The summer between my Junior and Senior years in college (May 2011) I went abroad to China for a month. This was a really amazing experience for me because I studied East Asian History. However, while I went to observe Chinese historical landmarks like The Great Wall (the brick one not the Dancing One), The Terracotta Warriors, and Tian’anmen Square, but the part of my trip I found most interesting involved a lot less pretentious history nerd stuff and a lot more frivolity (just the way I like to live my life).
I was in China from late May and early June, right in the middle of the NBA playoffs and finals, and while I never would have guessed it, this fact ended up shaping a lot of my trip. A group of other guys on the trip and I would always stop into various bars and watch some playoff games whenever we could just to get a taste of home. Now, at first this seemed like an incredibly mundane activity, but eventually it dawned on me that it was more unique than that. First off, we’re in China!! Why were they playing NBA games at all? And furthermore, there’s a twelve hour time difference between the US and China, meaning these games that start at 8pm in Miami would be starting at 8am in Shanghai and Beijing. In spite of this, Chinese bars would be packed early in the morning with guys heading to work, trying to watch as much of a game (which was taking place half way around the world) as they could before they ran off to their manic jobs in a nation obsessed with financial growth.
Moreover, this was all happening in a post-Yao Ming world. Everyone knows that Yao opened China as an NBA market. Chinese people looooooooved to root for Yao, and the Houston Rockets famously capitalized on this being the first team to grab a foothold in the Chinese market. But Yao has since retired, and his heirs have failed to capitalize on this growth and expand on it. (Yi Jianlian I’m lookin’ at you.)
In the past I always assumed this meant the Chinese desire to watch the NBA would decrease rapidly. The narrative went, “Chinese people love to watch Yao. They like to watch a Chinese man compete with the Americans at their own game, but they don’t actually care about the game itself.” And yet… here I was in a different packed bar every day watching the NBA playoff games. But because I am as observant as a sleeping sloth none of this registered with me at the time. Ok hold that thought.
SO ANYWAY, while we were in Beijing we went to a university and got to hang out with some of the students there. I ended up meeting this Chinese guy who went by Jack and he was nice enough to show me around his campus. He pointed out all the security cameras as well as the paramilitary police stationed on every corner, all the political stuff I thought I was in China to see. While we were walking, however, he asked me where I went to school. I told him I went to UK and as I was preparing to explain to him that no, I did not mean the United Kingdom, I mean the University of Kentucky and to explain where exactly Kentucky was on a map he goes “Oh I know Kentucky. Rajon Rondo played there. He’s my favorite NBA player.”
I was stunned. Apparently, as I quickly discovered, Jack was a huge Celtics fan and loved watching the NBA. This was shocking for me for a few reasons. I was under the impression that lots of Chinese people loved the NBA but only to watch the Rockets and only if Yao was playing. But Jack explained to me that a lot of people are huge fans of the league. Moreover, he and his friends actually would hack through the “Great Firewall of China” on a regular basis so that they could watch games online and read ESPN.com articles (in English no less) about what’s happening in the league.
We also discussed the then upcoming lockout that was looming over the NBA. I asked him if he was excited that so many NBA players would be coming to play for Chinese teams during the lockout (as was rumored to be the case and ended up happening) but he was just as mad as most American fans about the whole situation. He was a Celtics fan. He wanted to watch the Celtics play, and he didn’t care if NBA talent was on loan in China. He just wanted to watch basketball of the highest level being played and didn’t want Chinese teams acting like vultures pulling players out of the league he loved.
What Jack’s story meant to me was that the NBA had formed a truly cooperative cultural bridge between China and the US. This isn’t necessarily a new concept. Sports can do this and its been proved it time and again. What is new, however, is just how little inherent animosity and antagonism appeared to exist in the relationship. A lot of times in the world of East Asian Studies “Westernization” is a dirty word because it evokes images of American cultural imperialism. Because of this even positive things like the use of baseball as a cultural bridge in Japan after WW2 can be viewed in a negative light (due to the fact that baseball was brought by the American Occupational Forces; the conquering heroes who taught Japan their game). One can also look at the antagonism between the NHL and KHL where the rival Russian league capitalizes on every opportunity to attack the NHL by luring away NHL players and violating NHL contracts to see how a shared love of sport doesn’t always bypass political animosity.
China and the NBA appear to be different. People become fans of the teams they love because they love a style of play or a specific player’s game. So near the end of my trip while I was sitting in an imitation Brooklyn-style Pizza restaurant in Hong Kong and watching the Dallas Mavericks upset the Miami Heat for the 2011 title I couldn’t help thinking about Jack. China is a country in somewhat of an identity crisis. An economic powerhouse which is ostensibly Communist but de facto capitalist, a merger of Western modernity and Eastern history and traditionalism. A country which denies many basic freedoms to its citizens but whose people bypass their government at every opportunity, all while being the second biggest market for the NBA, a socialist sports league which, in true capitalist fashion, creates more millionaires year after year than almost any company in the world. In some ways then, the NBA really does define China better than a long wall, some clay soldiers, or the site of a 20 year old failed protest. Basketball and the NBA talk about China’s ‘now’, and are a big part of the current culture of China. This is today’s China. A hybrid chimera more interested in function than form even when traditional rhetoric begs to differ. So I guess in the end it makes perfect sense that a college kid in China would hack through a government enforced firewall to watch a kid from Kentucky play basketball in Boston 6,800 miles away. Basketball is just a game, but by watching this game modern Chinese citizens are defining their national identity, and choosing to pursue their own interests outside of a nation’s rhetoric.