“You’re insane. Completely oblivious to rules and regulations. Unreasonable!!”
“You’re breaking the rules.”
“Insane! You’re breaking the rules! You called me for five three-in-the-keys (three-second violations) in one half! And that was just me.”
“You went into the key.”
“I know I went into the key! You can’t call a three-in-the-key because I go into the key. I’ve got to be in there for three seconds. And, to be honest with you, no one calls three-in-the-key unless the guy is in there for at least four seconds!”
“It’s dangerous to spend so much time in the key.”
“That’s where the basket is!”
“Very dangerous, indeed.”
It’s halftime of Sanzhuang Elementary’s first game of the Songgui District Male Teacher Basketball Exchange Tournament. We’re playing against Songgui Elementary School tonight. I sit on a concrete ping-pong table, sipping a boiling paper cupful of tea, the official hydration method of the Songgui District Male Teacher Tea Drinking Basketball Exchange Tournament. Of course, boiling tea does little to quench thirst and replenish electrolytes, but does function effectively as a laxative agent—a fact that unsurprisingly slows gameplay as the second half begins.
I’m complaining to the ref, Mr. Li, who’s also the superintendent of Songgui Schools, the man in charge of my salary, and a not-so-infrequent drinking buddy. He’s taking desperate drags of a cigarette—a combination of referee-induced stress and heightened physical activity. He is not the only one. In fact, the other referee, Mr. Shi is smoking and has two cigarettes lodged behind as many ears in preparation for the second half. Besides the refs, almost all of the “teacher-athletes” are relishing their halftime smoke break, too.
Mr. Li has gone rogue. He’s called an unprecedented 8 three-second violations in the first twenty minutes of the game—a number so preposterous, that were he a professional, would have gotten him suspended and fined large sums of money. But, Mr. Li is a man of power and means, and today he has chosen to wield his power in the form of baseless, reckless, and incessant three-second violations. He is feeling antsy right now, because the halftime break has made it impossible to call frivolous three-second violations. I can tell he is considering calling one, even though both teams are on the sidelines and the game is currently not being played.
“OK, I’ll lay off,” He says to my surprise. “But as you know, safety is our priority.”
“In that case, maybe you should consider calling a foul, Mr. Li.”
To his credit, Mr. Li only whistles two three-second calls in the entire second half. Sanzhuang wins 70-50.
This year marks my second annual Songgui District Male Teacher Chain-Smoking and Basketball Exchange Tournament. A more suitable name for our little tournament might be Songgui District Middle-Aged Men in Capris Beating Each Other Indiscriminately in Pursuit of Orange Ball Invitational.
For two weeks in April, five or six teams of teachers, administrators, security guards, kitchen staff, and dubiously employed and suspiciously tall “staff members,” rise up from the valleys and peaks of the greater Songgui District to get together for a thing they call basketball. Schools are spread far apart in this corner of the world. Teachers drive miles and miles to show up for the contests, which take place on beautifully warm Tuesday through Friday nights at six o’clock. Hundreds of students, townspeople, and teachers come out. They cheer without reprieve as the chaos unfolds.
I, for my part, am a phenomenon—a Songgui District Male Teacher Basketball Exchange Tournament anomaly. I am six-feet tall, relatively large, and have played basketball before. As a result of these three middling characteristics—that have come to define me for most people in the region—I am a basketball Jesus. On more than one occasion, I have been asked seriously about my NBA career. I can only say that it is yet to begin. I decline to divulge, out of the Chinese cultural norm of humility, that I was once the seventh or eighth best player on a slightly above-average middle school team.
The tournament is a spectacle. There are announcers, multiple referees, water girls and boys, and scorekeepers, all of whom know just enough about basketball to recognize my NBA-level talent for what it is. Each team buys a full uniform (shirt, capris, and sneakers) out of the school budget for the five-game tournament.
The gameplay is a spectacle. The typical possession begins with a wayward heave from one end of the court to the other that invariably results in either interception or ball-to-head contact. In the event that the ball is successfully moved up-court, there will be a mad rush at the dribbler, who will be defended as though he is a leg, and his pursuers, dogs in rabid heat. If he manages to evade the attack/homoerotic advance, he will more than likely frantically hurl the ball at the basket, where it will rocket off the backboard. Should someone on the offense be unlucky enough to snag a rebound, they will be physically violated by a mass of sweaty, pot-bellied brutes, many of which will likely be wearing the same jersey as he is. A foul will only be called if the play results in a crippling injury. If—if—the ball does make it through the hoop, the crowd of hundreds will roar crazily. And the wild rumpus will repeat.
Timeouts are a spectacle. The competitors will congregate on the sidelines. Cigarettes will be dispersed and smoked while guttural sighs and heaves of discomfort echo from each end of the bench—even from those who have not yet entered the game. The self-appointed coach (Principal Yang in Sanzhuang’s case), will offer seemingly erroneous, but contextually sage advice like, “Shoot toward the hoop,” and “Pass to the ones on your team.” The players will groan and nod, before flicking out their cigarettes and gradually returning to the court. Principal Yang, should he enter the game, with almost surely disregard his own advice.
I should note that, despite my relative skill, I am still (a lifelong struggle) one of the slowest in the game. I am at an utter loss as to how chain-smoking, middle-aged, fupa-packing men can constantly beat me up and down the court. It’s sick.
When the game ends, everyone congregates in the teachers lounge and gets shitfaced and talks about how much fun they had beating on each other for the last hour and a half.
Obviously, there is little rhyme and little reason to the events that go down on the court. It’s a crazy—albeit pretty fun—free for all. It’s not often that these teachers get to see each other. Most of them are stuck at school all week long. Few even get to see their family more than once a week, let alone friends, old classmates, and ex-colleagues—relationships that most of the teachers that play in the tournament share. The students get a rare chance to step out of the classroom and scream and yell for (at?) their teachers. There is no pretense—there is little to be pretentious about. No one complains about not having the time or not being good enough or being afraid of certain embarrassment. It’s endlessly hilarious, crazy, cigarette-filled, a little boozy, confusing, so damn genuine, and chock full of peculiarly arbitrary, yet harmless, abuses of power. It’s the only way a basketball tournament at Sanzhuang could ever be.