We can better understand a foreign people by walking to a local park and watching a game of basketball than observing a session of parliament. There is a tension, unique to the sport, between the interests of the team and the individual — the game tempts players to improve their statistics at the expense of team success. Watching players balance this tension not only makes basketball a beautiful game, but also provides insight into individual and communal aspirations.
Last month, I was in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Between banana daiquiris, I snuck out of our resort, backpack strapped to my shoulders, past a dread-locked gentleman offering me a sample of “Jamaica’s national product” — to which I responded that I did not need, at present, any aluminum — crossed the street, and turned left at the Shell station, where I found a fence-enclosed court with six Jamaicans warming up for the 4:30 game. We corralled a few guys from the local meat market to play with us.
It was apparent to me from the first shot, a wide open three pointer taken by the taxi driver who told me about the game, that the home of the world’s fastest man and most famous bobsled team was not home to equally astounding basketball talent. Left more wide open than bracket buster Ali Farokhmanesh against Kansas, he proceeded to miss the backboard by a good three feet, stumble and fall down. It was the best shot he took all afternoon.
I was disappointed but not surprised. This is Montego Bay — home of Margaritaville, white rum and windswept beaches. More Bob Marley than Bob Knight.
It’s a little bit different in China.
NBA China, the National Basketball Association’s $2 billion entity, has two stated goals: develop NBA-style arenas in China and expand the league’s broadcast portfolio. It is trying to build the brand in China as successfully as its American counterpart has since the early 1980s, when David Stern became commissioner and Larry Bird and Magic Johnson revitalized the league. The NBA believes that China, due to its increasing economic power and its mammoth size — there are more basketball fans in China than Americans in America — could one day be as important to its bottom line as America. With Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov’s recent purchase of the New Jersey Nets, perhaps the days of a Chinese NBA team is not far off.
But the 450 million fans tell about more than just a country with an affinity for basketball. They explain that even in a People’s Republic of China still ruled by the Communist party, where media is censored, a country that Google has fled, many believe in the importance of the individual and self-expression, And while they hold a significant portion of America’s debt, when it comes to culture, Americans still have some power.
The Chinese have already embraced American-style basketball. For the third year in a row, Kobe Bryant had the top selling jersey in China, followed by Lebron James. Shanghai native and current Houston Rockets center Yao Ming had the sixth highest selling jersey in China. While admittedly centers have always been more difficult to market than athletic forward and guards, Yao is a national hero who returns home each year to play on the Chinese national team. If there were no love for America, he would be first.
The Chinese players closely resemble their American counterparts — wannabe all-stars with a ball, a dream, some game, but no jumping ability. They head to local parks and practice the moves of their favorite professional players — the Jordans, the Wades and the Nashes — and playground legends. “And 1” mix tapes are bootlegged and downloaded on the Chinese black market.
The Chinese have embraced American-style basketball over its many alternatives. They could play the Western-European style of fundamentally sound offensive basketball. They could even play a game like soccer or baseball with far more emphasis on the team, where players are famous but can’t do it all themselves. But they seem to prefer the modern American basketball borne out of the individualism of the 1970s embodied by defense and high-flying acrobatics.
I hope someday to go China, to sneak out of a touristy hotel, strap a backpack on my shoulders, past a man trying to sell me any number of China’s national products and find a court to play on. It will be apparent to me from the first shot, even if the player is not wide open, that no matter the current worry about China’s power vis-à-vis the United States or the American economic situation, the Chinese still play basketball like the Americans do. And their hopes and aspirations might still be the same as ours.
Adam Lior Hirst is a senior in Branford College.