a police station, doing the obligatory bureaucratic dance of renewing his residence permit for foreigners. (Even my ex-dancer wife didn’t enjoy this process, though our apartment manager — and the 240 yuan that he asked for as a fee — made it relatively easy.) He wouldn’t be able to meet me.
Plan B was going to be “AV”, who texted me, but then when our timing wasn’t going to fit, AV passed me on to Sultan, who was blessedly easy to spot when I got off the subway car. A short taxi ride later, this medical student, raised mainly in Beijing by a Sudanese dad and a Chinese mom, led me through the grounds of the Beijing Youth Political Institute (man, was I in the wrong room!) and a real live gym: a fine old hardwood floor, lots of room on the baseline, glass boards, and what instantly struck me as a scarily high level of player for me to presume to run with.
The Chinese guys we were playing against had bulk and four guys over 6’3”, and I’d been told they were always eager to play against foreigners. (One of them, rumour had it, had been a pro player in China; he didn’t run much, but he was a handful when he got the ball close to the basket.) I had known Sultan for 10 minutes, the host I’d never met wasn’t going to arrive for a while, and my new teammates were all fit-looking twenty-something black men: AV was Alvaro, an Angolan, and my rusty French came in handy as I gradually realized that “John” was Jean-Pierre, Samuel was from Togo and most of the rest of the guys were also from the former French colonies of West Africa. (It was one of those sweet moments where a stranger is accepted simply and warmly because of a shared love of the game.) These guys were nothing but gracious, they let me start, and they allowed me to prove that the ball was not an entirely alien object in my hands. I also learned there was another “Jay” on the court, who turned out to be from Seattle.
So as the rubber hit the road, there were some big Chinese-made trucks, sleek and sporty African (American) cars, and one rusty, white Canadian station wagon with bald tires, too much mileage and a tailpipe spewing black smoke. To tell you the truth, I actually got up and down the court pretty well for an old fella; no hamstrings popped, no calf muscles cramped. My twice-weekly jogging of the streets of Dalian allowed me to keep on running, if not exactly with astounding quickness. For a once-upon-a-point-guard, my ballhandling is pretty shaky, but I survived in a pretty decent game. I received a nice pass early, and my first short jumpshot went in, which always helps. So did my first three-pointer, off a kick-out pass from Seattle Jay. I can’t remember if I made another, possibly because I recall too vividly an early and ugly airball. I found myself with the ball, out ahead of my mates on the break. I want this to have resulted from a dazzling steal, though I suspect it was Jay who did the stealing and dealing. Anyway, I brazenly pulled up at the arc for what Sports Guy Bill Simmons would call an irrational confidence guy shot, which proved to be thoroughly unreasonable. I missed by a metre.
Yes, and I fell for the oldest trick in the Chinese book. Their old guy, likely ten years my junior, was playing the top of the standard 2-3 zone that is apparently mandated by the Party for all five-on-five play. I had the ball at the point, looking inside, when a guy wearing a dark shirt like mine popped out on the wing and clapped for the ball. I saw him peripherally, and delivered a perfect pass — to the grinning old guy on the other team. (He didn’t even say xie xie. It’s embarrassing, especially because it’s not the first time I’ve been fooled this way, but then I’d never been in games where guys tried this trick before coming to China. Canada Jay felt he’d been dishonoured; it’s against the code of basketball ethics, say I, especially in a pickup game with no team uniforms.)
I loved playing, though, with and against good players in a full-court match. Nobody on my crew wanted to play inside, unfortunately, and I tried to coach somebody into the high post, from which the right pass gets a great scoring chance against any kind of zone. I went there myself sometimes, though the ball wouldn’t usually come my way, except for one whip-quick Seattle Jay pass that assumed great hands and a jumping ability I haven’t had for
20 30 years. I learned to assume that any pass to him, however, was a heckuva move by me, as he was not only easily our best ballhandler and finisher (at a rather high-flying 6’1”), but he started to drill threes with increasing frequency, casualness and range. We’d get overwhelmed inside sometimes by the bigger Chinese men, but with Jay’s ridiculously hot hand the waiguo ren won a bunch of games.
My secret connection, I now reveal, was a young man named Jon Pastuszek, an American with fluent Chinese who is the brains and the keyboard behind an English-language website called NiuBBall.com (“Basketball With Chinese Characteristics”). It is the go-to site for info and understanding of what goes on in the world of Chinese basketball teams, players, leagues and fans. (NOTE: A somewhat different version of this post will appear on Jon’s site.) He had finally escaped from the paper-pushing, hurry-up-and-wait frustrations of the police station and hustled to the court, arriving about 45 minutes in. It was good to finally meet Jon after numerous emails and hours of pleasurable reading of his observations, not to mention a relief that he hadn’t seen the worst of my on-court clumsiness, and the real joy of having another sound and intelligent teammate to work with. Jon didn’t need my prodding to go high-post, and we got some easier scores once he’d arrived. Jon has been coached, and he knows how to play: good footwork, excellent vision, a sweet shot and fine rebounding for a very skinny 6’4″ guy. This old whistle-blower recognized him immediately; he loves AND knows the game, and is the kind of player whose talk helps teammates get through screens and be in the right spots on the floor. (My favourite bit of Jon-Talk was his rapid-fire “nopassnopassnopassnopass!” from the defensive low post whenever our most talented opponent had the ball up top; he was a 6’3” kid with quickness and strength and the typical one on five offensive mentality that most decent Chinese players that I’ve seen and played with have.)
Post-game, as I got to know Professor NiuBBall a bit better, I was glad to find that he does as much coaching as he does, though I also felt for how few opportunities he has to actually coach, and not just run kids through skills and drills in camp settings. Jon loves basketball as a player and fan, but he also thinks it like a coach. I prodded him to take every advantage of his youth, ‘cause the performance window closes for us all. Heck, my window of competitive play’s been welded shut forever, but a few more jumpers and timely passes before I packed it in were a sweet treat on a Beijing afternoon.
After post-game chatter, some of the things that “Seattle Jay” had been pulling off on the court also made a lot more sense. He was more of a ringer than I’d realized.
“So what do you do in China?” I asked.
“I play basketball.”
“Well, yeah, you sure do, but besides that?”
No, Jamaal Miller really is here to play ball, and was just using that afternoon, a pleasure that slightly crippled me for days after, as one of two separate bits of “cardio work” this 30-year-old American pro was going to fit in that day. He plays for the outlaw Beijing Aoshen club (most notably with former Laker Sun Yue), and has played professionally in Asia and Europe for about eight years. He and Jon took me on a small tour of some of their favourite ex-pat zones, including the kind of American-style sports bar/restaurant I haven’t seen in Dalian. The food was great, but the basketball talk was even better! I was like a starving man at a free smorgasbord, so good to be among men that care deeply about – and excel in – something I’ve loved for a long time.
Thanks again to Jon and all the men. And sorry: all photographs of this event have been destroyed for reasons of international harmony*.
* (Okay, nobody bothered taking any.)