Sun, Pavement, Hoops: Outdoor Sociology Class in China

Dear readers: yes, it’s about basketball again, but it’s not really about basketball, and besides, there’s more to basketball than just basketball. And who doesn’t like basketball?

I remember the first time I heard the beating drums and high-decibel chants. I thought, What? There are sports at Chinese universities? I found out that, yes, the Dongbei University of Finance and Economics suddenly sprouts, when spring comes, crowds of shouting fans ringing the outdoor courts, sometimes five and six deep, for something that looked suspiciously like basketball. They’d had them at my previous school, too, but games never happened at my end of the campus and what do I know? I pick up the gist of some conversations now, but none then, and I remain nearly as clueless in reading hanzi as when I came to Dalian five years ago. Illiteracy hurts.

The traditional Chinese drum rolled out of its first-floor closet at the School of International Business at quarter to noon today. I strolled out of my fifth-floor hideaway at about the same time, my pretence of marking papers and reading my writing students’ journals gratefully abandoned. It was SIB’s third game of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it intramural basketball tournament at Dongbei U, and it was one of the brightest, warmest days we’ve had. I’d missed the first two games through linguistic obliviousness, but such is the appetite for hoops in an ex-pat coach-without-a-team that I detected extra bounce – I’m thinking, at least half a centimetre — in my stride as I hustled toward the “playground”, as the Chinese call the asphalt courts for basketball, volleyball and (soccer) football. Every university has ’em, in abundance — especially the basketball courts. It can be a worn-out hoopster’s paradise. Sometimes.

SIB, in white, on a blue-sky day.

SIB, in white, on a blue-sky day.

Listen: the quality of play isn’t very good, but the kids are nice and the sun was shining and I’ve played with a few of SIB’s best and besides, basketball is like pizza, or ice cream: even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good. It remains a minor peeve that I was never asked to coach this team, though our squad is unusual in actually having a coach, and young Mr. Lv does know the game and plays it fairly well. (“Lv” is the correct pinyin spelling; the ‘v’ denotes a sound like the sound of ‘u’ en francais. You’re welcome.) I continue to  imagine what I’d have done with a group like ours, all of whom love the game, some of whom are decent athletes, several of whom have some skills, and one of whom is pretty darned good. I’m mainly past that, though; I just try to enjoy what the guys can do, and take in the only live basketball that’s available at the moment. The pretty girls are out in force, too, and that doesn’t bother me much. They’re so sweet, and though most of the (mainly female) fans don’t know much about what they’re seeing, their faculty pride comes out. They cheer their hearts out for an hour, and then they go back to the grind of surviving another afternoon of accounting, economics or math classes.

The first two games had been easy, Bao Yang told me, but this one might be a little

Captain Bao drives the lane; wishful would-be girlfriends sigh and snap.

Captain Bao drives the lane; wishful would-be girlfriends sigh and snap.

tougher. Mr. Bao is The Player, likely the best of all the intramural guys, and last year he’d been the only man on the university team (a homeless man’s varsity squad) who had come to Dongbei U on academic merit. (I wrote about the “varsity basketball experience in China” here.) The blue team all wore the same numbered singlets, which is pretty good uniform-approximation for these matches, and they gave our lads a bit of a scare in the first half, and again in the last couple of minutes, but our mighty SIB boys – nope, no team name – have now emerged with a perfect 3-0 record from their group games. Three more matches to their second straight Dongbei title. Yes! Here’s a quick recap of my low-grade hoops fix for a Friday afternoon:

  • The School of International Business has about 1400 students, over 70% of them female, and is known as Guoji Shang Xueyuan in Mandarin. Shout “Guo Shang!” for our school. We actually have decent white unis, as our kids are on the whole from pretty well-heeled families. With tuition fees five times what other faculties’ students pay, maybe SIB even paid for the togs. (Though I doubt it.)
  • Wang screens for Bao. NBA guys wear compression sleeves on arms these days, and so does Bao.

    Wang screens for Bao. NBA guys wear compression sleeves on arms these days, and so does Bao. These silly games briefly mean the world to these guys, just like they do for all of us who care about sports.

    Wang Yixuan wins the tap to Bao Yang, who drives straight into the teeth of the Finance Department’s 2-3 zone. He has no real shot at scoring, but draws the automatic “somebody drove” Chinese foul call. None of the massed young ladies actually swooned at the gao (tall) shuai (handsome) and no-doubt-fairly fu (rich) Mr. Bao’s breathtaking foray into enemy territory – to take an ill-advised hero-ball shot that had no chance of going in – though there were gasps and squeals, and many would certainly have swooned if they felt it gave them a competitive advantage and no permanent loss of face. (The girls have to work harder at SIB, and pretty much everywhere in China.)


  • Innovation! There are, along the sidelines of the asphalt court, advertising banners, two of the three for local coffee shops that are springing up as hip young Chinese embrace stylish caffeination. (There was a steaming coffee  cup on each banner; I had no idea what the third ad was for.) Such rampant commercialization of the purity of Chinese university sport is criminally under-reported in the West.
  • Breaking news! Both teams play 2-3 zones, and neither really knows how to attack them. (Shoot, NCAA teams often don’t seem able to, either.) Many shoulder-lowering drives into double-teams ensue. The usual.
  • (Your courtside reporter mutters only a little about taking Bao Yang off the point, where the entire zone keys on him, and putting him on the wing or in the high post, where he could maybe have one guy to beat instead of three. Gosh, looking at your humble baseline correspondent, you might have assumed he was just smiling blissfully in the sun at all this youthful exuberance, not a care in the world. Coaching obsession? Ha! This is called stoicism.)
  • Both teams have the same cheer. Actually all Chinese teams have the same cheer. Jia you! Jia you! You” is pronounced like the “yo” in yo-yo, and it means “add oil”. Add oil! Add oil! Something may be lost in translation. (Ya think?) So, our school shouts “Guo Shang! Jia you!” and the supporters of the blue guys from Finance shout “Jin Rong! Jia you!” with the same drumbeats from the same kind of drum. It gets a little predictable, but everybody knows their lines, all the time and wherever they go to watch whatever inscrutable sport. (I heard Jia you! shouts in the background of some junk-sport offering on the Chinese ESPN, as reality-TV wannabe women arm-wrestled above a rimmed table filled with water so the loser’s wrist would splash. China! Television! Jia you!)
  • Our school has a few fat kids. Fat kids rock in Chinese basketball, especially in the usual half-court, no-defence games. This running back and forth on a warm spring day, obviously, ain’t so cool for some of them.
  • After a quick run across the playground to where the SIB girls were playing – I won’t get started on this, about how women get zero encouragement to play any sport but are subject to conscription when somebody decides the school needs female representation, or about hugely embarrassed girls suddenly playing in front of crowds when most have barely played outside their (widely detested) Phys. Ed. curriculum, who are mystified by the “travelling” or “double dribble” calls, my God, where are we, the 1930s for cryin’ out loud?!, so no, I won’t get into that – I came back to find the SIB men edging away in the second half, 22-11.
  • With a rumoured three minutes or so to go in the second straight-time half, some of the Guo Shang and Jin Rong subs got to come in. Jin Rong (Finance) didn’t have many, though, and when their hot-dogging “star” — a raving showboat by Chinese standards, and I’m not just talking about the funky haircut; his wide-open, badly missed layup was a game highlight for the Guo Shang (SIB) faithful) — anyway, as I say, when the dog sat down, I’m sure he felt that that was the white flag for his team. However, I’d picked out Number 2 in the warmups as the guy to watch for the Financiers, though he barely touched the ball through most of the game. When Big Dog/Nice Hair sat down, though, the score was 28-18 for the safely resting Guo Shang starters; now that the ball might come his way, Number 2 quickly brought his team back to within 4. Yikes!
  • Best part of all – Coach Lv had already left, presumably for lunch. Wowzers! They can’t blow this, can they? Bao Yang took matters into his hands, and subbed himself back in before things got really embarrassing. He wasn’t in time to prevent an excitable rookie from madly hounding and fouling an opposing ballhandler at centre court, as if his team was down 4 with under a minute instead of winning. ell. (Down, Coach Howdy, down! Bad coach!)

And that was that. The mighty SIB/Guo Shang team, my boys, of which I now know three by name, have won their pool of four teams and advance to the quarter-finals. Three more games, potentially, in Bao Yang’s competitive basketball career, as limited as that has been. My amusement or superiority, though, melts when I see, as I did today, how much this means to a kid like Bao, and think how much fun it would have been to coach such a keener when he was young. Not much time for such silliness in China, however, and this tournament will soon be over, too. Much oil will be added, but the machine doesn’t go far, or very fast. It’s such a flawed and miniscule chunk of sporting joy, yet the kids love it and genuinely care about it, for a week or three. Shoot, so do I.

Comment (1)

  1. Samyukta

    Hi, James.
    Your enthusiasm is so contagious! I love your article even though basketball is a foreign language for me. Glad you’re doing well. Happy Easter and a hug.

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