Sunday, November 20, 2005

Half-Court Hoop Dreams

Sunday morning, I had the chance to do what I’ve been hoping to do since I came to China; play basketball. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m at best an average basketball player. However, in my mind, I will be a pimp on the courts in China. I’m 6’5” and have some level of coordination. Where I lack is my stamina. I’m usually good for a solid five minutes before I call our team’s first time out. I was invited to play ball with Mr. Li (Barry White guy who gave the presentation at the big-ass meeting last week) and a guy that I only know as ‘Charlie’. We were going to meet a couple more people from PetroChina who I will never remember their names.

Li and Charlie picked me up at the hotel around 9:30 and presented me with a brand new basketball, as per Mr. Young’s orders at the foot-massage dinner last week. When I say ‘presented’, that’s exactly what I mean, they both had a hand on the ball and lowered their heads when passing it over to me, at which point I bowed and raised my hands to my head in a wai. Everything here is so ceremonious, it’s ridiculous sometimes. You don't just hand someone a business card, you present it with both hands and a lowered head. You don't just get a pen from your boss; it is handed over with a handshake and a photograph, like politicians signing a treaty. You don't take a drink at a business dinner without toasting someone or being toasted. If I asked my boss for a pen, I’d be lucky if he didn't draw blood when he threw it at me from across the room, if I asked him for a business card, he’d just point to the cabinet where they are and keep working. Honestly, I prefer the North American way of ‘serve yourself or get the hell outta the way’, it’s just easier and there is less opportunity to make a jackass out of yourself for some stupid cultural faux pas.

About four blocks from my house (the hotel), there is a community center that resembles the basketball stadium at a small junior college. Since this was going to be my Chinese debut, I decided to do it up right; Adidas tear always, big hooded sweatshirt, cock-eyed Cardinal’s hat, and some fresh kicks.

If there was a recreation center this size in North America, it would have about four basketball courts, two weight rooms, Pilates, yoga, swimming pool, all that crap (it would also cost about $150 USD a month to park your Hummer in the parking lot). So, I was expecting to see quite a bit of stuff in here. There were a handful of people there, maybe twenty or so and they all watched me intently as I crossed the court. The stadium featured a sunken court with one basketball court in the middle and about seven badminten courts around the side. That’s it. Buildings here are always much larger than their North American counterparts. They all have huge neon signs and grand stairways and beautiful gardens outside, but the insides are always about the same – pretty nasty. I often get the feeling that the entire nation of China suffers from some sort of small-man’s complex, or are trying make up for something that they all have that is very small (maybe feet or ears or something else that I cant think of).

Once again, I experienced the black-guy-in-a-bar-in-1820-Arizona phenomenon. All action stopped and there was nothing but silence and stares. Jesus people, haven’t you ever seen a magazine or something? There was a game of three on three going at one end and we headed to the far end of the court to shoot around a bit while we waited for the others to show up.

Today, I was looking forward to the stares. By this time, I’m seeing myself in the third person (like Rickey Henderson) and the camera is about five feet from me, a bit lower than my head and Jay-Z is my mental soundtrack. As the camera follows me across the court, the gym transforms from a Division II basketball arena to Madison Square Garden and all eyes are on me as I move slowly through my stretches and casually shoot around for about 15 minutes before tip off.

I tossed Li the ball to take a shot and he missed the lob and the ball rolled into the middle of the three on three game, stopping play once again. Li came back and did a lay-up with the precision of a fifth grade girl, the ball bouncing off the bottom of the rim, hitting him in his nose, then tripping him.

I’m going to dominate today.

Li chased the ball down and passed it to me, actually, it was more ‘at me’ than ‘to me’, but I managed to wrangle the stray cow coming at me and pop up my first jumper in china. It was a beautiful, arching 15 footer from the top of the key, perfect spin, good follow through.

Perfect air ball.

“Ok, Li, give me the ball, I was just playin’ with you guys.” I laughed dismissively.

Same shot, not an air ball, but it was a stunning brick.

What the hell? I look good, why haven’t I made a shot yet? This sucks. I’m supposed to be the stuff legends are made of.

One more time, I’m just going to try that ladies lay-up that Li just tried.

Ahh, there it is. Shootin’ 33% baby!

Right as I made my first shot, the other two guys from PetroChina showed up. If I was dressed like Kevin Garnett, these guys were Michael Jordans. They were dressed in full North Carolina blue uniforms (without the logos, just the light blue tanks and shorts), had matching shoes and looked like ballers. Of course, I forgot their names the minute they were introduced to me, but that’s fairly common.

Somehow Li divided up the teams using this spin-the-ball trick. Eventually, I realized that it was Li and I verses North Carolina.

None of these guys speak any English (Li does a very little bit, just enough to be frustrating). This means that my yells of ‘Over here!’ and ‘Nice shot!’ (which I never actually said all day) fell on deaf ears, but that didn't stop me from yelling and talking. Some of these things are just normal basketball.

Everywhere you play basketball has different ‘local’ rules. Everyone speaking Chinese makes these rules a bit difficult to understand, but eventually I realized that it was make-it-take-it without ‘checking’ the ball, just take it to the top of the key and drive.

And drove I did.

I was flying around the court, blocking shots, dropping lay-ups, sinking twelve footers, stealin’, wheelin’ and reelin’. For about two minutes.

After vomiting in my backpack, I decided to take it a bit slower. The thing is, as soon as I got the ball, everyone on the court cleared the lane, so I could casually go and make an uncontested shot. It was like they were throwing the game (and they very well could have been for all I know), but it didn't matter, I was loving it.

I had to be careful with my passes, if I put any sauce on it, the recipient would have no chance of catching it. I hit many noses, knees, nuts, elbows whatever. Sassy ‘trick’ moves like bounce passes were completely out of the question. I made a no-look pass once and they thought I threw it out of bounds on purpose.

These guys were so bad that I felt sorry for them. Every time I blocked a shot, they would all clap and cheer me on. If I touched the rim, they would shudder in amazement and everyone in the building would stare at me in awe.

Not long after we started playing, Mr. Feng and Mr. Zhou came to play badminton. We lost a couple players to other games so I took Li and Charlie on in a game of 2-on-1. I beat them three games in a row.

Xinlei and I played a game of badminton with Mr. Feng and Li. I’m surprisingly good at the game despite knowing none of the rules. My reaction time and long arms make up for my slow speed and large body and Xinlei was somewhat impressed.

The game also bored the shit out of me so I went back to the basketball court and played a game with a bunch of other people that had showed up whom I’ve nicknamed Stinky, Big Poppa, Bug Eye and Golfer Pete. These guys weren’t much better, but Big Poppa was as big as a sumo wrestler and did a good job of keeping me in line, I only put up about 28 points.

There it is, my debut as a semi-pro basketball player in China. It was about like I expected, I’m fairly good by default and the fact that I’ve played quite a bit of ball in my life helps out quite a bit. I’m likely going to play a lot more, it’s good exercise and these people think I’m a stud. Just what my ego needs.

After playing for a few hours, Li informed me that we were going to lunch. I don't know about most people, but after running for three hours, diving into some greasy spoon is the last thing on my mind, like smoking a cigar after a marathon. It didn't matter, and the five of us went off to the steak house.

The steak house is always a trip when you’re eating with locals. I had to help all of them use the knife and fork, plus they each ordered two plates (two ‘steaks’, two salads, two baskets of bread, two servings of pasta, two bowls of soup). I left that place with leg cramps from basketball and stomach cramps from badly cooked beef intake.

So my debut of basketball went. It was quite a bit of fun and, now that I know where the place is and have my own basketball, I’ll probably be going there a few more times. The United Nations was greatly amused by my basketball stories, but none of them would agree to join me next time.

Most of the week was spent working an asinine number of hours juggling two projects. Laura and I have been plugging away and she has held in there admirably. She’s great to work with and I learning a ton, which means that there’s one more person learning my job so I’ll be able to do other stuff. Chris has also been here to help us out, but he’s having a difficult time fitting in with the little schedule Laura and I have fallen into. Because of our late nights of drinking, neither of us wake up until mid-morning. Whenever we get up, we go to breakfast, if anyone is there, we sit with them, if not, no big deal. Under no circumstances do we call each other in the morning before the breakfast buffet is closed (10:00 am). With as many hours as we work, being able to sleep in the mornings is a great reward.

Chris is not of this school of thought. He doesn't participate in our nightly drinking excursions, so he’s not tired or hung-over in the mornings. So, every day, he calls Laura and I around 7:45 to see if we are ready to go to breakfast. If we don't answer, he’ll come to our rooms at 8:30, complete with his computer, ready to start working. This is at least one hour before I am usually awake. I have tried to explain to him to just chill in his room, we’re all kind of doing our own thing and the group work effort isn’t very necessary, but he has a hard time accepting that work can get done without defined structure. Everyone works differently, so it’s not a big deal. He’s a cool cat and it’s good to have him around.

Also this week, Jenny (Jenny #1) and I briefly reopened booty negotiations in the form of a couple phone calls and text messages. The first week of October is a national holiday week in China and most people in the Chinese business world get the whole week off work, including me. I’ve missed out on several US holidays and will miss out on several more before it’s all said and done. Jenny is in Chendu for a couple months assisting with translation for a couple people from our company and I’d really like to go visit her and she’d really like me to come visit her. The problem is, she has to work seven days a week. I’ve called in the closer, Xinlei, to see what he thinks and he’s been hitting the phone trying to organize a couple days off for her. This guy is amazing. It’s like trying to get three days leave in Tokyo in MASH.

On Friday, negotiations were abruptly cut short in the form of an emergency appendectomy for Jenny, which will put her out of commission for a couple weeks. It could still happen, but the cards are stacked again. It’s just good to talk to her because she really is great. Her English has improved greatly from working with honkeys for these past weeks and she’s really proud of herself, I am too, it’s quite impressive to speak other languages.

Since Laura as been here in Langfang, my drinking has increased exponentially. I’m not sure how much it has to do with her specifically, or just that beer is so cheap here and there is finally some good company to socialize with. I really don't like beer that much, but I sure have been drinking every night for three weeks until about 1:00 am every night. Laura, Niall, David and I are pretty standard bar flies right now, we’ve been accompanied by various other foreigners over the weeks; Franz the South African, some Swede guy, Jayson the other Sperm Sorter, this Austrian Michael who’s kind of a prick (isn’t there some other famous Austrian? I’m not sure, but facial hair comes to mind). It feels really good to be able to talk freely, at a natural speed and be understood. It’s a welcome change, especially because it’s only for a couple weeks.

This weekend, Dave, Niall, Laura, Chris and I are planning on going to Beijing to do some shopping and drinking. I’m not sure what to expect, but with all these people around, we’re sure to have a good time, or at the very least, a bad time with a good story to tell.

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