CHINA CAGERS BOOK A ‘SWISH’ BUT NOT ‘SWISHY’
From Carolina Blue to ‘His ass is blue’ in reporter’s hoops odyssey
Jim Yardley’s “Brave Dragons” can be read two ways, at least; one, as a basketball book that takes place in China; or, two, alternately, the parallax case, which I find compelling, as a book on China that uses basketball as trope, meme, organizing structure, story, background or substrate. Hoops is the ball, here, but modern China is the net, popping up through the rim after the various insightful and literary “swishes”. The players run various motions, drills and in games – or not; they in default pass off to the American and clear out– but maybe we are actually watching China, the skylines roaring up, the trains whizzing by, the hotels and malls blinking to life, as we squint to distinguish clues and familiar brands, from knock-offs; the bikes and taxis, whizzing past each other impossibly, their use of our language: their billion-man-weave, and King Rag/googolplex of cues, clues and kung-fusions. As the subhead states: “A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing”. Clashing, but riffing off each other, our game and theirs, equal and opposite reactions, mutual contamination, a cultural exchange, cross-pollination in cross-over dribbles; Schrodinger’s cat meets the beckoning kitty, meets Walt ‘Clyde’ Frazier in his Pumas.
I’ve never been to China but am finding myself more and more intrigued by it. My parents went when it first opened up and I recall they brought me a Mao Jacket I never wore and a bamboo chicken sculpture either lost or discarded in our various family downsizings and potlach randomizing redistributions of wealth.
I’ve been a basketball fan for most of my life; I traveled to summer programs in Mexico and Europe carrying a ball, for instance, as a way to keep somewhat in form with my hopes of high school varsity glory – achieved somewhat: I was a benchwarmer for a championship team, although nowadays, I hardly notice that March Madness is starting or who the seeds are. I am more likely to catch the Hung Liu show at Oakland Museum than to watch all three games of the Final Four.
I remember thinking I was sophisticated for insisting on Hunan food (i.e. spicy, like Brandy Ho, Hunan Homes et all, North Beach, circa 1986) rather than Chinese per se (compared to my mom telling me that years ago, on cooks night out, she would go to Chinese for chop suey, Hyde Park or Lakeshore Drive, circa 1950). To me Nanking was a restaurant on Kearney Street(Peter Fang) before it was a historical novel by a tragically sensitive author(Iris Chang). I remember being intrigued about a review of a book that said that wonton means “swallow cloud”. Food, by the way, does play a bit part in “Brave Dragons” like Bonzi Wells complaining about it or Yardley being socially compelled to eat too many buns as a special guest in someone’s home.
Part of my hopes for this book is that it will give me insight into my city Palo Alto’s new “Strategic relationship” with the Yangpu District of Shanghai – so far my kneejerk or run and gun reaction to the deal is to think we are being duped into backing a real estate boondoggle. I admit I am a little confused about the distinction between Mandarin and Cantonese. Or what came before Pinyin. Although I did correspond with Merriam-Webster on a point related to this regarding Webster’s Ninth, not to digress, and got a letter praising my observational ability. (I was the first letter on the point but they had already fixed the problem, for edition ten dictionary. I wrote to say that they used the term “Wade-Giles” in their definition of “pinyin” but there was no entry for “Wade-Giles” itself).
I think Yardley’s book would make an interesting movie, along the lines of “Iron and Silk” Mark Salzman’s 1987 book and movie about his interest in swordfighting, and not coincidendentally I think Jessica Yu would be an interesting person to pitch the rights to, on the strength of the fact that she, I and Jim Yardley all worked together briefly for the Gunn High Oracle newspaper. (I suggested previously above that Yu would make a good person to tell the Jeremy Lin story. Yu also going on to marry Salzman and win an Academy Award for documentary film, and does commercial directing for example “Ping Pong Playa” which I thought at first was a beach movie).
One effect of this book is that I now can claim, for the first time, even the faintest sense of Chinese geography, thanks to the handy map by Steven Shukow. Yardley spent a good portion of 2008 commuting between Beijin (where, for six years, he was a New York Times writer) and Taiyun, in a province due West, in the interior, maybe 300 miles) where he covered the struggling Shanxi Brave Dragons. The book describes trips to coastal cities like Shanghai (where the Brave Dragons played the Sharks), Guangdong, well to the South, to play both Guangdong by the way it amazes me that the spell checker here warns me from leaving out the middle “g” Southern Dragons of Dongguan or the Dongguan New Century Leopards of Tangxia. There are also trips described in eagle-eye detail to Bayuquan (Liaoning Pan Pan Dinosaurs) , Tianjin (Golden Lions), Quingdao (Double Star), Ningbo (Bayi Rockets, the New York Yankees of the CBA, and a club affiliated most closely with the PLA, People’s Republic Army). There’s also a Chinese New Year’s holiday beach trip described whose participants included Yardley, coach Bob Weiss and wife, Nigerian Center Olumide Oyedeji and his entourage, and Brave Dragon interpreter Garrison Gua.
One insight of mine is that although I have been pondering the Jeremy Lin story for more than a year, the treatment of the lone Taiwanese player on the Dragons makes me realize I over-estimate by half the upside of the Taiwanese-American Lin in Asia. Sports Illustrated said it could be worth a billion dollars to the former Palo Alto Viking; I am guessing, if anyone asks me, probably no more than two or three hundred million. The description of the tug of war between Chinese government, the League (partially single-ownership, partially run by local business tycoons, not unlike the model of the American Major League Soccer entity; or see also, The Economist, December 2011 “Little red card” about failure of Chinese soccer), the NBA, who built three stadiums in China, in conjunction with AEG but still have not real foothold. My first thought for Jeremy Lin was that based on that one partial season with the Knicks, or that one Friday in Madison Square Garden, he should partner with Dillion Schneider of Harlem Globetrotters organization (and a Dartmouth contemporary of mine) to form a barnstorming team, tied to an equipment manufacturer, and tour Asia that way (not unlike the And1 league or circuit or initiative that was trendy in 2007-2008 domestically).
The Nigerians in the book reminded me of my brief acquaintance and correspondance (mostly about music) with former Penn star Ugonna Onyekwe, who I met at Stanford’s museum a couple years ago, and wrote about, albeit indirectly. Actually that piece, “Heroic stoic dude named Ugonna….” was similar to this in tone, style, breadth and general confusion-inducing-ness.
As a Pulitzer-prize winning (for coverage of Chinese legal system) Timesman who loves and knows hoops, hailing from Page High of Greensboro, NC (where, for instance Danny Manning played) and UNC Tar Heels (overlapping with Michael Jordan), he had a extremely privileged position to take on this type of look at Chinese basketball. They called him Yanngsee or Older Brother. I liked the scene of him playing pool in the off hours with Bob Weiss (the former Bulls star and second-tier NBA coach, for Spurs, Sonices), Bonzi Wells and others. Yardley in his forties had the perfect mix it would seem of Old Boy, confidant, mentor and sage, but could also mix it up and let his testosterone trump his Southern Charm, to optimize first respect and then access. Although he did not actually sit on the bench, he ends up in press row, dorms, practices, meals, pool hauls, vacations and slide shows with his subject. The expediency of indulging in the observer effect shows in the prose; Yardley is part of the team he is covering and probably helped the team in its modest success (of moving form the cellar to tenth place, despite numerous obstacles).
This book would be dope for teenage hoop fans, but could also be used in university level development courses. (He also recommends Brook Larmer’s Yao Ming biography, which he calls “the gold standard for Westerners writing about Chinese hoops”).
The book is just out in paperback, although I am pleased to have procured a first edition hard. The story is not spoiled by the five year incubancy period. Now we can use Youtube to find supplemental peeks into the topic of CBA; Stephon Marbury displaced Bonzi Wells as the greatest foreigner to grace the CBA – I also found a chapter in the 2012 Best Sports writing on Marbury in China.
There were modest departures into manufacturing (Spalding and its contractors) and the history of hoops; coincidentally Shanxi was the site of one of the first YMCA built by Christian missionaries in China in the late 19th century shortly after James Naismith nailed the peach hoop to the wall in Springfield, Massachusetts. Yardley takes us on a site trip and deftly compares the relative fates of YMCA and basketball in this different soil. Or actually, he compares the seeds of basketball planted in China and the U.S. and their very different fruition.
I would rank this book with: A Sense of Where You Are by John McPhee, Hoosiers, the recent Harvey Araton “When the Garden was Eden” (which I am anxious to crack open; I pawed it yesterday at Books Inc at Town and Country, where I also noticed BD in paper), “The White Shadow” tv show, “The Punch” by John Feinstein.
Yardley (Julius) peppers his book with a hint of the Chinese he has picked up but all the while slashing through the lane with his “Alex” English.
(I have to admit I was pre-sold on the books merits due to my longtime friendship with JBY and the fact that the book’s focal point shares my name, Weiss).
I said this earlier but I have fond memories of shoot arounds at Stanford Escondido Village with Jim Yardley and his little brother Bill, those spring afternoons 32 years ago. The Yardleys came here because Rosemary Yardley (now Rosemary Roberts) won a Knight Fellowship to study for a year on the Farm. Years later I learned that music maven Ian MacKaye (Fugazi, Dischord Records, A Minor Threat and The Evens) also spent a year here, a few years prior, as an eighth-grader at Terman, in a similar deal. Bill Yardley, who I recall as barely five-feet, is now a Timesman, based in Seattle (bureau chief) and writing some interesting obituaries of late, for example, for the drummer of the rock band Spirit.
I was tempted to start this with a discussion of monsters; Bonzi Wells, Boss Wang, unfettered Capitalism unhitched from Democracy; also, here we have some discussion of the meaning of our foray into Shanghai development circles and a discussion of the pros and cons of a billionaire builder to donate (some say “push through”) a new gym at Palo Alto High (a classic oldschool pit, where, besides me as a visitor, the court has seen among other Jeremy Lin, Jim Harbaugh, senator Ron Wyden and Celtics “Jungle Jim” Luscutoff) – I am wondering if there is an analogy between YMCA building gyms in the 1890s and billionaire Mormons building gyms here. I’ve digressed from Brave Dragons but the Yardley book does provide context for many other topics of currency regarding these games we play. Five-on-five billion. Who’s got next?
Does Ai Wei Wei have Yardley Brave Dragon style?
Somewhere in here I wanted to mention that I played on a 25-3 championship team that featured more Chinese (Alan Ng and Jerry Chang) than blacks (Danny Brown).
In the movie version I’d like to see an actual Dragon (CGI, actual enough) running thru and enlivening various scenes like the creature downriver a ways in Bong’ Joon Ho’s 2006 film “The Host”. I can also picture a fanpage that mashes BD:TCC with “The Hobbit” (cf Smaug) and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”; maybe just the New Year’s beach trip by the Chinese and Nigerians he describes.
Superchunk, “Slack Motherfucker” not that ‘chunk has toured China but that founding guitarist is a childhood friend of JBY;
Of Monsters and Men: ()
Imagine Dragons, “It’s Time” (“Zhongyu”?), from Vegas, on Interscope, appearing in Raleigh, NC on May 5.
Peter Paul and Mary – This is kind of a weird thing about being a blogger, for “Plastic Alto” and NOT a Timesman or even editor of the Gunn Oracle: I’ve written about 2,000 words, on and off all day, except for checking on the aging cocker spaniel — and I actually sprained my left ankle, rushing her to the yard, a wee bit too late, if you get my drift, so much for BD:TCC inspiring MY hoops comeback — about five hours total, and I know there are at least 20 spots to edit or clarify, but I publish anyhow, or post or update in that the internet, wordpress, at least at my level is sort of like writing in a spiral notebook and leaving it open-faced on a coffee-house table. On average 50 people eventually will see my posts, or it may go viral but basically its just me and the cloud; I’ve spent the last few moments watching videos — does this review even need a sound-track? I spent five minutes sorting between some random guy pondering to himself and 83 viewers about translating “Puff The Magic Dragon” into Chinese and hearing in entirety a novelty song by the novelty act Flight of the Conchords — 8 million hits — a parody of the Peter Yarrow Leonard Lipton classic they call “Albi the Racist Dragon”. The search-injun does helpfully over me some kind of translate, and that Elon Musk named his spaceship after samesaid Dragon. Yardley was born year of dragon whereas months earlier in ’64 I was fated to be a hare. I think of the links as a tradeoff or trade-up for writing>rewriting.
Terracota Troops: short-lived local band featuring soon-to-be-more famous Japanese rapper Shing02.
Sweetbox: Germany and LA-based project with rotating vocalists, actually used by Dragon’s dj, and lyrics quoted by JBY in book. “Don’t Push Me” featuring Jade Valerie, a mixed race Pinay from San Diego, whose real name is Jade Villalon. Apparently the producers auditioned 3,000 singers to continue the project after her departure, all of this news to me, and more obscure than Henry Finkel, despite my 18 years in the music scene (domestically — I am down with Girls’ Generation, the K-Pop group, thanks to John Seabrook of the New Yorker, however).
Another amusing observation about Americans playing basketball in China is when Bonzi Wells noted the Chinese players habit of touching each other, in a brotherly way and wondered if they were homosexuals. By the way, it’s “Bonzi” because of his childhood fondness for bon-bons, not “bone-zi” for something more stereotypical. (Although truth be told, although I actually have a framed trading card of Bob Weiss, I wasn’t sure I had heard of Bonzi Wells until this book…)
The full name of the team includes the word translated as Zhongyu which means “finally” which maybe in this case refers to the lag between his research and publication.
Here is Yardley’s screen test to play himself in the film version of “Brave Dragons”. If you give him a little Tsingdao, his voice softens a bit and you can hear the Carolina twang. If the movie gets made within five years, he can play himself, otherwise you’d have to opt for a younger man playing the thirty-something Yardley; maybe John Krasinski from “The Office,” who went to Brown, grew up in Newton, Mass., 82 miles from Springfield, was in a comedy troupe called Out of Bounds and once coached youth basketball in Rhode Island. Or, do it as a documentary slash reality show, in India(where Yardley relocated after Beijing), with “Jai Bhim Comrade ” director Anand Patwardhan, who I met on the Farm recently and have his cell and email direct. Maybe pro basketball in India can be a way up for the dalit. There’s a longer video of Jim talking China per se.
Here is link to GQ article in May, 2011 by Wells Towers, about Stephon Marbury in Shanxi (anthologized in “Best of 2012” go figure).
Around the time, Feb. 2012 that Yardley’s book in hardcover came out, The Times ran this story which is somewhere between an abstract and an update of Brave Dragons (ok for future reference I’m going with BD:TCC). I didn’t know about Yardley’s book until a blurb in the Sunday book review three weeks ago.
*Or as David Shields says when I write about Clyde I write about myself, because I bought those shoes for $100 from Aaron Biner at Premier on Bryant. and that’s a ping-back to a previous post…
That I mis-identified team owner and steel-industry millionaire Boss Wang in earlier versions of this reminds me that I sometimes refer to the leadership of local Palo Alto Weekly as their “Dong-Johnson”.