I’m 6-foot (or, at least, on the right side of 5’11”). My vertical is probably a solid 18,” maybe 22’’ if I lift my calves. I’m slow. No doubt about that. My first step is about as predictable as the end of Titanic. Malcolm Gladwell said in Outliers that ability is founded greatly on how much you love what you do. Wayne Gretzky just really loved hockey, according to Gladwell. I’m living proof that Gladwell’s logic is not infallible, because honestly, I really really like basketball. I never believed that my inability to hit that next level of intimacy with the sport held me back from the NBA, the NCAA… or the high school bench. In any event, I’m an average athlete with above average love for the game.
In the United States, pickup basketball is a fascinating psycho-sociological platform. At Tulane our rec center had three main courts, creatively known as courts 1, 2, and 3, respectively, of course. I’ll start with court 3. Court three was at the far end of the gym. It was dark and generally just felt shittier. I remember it being colder too. That might just be selective. Who will you find on court 3? A lot of chubby, bespectacled freshmen who were just looking for, or in any case, needed, a work out. A game to 11 was good for at least 10-15 airballs, 30 turnovers, and 10 visible pit stains. If there was an athletic guy on the court, he was usually the type who would jump at the hoop and rocket the ball off the backboard. These guys were hopeless.
On court 2, you’ve got some ballers. Some kids trying to make the jump from court 3, some that don’t want to deal with court 1 (getting there), or some that were dragged by their superior or inferior friends to complete a full five. Guys who played on court 2 generally had either above average athleticism or above average skill/basketball IQ, but rarely both. Court 2 was a team game. Guys were good enough to know how to play team ball. And, because no one was incredible in his own right, team ball was the generally accepted path to victory on court 2.
Court 1. Court 1 was full of the same faces every single day. Court 1 was for giants. 6’3” to 6’5” guys who could knock you down and be completely oblivious that you even existed. But, they weren’t like the athletic guy on court 3 who would get a rebound and take off running with the ball clutched at his side, Adrian Peterson style. These guys were good. The disparity between court 2 and court 1 was enormous. That being said, court 1 was a miserable place to play. On court 3, there was no team basketball because no one was good enough to execute a pass and catch without someone needing an optometry appointment. So they wanted to play team ball, but they weren’t good enough. Court 2 was for team players who weren’t good enough to do it on their own, but who were good enough to know when to cut and set a pick. On court 1, everyone was good enough to play team ball, but it wasn’t the right venue. Whenever I was roped into playing on court 1, I spent 20 minutes huffing and puffing up and down the court praying for a rebound. If I received the ball on my teammates’ own volition (maybe once or twice) it was promptly stolen from me or I hoisted up an airball in fright that I would never get the ball back again.
Playing on court 1 was like having an intellectual conversation with Sartre and Nietzsche (I know, they lived in different centuries). You’re best to just shut up and if for some reason the dialogue lands on you, deflect it with an inconsequential comment of question. You’re only there to fill space.
I played on court 2. I liked playing on court 3 sometimes, because it gave me a minor self-esteem boost. Whereas, every time I played on court 1, I was unable to confidently talk to women for the following week. I could be one of the best on court 3, middle of the road on court 2, or a downtrodden space-filler on court 1.
American pickup rules, general:
Points to win: 11 or 15
Fouls: call your own
Win by two: yes
Dress code: Shorts and a t-shirt or jersey
Chinese pickup rules, general:
Points to win: 5
Fouls: call your own
Win by two: no
Dress code: Polo and jeans
When I got to China, my basketball destiny changed. I wouldn’t go so far as to say China is a “basketball-crazed” nation, in the sense that Italy is a “soccer-crazed” nation, but basketball is definitely the most popular team sport. Chinese kids are much more likely to know the names Kobe and LeBron than Ronaldo and Messi. However, basketball is, relatively speaking, new to the Middle Kingdom. Yao Ming’s being drafted number 1 in the 2002 NBA draft didn’t create basketball in China. After all, Yao had to learn to play the game somewhere. But, it massively changed the landscape. People forget, but Yao was really good. If he wasn’t so ginormous and, subsequently, injury prone it’s quite possible he goes down as one of the better centers of all time. It’s one thing to have 2 or 3 compatriots who play supporting roles on middling teams like, say, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey. It’s another thing when your country’s single offering to the league is simultaneously a number one pick, the tallest player in the association, and a perennial all star (even without the gratuitous Chinese voting).
Yao was gigantic in China (and generally, just, gigantic). But, what he did more than anything was create exposure. Few Americans watched Fulham play because of Clint Dempsey. Some did, surely, but they were the diehards. Much like few Chinese watched Nets games when Yi Jianlin was the 10th man off the bench. Yao was a pivotal piece of a playoff team. To this day, Chinese viewers are subject to more Houston Rockets games than any other NBA team. The result of all this: You’re much more likely to see a basketball court than a baseball diamond or soccer field pretty much anywhere in China. Ping-Pong tables are the only platform that compares.
So, basketball is pretty new in China, but the people love it. This set up perfectly for me, a denizen of court 2, to come in and make people believe I was the second coming of… a good basketball player. The average height of a Chinese male is 5’8.” While I would be considered “tall” in the US, I’m definitely tall, no quotations, in China. Most, importantly, basketball wasn’t a Chinese fixture until recent years. Whereas I’ve been getting halfway decent training/coaching since I was 5 or 6 years old, the Chinese generally play a much more unpolished brand of basketball. Many kids, especially outside of big cities, won’t get a chance to play any sort of coached, organized basketball until high school (if they even go).
What shocked me most about pickup basketball in China was the attire. Now, most dudes will show up in a T-shirt and shorts, or some minor variation. However, there’s always a substantial minority (30-40%) that look like they missed the locker room completely. Polos, khakis, jeans, SANDALS. But some of them can really ball. I once got crossed over by a high-schooler covered from head to toe in fake Versace (Werzace, [something Polish looking] I believe it was). A true low.
In Shanghai, I used to play at the Tongji University courts with a few expat buddies. We generally played on the proverbial court 1. Almost always half-court, games to 5. After every made basket, the team that scores simply has to clear the ball past the three-point line. There’s no checking, which I still haven’t acclimated to. The most noticeable difference in gameplay comes via foul calls. If someone misses an inside shot, it’s almost invariably a foul. On the flipside, you could get bowled over, knocked to the ground, and have 2nd degree battery perpetrated upon you by the opposing team, and you’d be called blind if you tried to cry foul.
A few years ago, I was playing at Tongji University. It was sunny. I should note that sunny means, “allegedly sunny” in Shanghai. You kind of have to take the meteorologist’s word for it, because you’ll almost never actually see the sun through the thick film of smog. In any event, it was a hot late spring day. My apartment was located on the same road, about 20 minutes by foot from Tongji. I always walked there, never walked back. So I met up with my buddy Nate, who I usually played with. We played a few games on court 1. During a water break, we noticed a huge crowd forming on one of the other courts. There had to be at least 75 guys. Approximately 30-40% of which were wearing skinny jeans. Almost all the courts had emptied. Everyone circled around the one. We walked over. They were all watching a 3-on-3 game. However, one of the six participants was a 7-foot black guy. On the court were a bunch of 5’5”-5’8” Chinese dudes (one wearing sandals) and the, literal, biggest person I have ever laid eyes on. When the contest finished, the dude sat down with us and we began to chat, as is customary (if not required) for foreigners who meet in China. He was a Haitian study abroad student from the University of Miami. His name slips me.
We decided to play the next game. My friend Nate, myself, and another pickup against the Haitian and two other random players. By this point every single game had stopped. There were ten or so empty courts. Definitely over 100 people. Bear in mind Nate has gigantic fire-orange hair and is a solid 6’2” himself.
Their ball. Game to 5 (1 point for shots inside the three-point line, 2 points for shots outside). I quickly realize three things: 1). Any shot taken with 10 feet of the basket is getting blocked. 2). There will be no rebounds for my squad. 3). The best players on the floor are actually the two Chinese guys on the other team. They feed the ball in to the Haitian. It’s laughable. He lays it up, hand touching the net, feet on the ground. We’re all over him, but it’s basically face to nipple. This happens for three possessions straight. 3-0. The crowd has seen it all before. On the third possession they try the same thing, but Nate jumps in the way and intercepts the pass. The defense is smothering. He kicks the ball out to me. One of the Chinese guys closes and tips the ball away, I grab it, turn around and hoist up an off balance 25-foot shot. It’s the only hope. Swish. Bottoms. The crowd actually goes kind of crazy. 3-2. Next possession. I dish to Nate. He steps in and throws up an exceptionally ugly long 1-pointer. Off the backboard. In. 3-3.
Next possession. I kick to Nate, I cut, he passes back to me. I go up for a layup. The next thing I know the ball is bouncing around three courts away. The 7-footer has filibustered my foray to the basket with formidable force. The crowd loves it. Somehow it’s their ball. On the next two possessions the Chinese guys on the opposing team blow by us effortlessly. We lose 5-3.
Considering I never played basketball past the middle school level, the piecemeal gathering of 100 Shanghainese teenagers is probably the most raucous crowd I will ever play in front of. I wondered if the same scene would happen in the US. After all, the crowd wasn’t for Nate and I. We simply added a little mystique. As much as I’d like to believe it, no one ever watched us play otherwise. I come to the conclusion that yes, the 7-foot guy would have drawn a crowd anywhere in the world, playing basketball or not. Why? Because I know that if I saw him in any given location: a desert Polynesian island, the airport, Starbucks on a Sunday, I would have been jaw-droppingly stunned, which got me thinking. Living in China is strange for me. Me living in China (especially where I live) is strange for Chinese people. When I urinate on a chicken I am floored with disbelief. When a cab driver ducks into the other lane directly in front of an oncoming truck laden with gigantic rocks I’m, per usual, dumbfounded (although, I’m starting to get used to it). When locals see my foreign friends and I, they probably aren’t dumbfounded, but at least surprised. Sometimes I’m blinded by relativity. I forget that some things are in general, just unusual, regardless of your context.
What’s pretty cool though, is when something happens that makes everyone say “wow.” A moment where I can stand next to a Chinese dude, put my elbow on his shoulder, point, and say, “Would you look at that. That is some rare shit.” A 7-foot person, a clear sky in Shanghai, Halle’s comet, Air Malaysia flight 370… world peace. Those are the moments I feel most human, I think. Those are the moments I feel most connected to humanity, not just a subset of humanity. The times when I am reminded that we are all involved in this grandiose, chaotic, absurd life. And that our differences are null compared to what really moves us.