It seems fitting that “Brave Dragons,” Jim Yardley’s rollicking book about basketball in China, should come out just as the world gets swept up in “Linsanity,” the electrifying rise of Jeremy Lin, the New York Knicks’ 23-year-old Taiwanese American point guard. No, Lin wasn’t born in China (try California). He didn’t hone his skills in the rigid Chinese sports system (think Ivy League). Nor did he ever play for the Shanxi Brave Dragons, the team of misfits and underdogs that Yardley follows for a season in the Chinese Basketball Association.
Yet Lin’s sudden emergence illuminates one of the deeper themes that make Yardley’s tale resonate far beyond sports. For all the focus on Lin’s ethnicity — the humble Asian boy with a Harvard degree and a dose of filial and religious piety — his inventive, take-charge style on the court is unabashedly American. This hasn’t stopped millions of Chinese fans from embracing Lin Shuhao, as he is known in Mandarin, as the heir to Yao Ming, the 7-foot-6center who retired from the National Basketball Association last year.
But it raises the same uncomfortable question that Yardley’s main character, an American coach hired to save the Brave Dragons, can’t shake: Why is it that a nation of 1.4 billion people and several hundred million basketball fanatics has never produced a single creative, world-class point guard?
In other words: Why are there no Jeremy Lins coming out of China?
The answers lie in the murky labyrinth of China’s elite sports system, which Yardley — a former New York Times bureau chief in Beijing — explores during his season with what was once the worst professional team in China. In less capable hands, this journey might have resulted in a simplistic sports yarn — “Bad News Bears” with Chinese characteristics. But drawing on his six years of experience in China, Yardley manages to capture, in touchingly human detail, the essence of a nation in transition.
Chinese basketball, he suggests, is much like the country as a whole: caught halfway between an enduring socialist system and an amped-up commercial frenzy, anxious to absorb ideas from the West but deeply ambivalent about their influence.
Yardley’s tale is set in motion by an unusual experiment. Boss Wang, the tempestuous steel baron who owns the Brave Dragons, has decided to buy an American coach from the holy land of hoops, the NBA. The experiment, which Yardley turns into a lively and often hilarious metaphor for the collision of Chinese and American cultures, seems almost doomed from the start.
The new coach is an amiable NBA veteran, Bob Weiss. He’s never set foot in China before. But he suddenly finds himself in Taiyuan, a coal-choked provincial capital in what Yardley calls “the boiler room of China.” The first inkling that the season will be fraught with surprises: Weiss’s hotel, though seemingly topped by a Howard Johnson sign, turns out to be a run-down replica that, on closer inspection, is called “Howell & Johnson.”
The team itself, a crew of quirky Chinese players with a rotating cast of NBA washouts and wannabes, strives to be the real thing: a winning club guided to the playoffs by its new American guru. But as Weiss soon discovers, all of basketball’s familiar trappings in China — the NBA-style uniforms, the “Spicy Spicy” dance squad, players with names like Kobe and Joy — only serve to mask a disorienting amalgam of regimented state control and wild frontier capitalism. As Yardley, the son of Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley, puts it: “The court was the same, the ball was the same, the rules of the game were the same, but everything else was different.”
The epitome of this strangeness — and the book’s most compelling character — is Boss Wang. A man with a volcanic temper and a soft spot for Michael Jordan, the 65-year-old team owner is part of the first modern Chinese generation to make a fortune and spend it on a dream — this one inspired by the West. But Wang is still old-school, unleashing tirades at his players, firing 15 or 16 coaches in six years (who’s counting?), even edging onto the bench during games with a young mistress by his side. Hiring Weiss was Wang’s idea. Yet even before the season begins, the boss does an about-face, initially sidelining Weiss in favor of a Chinese assistant whose idea of a perfect practice is to run pointless drills until the players collapse.
This kind of “molten-iron” training, so deeply rooted in the Chinese sports system, provides one clue in the case of the missing point guards. China’s athletic army, much like its mass of factory workers, has been extremely productive, going from five Olympic gold medals in 1988 to 51 in 2008. Yet the rigid training methods, Yardley points out, suppress the very characteristics needed to produce an NBA-quality point guard: creativity, freedom, passion and leadership. One other clue comes when the Brave Dragons’ mediocre point guard confesses to Yardley that he won his position by default when his body didn’t grow as tall as predicted. In a system where players are still recruited solely on the basis of projected height — preferably 6-7 or taller — Jeremy Lin never would have played basketball in the first place.
Thrust into this absurd situation, Weiss plays the role of straight man, absorbing every mishap with bemused affability. He is the reader’s touchstone. But the book’s humor and momentum come from the eccentric characters swirling around him. Yardley keenly depicts the foreign ringers Boss Wang has recruited (each team except the army squad is allowed two), whether it’s the 6-foot-10 Nigerian nomad who has played in a dozen countries or the troubled former NBA star Bonzi Wells, whose bizarre mid-season cameo throws off the team’s growing chemistry.
The foreigners overshadow the Chinese players on court — and in this book. Yardley remedies this by digging deeply into the lives of the strivers and dreamers on the Brave Dragons’ staff, from the interpreter caught in the cultural crossfire to the DJ who revs up Taiyuan’s notoriously raucous crowds. By the end, however, the set seems crowded with bit players, all of whom get to offer their life stories.
As the season rolls on, Yardley uses the team’s road trips to explore bigger pieces of the puzzle. In Tianjin, he visits the original YMCA building where American missionaries introduced the game of basketball to China in 1895 — a century before the NBA turned China into its biggest market outside the United States (his guide’s cellphone ringtone: the Village People’s “YMCA”). Shanghai gives him a chance to understand why the country’s most modern city — and the home of Yao Ming — fields such a lousy basketball team. (It has to do with the meddling of the city’s Communist Party sports bureau.)
Back home in Taiyuan, Yardley takes on the dark side of the game: the “black whistles” — or corrupt referees — who can twist the outcome of a match, as they did during the Georgetown University game-turned-brawl in Beijing last summer. These digressions are colorful and informative, but as the season moves toward its conclusion, they begin to feel a bit dutiful. Besides, we just want to get back to the central drama.
No spoilers here. But by the end, we find ourselves rooting for the Brave Dragons — Chinese and American alike — until the final buzzer.
A Chinese Basketball Team,
an American Coach, and Two
By Jim Yardley
Knopf. 304 pp. $26.95