The struggling Chinese Basketball Association team was jolted in 2008, when mercurial, interfering Shanxi Brave Dragons owner Boss Wang imported former NBA coach Bob Weiss to turn his perpetually losing charges into next-level players. In Brave Dragons, which documents the Dragons’ 2008-09 season, Pulitzer-winning Washington Post critic Jim Yardley is persuasive in his overall narrative thrust: Appalled by the many wasteful, exhausting drills players are required to complete to no evident end, Weiss tried to introduce on-court decision-making, individuality, and offensive strategy, but was repeatedly hamstrung by Wang’s counterproductive, domineering decisions.
Each CBA team is allowed two foreign players, plus a third player from the Asian diaspora: Brave Dragons is as much a story about the Western basketball mercenaries—players and coaches alike—making a new home in foreign leagues as it is an examination of how sports in China mirror the country’s larger development. Marginal or past-their-prime NBA players become the essential stars of many Chinese teams: From 2008-09, Shanxi welcomed ex-Rockets bad boy Bonzi Wells and former Atlanta Hawks bit player Donta Smith. Smith fit in, while Wells possessed “neither the interest nor the temperament for the role of basketball ambassador,” and failed to return after a holiday break. (Writing to Yardley from Muncie, Indiana, Smith expressed sarcastic regret that he’s “not in China eating dragon testicule [sic].”)
These new arrivals in the world’s biggest potential next market for professional basketball are bewildered by Boss Wang and the methods of sometime-coach/assistant (depending on Wang’s mood) Liu Tie, who believed players had to be kept exhausted to instill discipline. The result is a team whose players can run hours of drills flawlessly, but collapse whenever they have to actually make a decision. Like Big Sun, who would arrive at the basket and “pound the ball on the floor, one time, with purpose, before picking up his dribble, whereupon he was marooned… His answer was to unleash a succession of head fakes, up and down, up and down, as methodical and predictable as an oil field pump jack, until finally he would shoot.” And after all that routine labor, he often missed.
The team’s travails provide a microcosmic view of American methods butting up against Chinese values: Boss Wang wants individualistic players, but in practice, that means yelling at them about whatever Steve Nash did last night, and preventing Weiss from actually teaching players how to coordinate plays or think for themselves. Yardley goes big-picture between games. Highlights include the story of how the YMCA brought basketball to China as an evangelical tool in the 1890s, getting a boost from a wave of muscular nationalism sweeping the nation. A visit to a Spalding basketball manufacturing plant doubles as a compressed history of Chinese industrial development. NBA commissioner David Stern attempts to open a division in China, and his efforts become a lesson about two very different capitalist systems failing to find tenable middle ground. This is thorough micro- and macro-history, capable of sucking in both the basketball-obsessed and the non-athletically inclined.
Yardley’s final image succinctly, though unkindly, captures the success of trying to bring NBA skills and methods to Chinese basketball. Early in the season, Weiss’ wife Tracy rescues a flying squirrel from a meat market, hoping to get it out of its cage and back into the wild. But the squirrel wouldn’t leave the cage, “making one mad flip after another, his tiny feet sticking each landing, flipping and flipping and flipping, to the point of exhaustion.” The metaphor is clear: The squirrel is a stand-in for Chinese basketball as controlled by interfering Communist party plutocrats and old-style managers, drilling its players to exhaustion without any improvement in their play, trying out how to embrace basketball change, but staying within the same old confines.