Hoop Crazy: My Kingdom for a Club!

Oh, man. After nearly four years in Dalian, China, I found a club for my boy. Lucked out, I did – it turned out that it operates out of my own university, and I happened to poke my head into the gym one Saturday morning in the middle of a run. Kids?! Playing BASKETBALL?!I was so excited, and between my limited

I miss Linus, too.

Chinese and the coach’s non-English, I managed to walk away with a sheet of paper I couldn’t understand, a vague conception of how the club operated, and a phone number. A few translations, a little coaxing, a couple of months and a friend’s phone call later, I spent some weekend hours watching Son the Fourth on imitation hardwood. An old coach’s pedestrian prayer has been answered. I love it too much! as my Chinese students say. They mean so much, but in my case, my fever for the game does run absurdly hot, sometimes, even after all these years.

My nutbar is 12, and when he was seven and eight, he looked like basketball might be good to him. He scored lots in his east Ottawa house league, with and against often-older boys. (Shout-out to the mighty GCBA, the Gloucester-Cumberland Basketball Association, and the well-organized, kid-friendly hoops experience that I miss for my son. Teams! Jerseys! Refs! Christmas pizza!) The season he was nine, when a rep team might have been a possibility, we moved to China, and he’s played very little since.

Good stuff for kids. Canada has lots of this.

Chinese schools barely do physical education – unless it happens to be one of the rare sports hothouses – and when they did in my lad’s local elementary school, it was mainly marching, which by sixth grade had given way to extra math drill. For one shining interlude, there had been playground basketball at recess and noons, but it was cancelled abruptly because it was “too dangerous”. (Allegedly, a little girl had been hit by an errant ball, but I figure that the boys were just having too much fun. No more o’ that.)

My own playing, by contrast, has had a renaissance in China. Back in my mid-30s, I was coaching like a fiend: high school varsity and developmental club teams, summer elite development programs, and organizing leagues for youngsters and local feeder schools. On the occasions when I got the chance to play myself, I usually ended up angry because my skills weren’t sharp and my body wouldn’t cooperate. My players and teams were improving, so there was less (perceived) need for me to scrimmage so I could push the top kids; I was also a better coach, and running more sophisticated practices, the kind you can’t really conduct from the sweaty inside. So I stopped. I biked some, ran some, pushed up some, but that didn’t prevent the pounds from accruing. It was harder to justify, to myself or wife and family, much time for workouts when I was teaching and coaching so avidly.

Since 2009, though, as a fifty-something dude, the two universities where I’ve taught provided me what was nearly impossible to come by in Canada: pick-up games, at nearly any hour of the day, close to my home and work, at a level I can manage. The games aren’t always that great, as most of the students have taken up the game after high school, and nearly none have ever been coached. Still, I can usually find my way into a game where my desire to hang in with quick young dudes – and some beefy ones, too – gives me a good sweat, thigh definition, some competitive consolation, one blown ankle and an unintentionally pierced eyebrow.

But my son, from nine to his current 12 years, has mainly had nobody to play with, and his interest in the game has withered. He doesn’t want to play with his old man and a bunch of 20-somethings he doesn’t know. The NBA games I sometimes watch of a Saturday or Sunday morning don’t even distract him from his homework, for pity’s sake! His friends don’t play outside much, nor are there good places for it, though I’m glad they sometimes get out for some soccer during furloughs from homework.

My ridiculous and tiny flame of hoops hope, though, has been fanned by the two sessions Bozo has spent over at the Dongcai Sports Hall. There a young coach, much like I was 25 years ago, slickly demonstrates and eagerly overemphasizes individual offensive skills, to a mishmash of mainly unathletic but obedient boys whose parents have slipped basketball into their schedule of piano, English, French, and extra-math sessions on the weekend. My guy likes it. He likes to move, and the coach smiles and gives him extra pointers. A boy is there that he knows from his san da training, a Chinese martial art. (They called him xiao bai long, “little white dragon”, and he can still swing a mean set of nunchukas.) His fluent Chinese allows him to fit right in, despite the floppy blonde hair, and what he remembers of basketball from Dad’s Driveway Academy and the GCBA back home — yes, and a few forced marches to play with the Ol’ Coach and his uni-students — puts him near the top of the group.

He can easily walk or bus there by himself, but so far I can’t stay away. The gym, like most facilities here, is unheated, and a Dalian March day in the stands felt like being a hockey dad back home, except for the lack of hot chocolate and space heaters, and the preponderance of staring from other parents. Still, in a way that sports nuts will recognize, it feels like home. I’m thrilled that my son now has the chance to enjoy, with kids about his age, a game I’ve madly loved since my teens. I try to keep my mouth shut. (I try to breathe.) I back away and read, or do some exercise, or write this. I don’t rush in like a fool at every sign of interest or aptitude, but listen: detachment is hard, and sport is a demanding mistress.

Young Wolverines. What he (maybe) misses, and I certainly do.

Do you think I could still make a rep team back home? was a question I wasn’t ready for, even though I have chronically worried about his falling behind — even as he piles up cultural and linguistic richness that is incalculable. Back home in Ottawa, the GCBA has its Wolverines, competitive teams that do the provincial tournament circuit in their cool green’n’gold dazzle, and with each year that we stay, that possibility has seemed increasingly remote. But my not-so-little sprout is nearly his Mum’s height, going to be somewhere between 6’1” and 6’6”, I figure (not too deliriously), and sometimes a sweet shooting stroke blooms over the skinny jumble of arms and legs and splayed feet. Yes, and I start hoping again. Sigh. Silly man.

But if I keep it all in balance, it might be a lovely thing for the nutbar and me, so here I am, trying not to get ahead of myself, to just enjoy that my fourth son gets some of the chances his big brothers had to put heart, mind and muscle into a beautiful game. I’ll try to be reasonable, or at least to look like it.

Comment (1)

  1. With CBA playoffs going down, some good people (mentioned in Brave Dragons) are in your region and would like to meet you and your son if we new how to get in touch. you have my email, so if you like, drop me a line. David in Hong Kong

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