In 2008, Bob Weiss, a once-upon a time NBA player, a long time coach, mostly as an assistant but with three stints as a head coach, involuntarily retired, recovering from cancer surgery, sixty-eight years old and looking without enthusiasm at turning seventy in a couple of years, took a job as head coach of the Shanxi Brave Dragons of the Chinese Basketball Association.
Weiss had never been to China. He didn’t speak any Chinese. He still had hopes---fading hopes, but still hopes---that his phone would ring and it would be the general manager or head coach of an NBA team calling to say, “Bob, we need you.”
But the Dragons’ owner offered Weiss a pile of money to come to China to teach his team how to play NBA style hoops and in the process make champions out of hopeless losers.
Weiss’s first year with the team is the subject of Jim Yardley’s charming, entertaining, informative, and often amusing new book, Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing , which opens with Weiss arriving in China to find Dragons playing and training in facilities, with equipment, and under conditions not even a third-rate American junior college team would tolerate. He could talk to only a few of the players he was expected to teach how to play like American professionals without an interpreter. His Chinese players were demoralized, convinced of their inferiority, resigned to defeat whenever they took to the court, and whatever love they’d ever had for the game drained out of them by bad coaching and worse luck. They been trained to play a rote, textbook, cautious, flat-footed style of ball that American CYO teams had abandoned generations ago. And they were hampered by something else.
Despite the success of Yao Ming, old Chinese basketball insiders believe Chinese players are genetically inferior to Westerners, at least when it comes to handling the physical demands of the game. How do you coach players in a sport they’ve been taught they’re biologically incapable of excelling in?
Oh, and Weiss met with one more surprise. The team’s owner was nuts.
At least when it came to basketball, the game and the business.
Among many of the general managers, players, and reporters who followed the Chinese Basketball Association, Boss Wang was regarded as just short of a madman, a meddler who had fired fifteen (or sixteen?) coaches since buying the team in 2002. He had fired a Korean coach, an Australian coach, and a dozen-plus Chinese coaches. He had been fined repeatedly for his outbursts during games, and although league officials appreciated his dedication to the sport (and the money he was willing to pour into it), they were relieved his team was located far away from the media spotlight, in the city of Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi Province, at the heart of the nation’s polluted coal belt. The team was an embarrassment on the court, and Boss Wang was an embarrassment off it.
Yardley is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the New York Times who spent eight years as a bureau chief in China and India. Brave Dragons is his opportunity to bring together a lot of what he observed of the economic, political, and social changes that have roiled China over the past decade around a single story. That story isn’t all about basketball, although of course the Brave Dragon’s season is the backbone of the narrative. It’s the story of a collection of characters of varying degrees of eccentricity and adaptability trying to feel their way into a culture that is in upheaval. It seems a matter of course that the Americans would have trouble navigating. For instance, former NBA star Bonzi Wells, brought onto the team mid-season, is overwhelmed by the culture shock and takes to locking himself in his apartment whenever he’s off the court. Weiss, however, is mostly just baffled by his new home, but he’s an easy-going and flexible guy and resigns himself to enjoying being baffled. His wife Tracy, meanwhile, falls in love with China. She has great fun losing herself in the streets of Taiyuan for the adventure of it, adopting stray animals and lost souls along the way, becoming a surrogate mother to several of the very young men on her husband’s team.
But it turns out that some of the people Yardley writes about who have the most trouble fitting themselves into the new China are Chinese.
The saddest and most lost character may be Liu Tie, Weiss’ “assistant” coach.
Weiss’ biggest surprise upon taking over as the Dragons’ head coach was that he wasn’t actually going to coach the team. Boss Wang may or may not have shared the Chinese prejudice that Chinese players were biologically incapable of an NBA level of play but he believed they were emotionally and psychologically undisciplined. Weak, actually. Weak of will and weak of heart. Unlike Americans, freedom for Chinese players didn’t give them room to make creative use of their talents and skills. It encouraged them to give into their natural inclination to sloth and indifference. Therefore the players must be subjected to constant discipline and regimentation. Boss Wang judged Weiss too kindly and relaxed to be hard enough on his players so he gave the job of running the team to Liu.
Weiss’ role was symbolic. He would be consulted, his advice would be welcomed, but he was really there to inspire with his presence.
Liu sets to work running the team ragged during practices, enforcing the old, uninspired, uninteresting (to players and fans), and self-defeating style of play during games, and beating down the pride and breaking down the egos of the Chinese players on and off the court. One of his training exercises is to have the players take turns piggy-backing each other other up a steep hill on the run. Naturally, the result is players who are exhausted and demoralized. Convinced of the inadequacy of their own play and terrified of making mistakes, they avoid the ball and give it away immediately when they can’t.
Weiss manages to gain some roundabout control of the team. The Americans and other non-Chinese players aren’t subject to Liu and they ignore him and listen to Weiss and through them Weiss is able to direct some of the Chinese players during games. The Brave Dragons win games, despite Liu’s coaching, but Liu, young and inexperienced, is egocentric enough to credit himself with the victories and naive enough to believe that Boss Wang approves of what he’s doing and whole-heartedly supports him. He’s stunned and heartbroken when Boss Wang decides the team isn’t improving fast enough and yanks control of the team away from him, giving it outright to Weiss and relegating Liu to running practices for the Brave Dragons’ junior squad. By doing what he thinks Boss Wang wanted him to do he winds up the most old-fashioned and traditionalist member of the organization, the most representative of a China that is passing.
The person happiest and most at home in the new China may be the team’s DJ, Ren Hongbing, who has turned his music mixing into his art form with his soundboard as his medium. What he does during games goes far beyond keeping the crowd entertained and pumped up during breaks in the action and providing occasional wah-wah-wah commentary on the opposing team’s mistakes. He scores the games like movies, composing soundtracks on the fly.
Think it’s tough for budding American artists to explain their dreams to parents who had more practical ambitions for the children’s futures? Imagine being a young Chinese trying to explain to his diehard Maoist parents why he’s traveling from dance club to dance club in order to study rap music as the apprentice to a Dutch disc jockey.
But Ren Hongbing---whose name means Red Soldier. He has a sister named Red Heroine and brothers named Red Fighter and Red Guardian---persevered and now his parents are among his biggest fans and enthusiastically attend every Brave Dragons home game.
The most mixed-up character is the Brave Dragons’ owner. As Yardley paints him, Boss Wang is a walking example of the Chinese dilemma. The Chinese have a genius for imitation that’s driving the growing economy but they don’t understand or make an effort to understand the thinking, the culture, or the history behind what they’re trying to imitate.
Boss Wang wants his players to play like Americans while remaining his idea of good Chinese, obedient, tractable, overcautious. He shows them videos of Michael Jordan and other NBA greats being great, but he means it to be inspirational not instructive, and then he throws fits when the players fail to play as if inspired.
Boss Wang---his real name is Wang Xingjiang, but nobody including his own son calls him by any other name than Boss Wang---is a self-made billionaire, a former factory hand who, through a mix of grit, ambition, intelligent business decisions and a fortuitous marriage to the daughter of a communist party official, worked his way up to owning his own steel mills. As a young man, he’d played basketball for the company team, which in those days pretty much meant being a professional. He loved the game. Unfortunately, he hated losing more. A lot more. And owning a losing team was driving him out of his mind.
The real problem, though, was that although Boss Wang regarded himself as a reformer and an innovator---his success as a businessman the best evidence that he was right---he was at heart and in spirit a traditionalist, even a reactionary. Reform and innovation were what the man in charge say they are and they are allowed only to the degree the man in charge allows and he was the man in charge and his definitions were narrow and his allowances few and far between.
Boss Wang wants change but it turns out that what most needs changing is the owner’s attitudes and behavior and Boss Wang isn’t about to change.
After hiring Weiss, he continues to meddle capriciously in the running of the team on the court. He issues orders and instructions in the afternoon that contradict orders and instructions he issued in the morning and that he’ll contradict again the next day. He sits on the bench and shouts out orders during games. He calls plays. He runs practices. He scolds and bullies and publicly humiliates players, individually and as a team, subjecting them to screaming tirades and tantrums that sometimes go on for an hour or more. At one point, he punches a player he thinks is slacking.
He brushes off Weiss’ advice and concerns and doesn’t bother to consult him before making major decisions affecting the team’s roster. Midway into the season, just as the Brave Dragons are finding a groove, Boss Wang dumps their American star, Donta Smith, who was not only one of their two best players, but a leader on the court who knew how to get his Chinese teammates to play aggressively and intelligently instead of timidly and by rote. Smith played in the NBA, but only for a couple of seasons, and Boss Wang decides to replace him with Bonzi Wells, because he’s heard Wells was a star. Wells was a star all right. He was also a notorious problem player with a bad temper a rep for being selfish on the court and divisive in the locker room. And he was coming off an injury. Weiss tries to warn him but Boss Wang signs Wells anyway.
When he arrives, Wells sets about proving that while his bad boy reputation might have been exaggerated, it was not entirely undeserved.
But because Wells is scoring machine and the Dragons win a few games they maybe wouldn’t have without him, all Boss Wang learns from this is that his Chinese players have only one job on the court, get the ball to Wells and get out of his way.
This frustrates even Wells himself, who despite his temperamental nature is a smart player who knows how the game should be played. Wells takes it upon himself to try to teach the Dragons’ most talented Chinese player and the one Weiss, Wells, and other basketball insiders think most has it in him to play at an NBA level how to make the most of his talents on the court. And all this does infuriate Boss Wang and turn him against that player.
Brave Dragons is an album of character sketches and magazine-length profiles of such characters. Among others included are a Taiwanese player who has to endure taunts and insults from his Chinese teammates for not being a “real” Chinese, an American coach of another team who unlike Weiss never had a professional job back home and alternates between a making the best of his situation fatalism with some wistful daydreaming about returning to the United States as an assistant in the NBA, and the person I found most likable after Tracy Weiss and the closest the book comes to having a hero, the Dragons’ best player, their giant Nigerian center, Olumide Oyedeji.
Chinese Basketball Association rules allow teams to have several “foreigners” on their rosters, only two of whom can be Americans and only two of the foreigners can be on the court at a time. Chinese teams draw from a world-wide network of available professionals, many of them Americans, but most of them from Europe, Africa, and Central Asia, who move around all the time, from city to city, country to country, continent to continent, often jumping teams in mid-season, playing for whoever pays them well or offers them the best launching pad to the next, more lucrative contract. (Sneaker deals figure heavily in the decisions.) You’d think Chinese fans might resent these mercenaries. But that turns out not to be the case, at least not between Brave Dragon fans and Olumide.
Much as he likes and respects Bob Weiss, Olumide isn’t all that happy playing for Boss Wang. He has no definite plans to stick with the team after this season. He doesn’t hide himself away as Wells does, but he does hold himself somewhat aloof from his Chinese teammates and rather than trying to make himself at home in China, he manages to recreate a little bit of Nigeria around himself. But the fans love him and he accepts it as part of his job to not only allow himself to be loved but to love the fans back.
Quite unexpectedly, the team was the surprise of the CBA. Eleven games into the 50-game season, the Brave Dragons had won seven, lost four and were an early contender for a playoff spot. True, the coaching arrangement was still a mess., and Boss Wang was meddling more and more. But Olumide was leading the league in rebounding at 19 per game, and Donta Smith was arguably the league's most versatile player, scoring, rebounding, and dishing out assists to his Chinese teammates, who were finishing the job. In Taiyuan, success had startled the fan base.. The local press was portraying Weiss as a Western guru (Liu Tie was also credited), while Olumide had easily become the team's most popular player. A knot of fans in Brave Dragon jerseys waved photos of the big Nigerian during home games and serenaded him with cheers. When Olumide dove for a loose ball or fell hard to the court---and falling theatrically to the floor was apparently stipulated in his contract, given how often it happened---Taiyuan gasped. Then, as Olumide slowly rose, grimacing or shaking out a potentially injured limb, the cheers filled the stadium. Olumide would smile and trot down the court, waving his arms at the crowd, and sometimes even shouting out in Yoruba. Of course, no one had clue what he was saying.
That mutual love fest, which is based on a shared love of basketball, becomes something of a controlling metaphor for the book.
Brave Dragons sometimes reads like a collection of articles for the New York Times Magazine, earnest and informative but only thematically related pieces on subjects like the history of the YMCA in China, the NBA’s attempts to develop China as a market, the lingering aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, how basketballs are made, and how to celebrate the lunar New Year without burning your house down. But they coalesce around the story of the Brave Dragons up and down season, which at heart is a story about a group of strangers brought together by a shared devotion to a beautiful game.
Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing by Jim Yardley, published by Knopf, is available from Amazon in hardback and for kindle.