Better Read Than Never: Yardley’s BRAVE DRAGONS

Reviewed: Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing by Jim Yardley (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012, 304 pages)

[A slightly different version of this review also appears at, the best English-language look at all things basketball in China. It was published Feb. 22, just after T-Mac’s apparent farewell to China. Grown men cried in the airport as he left.]

I still remember that raised eyebrow, when I said, “It’s not really about basketball!” I was trying to convince my mother-in-law – potter, BBC-watcher, library ghost, someone for whom the Canadian Broadcasting Corp’s Radio 2 has gotten too damned poppy – to watch the superb documentary Hoop Dreams, a window into poverty, race, sport and education in America. This was a few years ago, and I was a new-enough son-in-law that she was still willing to give me the grudging benefit of her considerable doubt. She did finally watch it, and the review was fairly brief: “My dear, that most certainly was about basketball! But there were some interesting parts.”

So let me be clear. Brave Dragons by the American journalist Jim Yardley,

Jim Yardley, second-generation Pulitzer winner, hoops fan.

really is about the Shanxi (Taiyuan) Brave Dragons, their unpredictable owner (Boss) Wang Xingjiang, their 2008-09 season in the Chinese Basketball Association, and about Bob Weiss, the first former NBA bench boss to work in China, and the very mixed bag of players he had to work with. (I remember the chronically slump-shouldered Weiss, with a pained expression on his face, imploring referees or his Seattle Supersonics players to listen. Were I older, I’d remember him as a resilient, nothing-keeps-me-out-of-the-game player for the Chicago Bulls. Both of these qualities made him the perfect person to try to

Weiss, who came back for ANOTHER year (though not in Taiyuan).

coach in Taiyuan under Boss Wang.) It spotlights the babes-in-the-Chinese-woods that wide-eyed young Americans, imported for their superior skill, are in adjusting to hoops with Chinese characteristics. If you like basketball and find the idea (or the reality) of living in China fascinating, you’ll love Brave Dragons, but neither condition is necessary.

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Not My Brother’s YMCA

I’m looking out the 9th floor window of the Salisbury Street (downtown) YMCA in Hong Kong. Actually, I’m in Kowloon, all part of the territory so proudly reclaimed by mainland China in 1997 from the British, but Kowloon is the part attached to the mainland. The black and silver, soaring, hugely titled buildings — Panasonic, Olympus, Epson — across the harbour are on Hong Kong Island, along with Kowloon the densely populated, high-rising part of the “New Territories” of HK. (By the way, in Mandarin the newly returned “Special Administrative Region (SAR)” is known as Qiang Kang, “Fragrant Harbour”. It looks reasonably fragrant on this bright afternoon.)

It’s a city that works, that is remarkably clean, one that genuinely enacts the concept of “mass transit”, moving incredible numbers of people efficiently and, at least in the district where we are, making walking a useful and do-able way of getting around. They’ve maintained, through the decades, a lovely downtown park with massive old trees and lots of water.

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