A different ballgame in China

Sun Journal

Basketball: Former NBA players from the United States try to generate excitement and bring stronger skills to a game that Chinese are still learning.

April 19, 1999|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- Sometime in the third quarter when the score is still close, the Beijing Aoshen's 6-foot guard Zhu Feng drives fearlessly to the hoop. There is no threat that he might actually get the shot off, though: two towering players for the Bayi Rockets sandwich him in mid-air.

No whistle. No call.

"See why I can't win?" yells Aoshen coach Mike McGee with his arms outstretched in exasperation before the 6,000 fans at Beijing's Workers' Stadium.

For McGee, a former guard with the Los Angeles Lakers, it is just another frustrating moment in his journey through the curious world of Chinese pro basketball. He has spent much of the season traveling to cities whose names he can't pronounce and coaching in front of fans who respond to bad officiating by throwing lighters, water bottles and batteries.

Meals on the road may include McDonald's, where the 6-foot-6 McGee and his two American players, former Detroit Piston Jevon Crudup and former Harlem Globetrotter JaJa Richards, serve as window exhibits for curious crowds.

Armed with no more than "taxicab" Chinese, McGee relies on a young Chinese woman named Fei Fei -- it's pronounced Fayfay but he calls her "Fifi" -- to translate instructions to his players, most of whom do not speak English.

"I'm not sure she's putting in all the words I'm telling her," says McGee, 39, who curses periodically as he stalks the sidelines.

In the land of Ping-Pong and kung fu, the sport of urban America is coming of age. On sunny afternoons and weekend mornings, Chinese kids don NBA jerseys and crowd outdoor courts to imitate their favorite players' spin moves and jump shots. During last winter's pro-basketball lockout in the United States, taxi drivers urgently queried American passengers: Would Michael Jordan -- "Qiaodan" in Chinese -- retire?

China has been trying to tap into that enthusiasm since it established professional basketball here in 1995. Results have been mixed.

The Chinese New Basketball Alliance, or CNBA, folded under the weight of financial problems. The Hilton League, in which the Aoshen plays, has had its share of scandals, including dubious officiating and improbable score-keeping.

A timekeeper in Sichuan last month shaved three minutes off the clock while the home team was ahead. During another game in the same arena, the scorekeeper counted a three-point shot as two points, providing the home team with a one-point margin of victory.

"It is understandable that the Sichuan fans and the home arena want the owner to win, but it is too disgraceful to use these means," a Beijing newspaper editorial said.

Through it all, McGee and his players seem to be enjoying their adventure in China.

The Lakers' first-round draft choice in 1981 and a former player here, McGee became the Aoshen's coach at midseason and inherited a record of 3-8. After drilling players on defense, he took them all the way to the semifinals before being swept by the league's best squad, the Rockets.

Teams have hired American coaches and players to generate excitement and bring stronger skills to a game that Chinese are still learning. The league attracts former NBA players in the twilight of their careers and young players who haven't made it in the pros.

McGee says teaching the basics, such as relentless boxing out for rebounds, is difficult with people who have been playing a different brand of basketball for years. Sometimes, he resorts to pantomime for emphasis.

"Liu Tie? Rebound!" McGee tells his star forward as he grasps an imaginary ball between his huge hands.

Ma Jian, a 6-foot-6 guard who played for two years at the University of Utah, says playing with his fellow Chinese can be frustrating because they do not study videotapes of their opponents and do not always take good care of themselves.

"People here just play hard, but they don't know the fundamentals," says Ma, a charismatic 30-year-old who played on China's 1992 Olympic team.

Aoshen games -- tickets cost $2.40 -- can be puzzling, ragged and exciting.

The team plays on the parquet floor at Workers' Stadium before rabid fans. In one corner of the arena a few days ago sat about 50 self-described "peasants" from neighboring Hebei Province. They had driven more than 100 miles to root for Ma and Liu.

Pounding on a giant wooden drum, smashing together the kinds of cymbals used in Peking Opera and blasting away on plastic horns, the group exploded like a New Year's Eve party every time the Aoshen made a bucket. Every time the officials made a call against the Aoshen, the peasants chanted "Bad referee" and, later, some wildly offensive profanity.

"Will the viewers please be polite and cultured?" the announcer asked, only to be met with a chorus of boos.

One die-hard fan is Rocky Xu, a 12-year-old in a Washington Wizards cap who had spent most of his life in Bethesda before returning home with his parents to China last year.

"The refs are totally favoring Bayi," Rocky complains of the Rockets, which field six members of China's national team. "It's always like this."

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