A Dunk At 10,000 Feet

Dunking monks, the Triangle offense as war by other means, and other lessons from a pickup basketball tour of China.
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In Beijing, my favorite barbershop was a hole-in-the wall place down a hutong alley, one of many gray brick lanes built centuries ago. As in any barbershop, conversations centered around politics, neighborhood gossip, celebrities, and sports. I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, frequenting a place in Harvard Square that wasn’t all that different, with some exceptions. The walls of the hutong barbershop were covered with posters of Chinese pop stars; in my Harvard Square spot, the circa-Reagan decor centered around retro Larry Bird posters.

A family of migrants from Zhejiang, the province just south of Shanghai, owned the barbershop. Their accent dropped the sh sound in Chinese words, marking their home as distinctly as did my Cambridge barbers when they dropped an R. Sanghai. Hahvud. In the six years I had spent off and on in Beijing, they had moved down the alley -- closer to the main street, where they thought business would be better -- and from two barber chairs to four, although the family didn’t hire any more barbers. The floors were shinier. Like many businesses in China, they were expanding.

The scene remained the same, though -- two siblings, in their late twenties or early thirties, cutting hair, with their grandfather sitting in one of the waiting chairs watching Chinese soap operas on a tiny TV in the left-hand corner of the room. The younger sibling’s name was Weizhu. She liked to talk about the NBA.

“I watched the ‘Huren’, the Lakers, yesterday,” she said. “Aiyo, Kobe is so good. But he’s still not as good as ‘Qiaodan.’ Jordan. Do you like the Lakers?”

“No,” I said.


“I’m from Boston. We have our own basketball team that doesn’t like the Lakers.”


“Do Beijing people like Shanghai?”

“No! Of course they hate it!”


There are three ways to identify Boston in China: Harvard, MIT, and the Celtics. I didn’t have much to say about Harvard or MIT, because I didn’t go there and growing up down the street tempered the mystique of both. But I could talk about the Celtics, and I played pickup basketball more than any other sport when I lived in Beijing.

In a city like Beijing, it wasn’t hard to find pickup competitors, but court time could be. Space is tight in major Chinese cities, where there aren’t as many freely accessible basketball courts as you might expect. To play, you often have to go to a high school or college campus, which requires a student pass. Some public courts charge admission fees for access. Beijing’s most famous public basketball courts are located about a mile down the main boulevard that passes in front of Tiananmen Square. When I first lived in Beijing in 2006, they charged 15 kuai, about two dollars per person, to play.

The entrance fee raised the stakes - teams were effectively betting on themselves. Wins kept a team on the court, getting their money’s worth, while a loss sat you on the sidelines for the next opening. During games, I learned most of my Chinese basketball vocabulary. This included phrases directly translated from English as well as original Chinese renderings of basketball phenomena. The Chinese word for airball, sanbuzhan, translates literally to “three not stick” -- the ball failing to grab backboard, rim, or net. A total whiff. No stick at all.

Over one year, I picked the words up slowly, one or two a game if I listened closely. I was attending an exchange program, along with sixty other American classmates, and my friends and I played hours of basketball in the afternoons on the shortened Wednesday school days. We mixed and matched pickup teams, but when the teams were divided by country, fouls were called more precisely, games were more physical, and everyone actually played defense. Later, during college, there were a lot of Russian students in the foreign dorms, and we arranged Tri-Country pickup tournaments.


In high school, games didn’t end when we left the city; if anything, they intensified. On trips to the countryside, we stayed in villages, where there was usually a basketball court. In Yunnan, a gorgeous, rugged southern province bordering Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam, a village challenged us to “an international friendly.” They announced it on the village loudspeakers.

When we showed up at the appointed time, the entire village of a couple hundred people had assembled. There were water bottles and freshly picked watermelons on the sidelines for players. Off to one side of the court were two kids, no more than ten years old, manning a chalkboard. They had already written “United States” on one side of the board and “China” on the other. This was a trend that continued wherever we went.

To ensure fair calls, the village had selected one of our Chinese teachers and one of their villagers as referees. No one pointed out that our Chinese teacher was, quite obviously, as Chinese as they were. We had two American teachers with us, neither of whom were considered.

The village team wore matching knockoff Nike uniforms of shiny dark red polyester. We played the game under the hot Yunnan sun for over an hour, the crowd screaming and singing songs, chanting “Zhongguo jia you, Zhongguo jiayou” in perfect unison. It was the same chant -- Go China! Go China! -- Chinese screamed during the Olympics. At one point, villagers asked how to chant “Go China!” in English, and we shamelessly taught them “U.S.A! U.S.A!”

There was a short halftime break for watermelon and water. At one point, a chicken wandered onto the court. We won the game in the second half and partook in other festivities that night. We competed in a relay race in which all players had to run holding a ping-pong ball with chopsticks and transfer it to teammates without dropping it. We did not win that competition.

The standards weren’t high to start on our unofficial travel team. The exchange program attracted a self-selecting group of kids who came to Beijing to study Chinese, living with families who spoke no English. Few of them played varsity sports back home in the United States. If you wanted to be recruited for college sports, you stayed at home for junior year and tried to make an impression. If you wanted to learn Chinese in China…there was probably a spot for you on the team.

Kids who had played any form of organized basketball in their lives made the starting lineup. Our best player and starting center was a preppy varsity rower who had played JV in high school. I had played in middle school, coming off the bench, which was enough experience to qualify me as one of our main ball-handlers.

A student coach, Stockton, soon emerged, who implored us to play defense. The biggest sports fan in our class -- he won the Most Likely To Host Sportscenter superlative in our yearbook, at a walk -- Stockton took extreme pride in our record. He delivered motivational speeches in timeouts and heckled me for sitting out one game because of a stomach flu: Michael Jordan had famously played though the flu in the playoffs once, why couldn’t I? Stockton rarely played, preferring instead to act the part of Bobby Knight on the sidelines, screaming directions at everyone. Once, after I blocked a shot, he gave me a hearty butt slap as I jogged back down the court, causing the crowd to break out in hysterics. Simply by being himself, he delivered more entertainment to the villagers than our team ever did.

It’s hard to say whether Stockton’s energetic coaching was any good, or whether our superior size and marginal attention to defense were the deciding factors. But something was working. After nearly nine months, with a lot of travel, we were undefeated.

Two days before returning to the U.S. at the end of May, we finally agreed to play our high school’s varsity basketball team. We had been delaying -- or maybe avoiding -- playing them for quite some time. The date was set, and exactly six of us showed up.

We used the indoor gym, and they had hired referees. No one else from our exchange program came, leaving the six of us Americans, pickup style, against their varsity team, with a bunch of local high schoolers watching. We were losing, but the audience was good-natured, at least until one of our players lost his temper and screamed at them for singing.

“It’s not fucking funny!” he yelled at them in English. The crowd went completely silent.

Stockton called a timeout. He hadn’t been as animated as usual, and looked distracted. As we huddled up, he was frowning at our opponents.

“Honest to God, I think they’re running the triangle,” he said. I laughed. “No, I’m serious,” he said.

We suffered our first loss. I mostly felt guilty, as a Celtics fan, for having lost on an international stage, however small, to an offense made famous by Phil Jackson.


Our last game outside Beijing didn't have a scoreboard. We were visiting Xiahe, in central China, home to one of the largest Tibetan monasteries in the world, tucked in a valley of rolling grassland on the steppes of the Tibetan plateau. Approaching on the highway, the only signs of life were Tibetan nomads riding dirt bikes and walking in and out of yurts. The air was dusty, but the sky was a deep, piercing blue, a color I’d forgotten existed coming from smoggy Beijing.

Tibetan prayer chants filled the air from dawn till dusk. In the mornings, Buddhist monks prayed, prostrating themselves on the ground, circumscribing the monastery. Some would be making longer pilgrimages to other monasteries or more distant lands, praying as they went. They buckled their knees first, then laid their chests flat on the ground, arms outstretched. Then repeat, moving forward stride by stride. The monks our age were soon deciding whether to commit themselves to a lifetime at the monastery or leave.

We talked to them while eating lunch in the center of the monastery. After a few minutes, we’d scheduled a pickup game.

The basketball court outside the monastery was made of dirt, dusty but packed hard. One of the hoops was crooked, and the backboards were constructed of loose plywood. The monks arrived in their long burnt-brown robes, some wearing sandals, others wearing sneakers, the rest barefoot. It was windy; loose soil blew around the court, and the ball bounced unevenly. On each dribble, a burst of light brown dust shot up from the ground.

A few minutes later, another group of monks walked onto the court. One wore a bright yellow knock-off Kobe Bryant jersey over his prayer robes and another the red jersey of Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming’s most famous sidekick. Stockton ran over to introduce himself.

It quickly became clear the game wouldn’t be one of cutthroat competition. No one was playing to win anything. In Buddhism, desire and competitiveness are emotions often viewed with skepticism, but, like many religions, it can be difficult to discern where these beliefs actually manifest themselves in daily life, especially to an outsider. After a morning of prayer wheels, chanting, and praying, I couldn’t feel much tangible difference between the monastery and any other place of worship I’d been -- the silent energy of a church, say. Differences in architecture or language were obvious, but the philosophy remained theoretical in my mind.

In the end, basketball was what gave that abstraction shape, not the prayer wheels. Regardless which team was scoring, every made basket was greeted by the monks with claps and whoops of encouragement.

Offense was where the fun was. Our Tibetan competitors played almost no defense, as if denying us our chance to score was forbidden. They double-dribbled and traveled everywhere, and it was obvious that we wouldn’t be playing by standard rules. Everyone high-fived each other, no matter who was scoring. At first, the whole thing reminded me of a gym class devised by wishy-washy parents back in Cambridge who didn’t want their children exposed to toxic competition. The difference was that this wasn’t contrived, or the result of any earthly overdetermination. It was completely organic, and felt that way.

On the Tibetan plateau, we wouldn't have been able to play very good defense anyway. At 9,500 feet, we were gasping for air. Our physical state starkly contrasted with that of the monks, who continued to run unabated, passing the ball to each other, letting out loud, playful yells. I had never seen anyone enjoy basketball so much, and I still haven’t.

There was something dreamlike about it, although the altitude-induced lightheadedness helped. My memory of that game is a bit hazy, but one play remains etched in my mind. Suddenly, after an errant shot, Tibetan T-Mac grabbed a rebound, ran the full length of the court without a dribble, and windmill-dunked the ball with one hand.

He let out a scream after he did, beaming from side to side. His exclamation bore no resemblance to the taunting post-dunk screams or cathartic eruptions of competitive energy that NBA players have exported around the world. It was a yelp of pure elation.

We played until dinner, under that wild, high sky, trading baskets without much regard for who was on what team. For once in my life, I didn’t care whether the person in Kobe Bryant’s jersey won or lost.

Top photo via Wikimedia Commons/Filipe Fortes. Other photos by Will Ford.

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