There is no such thing as an innocent exhibition in China. Every game is politically loaded, as John Thompson III apparently understands. Thompson hasn’t won any coach of the year awards lately, but he deserves an award for diplomacy, and apparently a safety medal, for his handling of Georgetown’s bench-clearing, chair-throwing cultural exchange in Beijing.
The pictures are ugly: Hoyas guard Jason Clark lying on the floor while a Chinese rival stands over him with his leg raised, ready to stomp him. Fists wind-milled and chairs cartwheeled through the air, one of them hitting Henry Sims. First the benches cleared, then the stands, as the fighting spread all over the arena, forcing one Hoya to wield a chair like a lion tamer. Chinese security stood by, apparently incapable or unwilling to control the situation, while water bottles rained down.
Somehow in all of that, Thompson kept his cool. Somehow, he got his group together. Somehow, he got them off the floor, into the locker room, and on to the bus. “We’re outta here,” he said.
It’s one thing to have a bench-clearing brawl between New York and Detroit, or Duke and Maryland. It’s quite another to have one in China. The stakes are simply higher, especially this week with Vice President Joe Biden visiting the country to discuss tensions between the two biggest economies in the world.
What happened on the court between Georgetown and the Bayi Rockets will be read as a full blown international incident, because of the simple fact that sports and politics are inextricable in China. China’s programs are highly institutionalized, rough, and sometimes brutal affairs that are direct expressions of nationalism. Did this cause the brawl? We’ll never know exactly. But it’s the culture of the place where it happened.
Anyone who witnessed the Beijing Olympics understands how much sports in China are an essential expression of governmental ambition and prestige. During the 2008 Games, China showcased and projected its global aspirations in everything from the architecture of the arenas, to the cleansings of the streets, to the pressure on political dissidents, and intolerance of demonstrations.
The back story to China’s rise as a sports power is dramatic: It won its first world championship in 1959 in table tennis, but by 2004 Chinese athletes had won 1,800 world championships and 1,119 gold medals. At the Beijing Games alone, they won 100 medals.
There are 20,000 elite athletes in the training system year round, and their ascendancy begins in grade schools, where students are subject to corporal punishment from coaches, and those who don’t reach the required physical standards aren’t allowed to go on to higher schools. One western correspondent in Beijing, Simon Tisdall of The Guardian, characterizes China’s sports machine as a “culture of pride and aggressively nationalistic assertiveness.”
Recently the Chinese Basketball Association temporarily suspended Fan Bin, the head coach of China’s Under-19 national basketball team, because 13 of his players complained in a formal letter of continual physical and verbal abuse, including severe beatings, according to the Guangzhou Daily.
“Head coach Fan Bin has given us verbal insults and beating time and again in the past three years which we can no longer bear,” read the letter. “We are here to protest and ask for a change of head coach.”
So this is the culture the Georgetown Hoyas walked into.
Then there was the news of the week to take into account: The Hoyas arrived in Beijing amid reports that Pakistan gave China a look at the tail section of the Black Hawk helicopter that crashed during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and also, stories from the Chinese state media harshly criticizing American debt and economic practices.
Now throw in a physical game. Apparently the shoving and jawing started early, and never stopped. There were 57 free throws awarded to Bayi to just 15 for the Hoyas. At one point Bayi forward Xu Zhonghao stalked up to Thompson while he was shouting orders to his players, and began berating him. Thompson went slack jawed in incredulity, as if to say, “What have we gotten into here?”
Play had to be halted in the third quarter because matters were getting so truculent. There were fouls, arguments, technical fouls. Then Clark went to the floor with a hard foul, and something was said, and then someone was shoved.
Who or what really started it? We will never fully know. It’s entirely possible that the Hoyas shared equal responsibility.
But Thompson, to his immense credit, took the boil out of the water. He not only got his group off the floor and directly onto a bus back to their hotel, he quickly released a statement that, while refusing to apologize, was so gentlemanly it abridged any discussion of fault.
“Tonight, two great teams played a very competitive game that unfortunately ended after heated exchanges with both teams,’’ he said. “We sincerely regret that this situation occurred. We remain grateful for the opportunity our student-athletes are having to engage in a sport they love here in China, while strengthening their understanding of a nation we respect and admire at Georgetown University.’’
Thompson did his bit for the State Department. The only thing he left out of the statement was talk of “the importance of cooperation amid global uncertainty.” But inevitably, we will wonder if the fight exposed more than just a simmering rivalry between ballplayers.