Georgetown’s basketball brawl in China erupted from complex mix of history, hubris and culture

Mike Wise
Columnist August 20, 2011

By early evening Sunday in Washington, Georgetown’s men’s basketball team will conclude its three-game trip to China — against a less physically aggressive team than the Bayi Rockets, one hopes.

Replaying the video Saturday — hands, feet, chairs and bottles flying amid the chaos — it’s still so surreal.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

The Great Brawl, of course, was not on Georgetown’s itinerary Thursday in Beijing, just two days after the Hoyas visited the only man-made structure visible from space.

But the unfortunate takeaway for everyone involved won’t be the awe of man; it’ll be the raw of man, the ballgame turned into an international incident, a cultural exchange, all right — of overhand rights.

When two teams leave their benches and fists are balled, when Chinese professional players begin grounding, pounding and stomping their American-college counterparts, when fans hurl bottles of water toward the visitors — in a game ironically billed as a “friendship match” — dissecting the senselessness is always an imperfect science.

But here’s a theory: Beyond nationalistic pride, a bevy of home-cooked calls that made for over-the-top bad officiating and two teams going at each other physically, the fight was very possibly the result of the perfect storm — a caldron of history, hubris and the overseas marketing of win-or-die American sports culture.

And it’s been percolating for years.

It began with the aggressors on the Chinese military team. With a penchant for throwing elbows and punches in its recent past, many were taking their cue from the people who govern the sport in China.

As NBC’s Sarah Kogod reported this past week, in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, former NBA star Yao Ming, among many of his countrymen, felt that the Chinese “non-contact style prevalent in the [Chinese] Basketball Association was producing players who were not tough enough for the international game.” The CBA allowed more physical play to begin the 2008-09 season.

“After the Olympics, we realized that unless we strengthened our physical presence, Chinese basketball would not be able to compete with the world’s best,” Liu Xiaonong, the head of the CBA, said in 2008.

Going into that game, Chinese players as a whole had been encouraged to scrap more to compete internationally.

It continued with a Georgetown program trying to rebound not only from consecutive first-round knockouts in the NCAA tournament but also an unflattering label, almost insulting to the old Hoya Destroya stereotype of the school’s physically imposing teams led by Patrick Ewing and embodied by Michael Graham in the early 1980s: soft.

Soft is the worst thing you can be called in sports now, and it rarely applies to a lack of mental toughness. Even John Thompson Jr., the program’s patriarch, has wished for tougher players on his son’s precisely patterned offensive teams.

In January 2009, he said on his radio show that Georgetown might need more “thugs” on their team. He explained by saying the Hoyas needed to be more physical and tough in a Big East scrap against a rugged team such as Pittsburgh, which had pulverized Georgetown that week.

Are these Hoyas more liable to plant an elbow in the throat of an ornery foe that gets too close under the basket than their recent predecessors? That’s hard to say. But that soft label is out there, and it’s powerful imagery.

Amid this backdrop is the primary reason why Georgetown is in China: Nike, its business partner, the main promoter of the Nike Festival of Sport.

A multinational conglomerate, a global colossus that has done more to shape competitive culture than any other American corporation, Nike might subtly take some blame for the unseemliness in Beijing.

I still recall the large billboard from my train while covering the Sydney Olympics in 2000. It featured a very young, female Chinese gymnast, underneath the words “You don’t win silver. You lose gold.”

In essence, the message is that it’s not enough to compete, to even be second best in the world. If you don’t win, if you don’t beat everyone, you have disappointed yourself and, perhaps, your country.

If you don’t think these slogans don’t subliminally slip into the consciousness, think again. Nike is the third most-engaging brand in China, according to a March survey by a Beijing consulting firm.

Lastly, if people were worried about our game being co-opted by other countries after Team USA’s embarrassing Olympic losses in 2004, they need to worry about something more sinister now.

Our talent isn’t being exported as much as our attitude.

We woof. We taunt. We don’t just want to win; we need to dominate. And, yes, there is a racial component to this mentality. Even an old-head NBA player could tell you that.

In the book, “Long Time Coming: A Black Athlete’s Coming of Age in America,’’ Chet Walker argues that lack of respect for authority in sports can be derived from bleak social and economic conditions afflicting black Americans.

“If you’re a black kid, it’s not good enough to shoot from outside,’’ writes Walker, who played from 1962 to 1975, most notably with the Chicago Bulls. “You like to break people down by taking it to the hole. Such moves come from anger and frustration, from competing and trying to be on top, from struggling all your life. . . .

“Soaring over an opponent, driving in at him, then looking at him to say, ‘I crushed you’ — that’s control. Perhaps the only place a young black player can feel it.’’

Again, it’s impossible to exactly explain why Georgetown and the Bayi Rockets swapped more punches than points on Thursday night.

But it was more than just a physical game that got out of control, and there were very possibly myriad culprits who may need to share the blame today. And many of those culprits have a problem with competing as fairly and as hard as they can, while sadly deriving no satisfaction from a silver medal.

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