On the Court in Xiamen, China

The original buildings at Xiamen University

I tell my students, “Whatever characteristic you have, unless it’s something you share with a dog or a cat—like fear of loud noises or fear of falling—you learned it, and if you learned it then it’s tied up with culture in some way.” This is also true on the basketball court, as I learned in 1985 when I interviewed two tall Westerner students at Xiamen University.

Steve’s story

During the next two weeks I’ll be playing in the Fujian Provincial College basketball tournament on the university team. I think all my teammates are really looking forward to this because they have a real center. They always used to complain, “Our team’s too short, we don’t have anybody who can play center.” But almost all Chinese teams are that way. You may not have a center, but nobody else does either, so don’t worry about that. Now they have a giant center, and they think they’ll do pretty well.

A few weeks ago they had a round-robin tournament with the student’s team, the graduate students’ team, and the teachers’ and workers’ team. I was practicing with the students’ team. I was going to play with them. I went down the night of the first game, and we were going to play the teachers’ team. The teachers said no problem, I could play, but there were several graduate students sitting there, and they said, “We don’t want Steve to play on Saturday against us.”

Before the tournament they were supposed to have decided. They talked about it, but they hadn’t really made a final decision about whether foreign students could take part in this competition. Last semester for the volleyball tournament they came up with this rule that in order to participate in intramural sports, the competitions within the school, a foreign student had have to been here for two years or have plans to stay for two years. So if you only stayed for one year, you were not enough of a university student to take part. I don’t know how much my height was a factor in the decision that I shouldn’t play, but in this case it seemed like it really was the major reason. “He’s too tall. We don’t want him to play. So what can we say to make it look legit?”

That evening I decided that if I couldn’t play in the game against the graduate students I wouldn’t play in this one either because I might as well let it be the same all the way through the tournament. After the game started one of the guys in the graduate students’ team came over and said, “I’m sorry you can’t play. We have these rules.”  He went on and on.

It was the first time I’d been treated that way as an athlete. I’ve played on basketball teams in both Chengdu and Xinyang. In Xinyang there was some question before the tournament whether I could participate. The other team didn’t like the idea, but it was decided that I could play, and it was no problem. But this was the first time I’d been excluded from playing. You used to hear the Chinese phrase, “Friendship first, competition second” all the time. I wrote to a few friends about this incident, that I was really disillusioned now. I really believed the maxim, “Friendship first, competition second,” but it’s not that way anymore. I’m not sure how much it ever was that way.

Supposedly, they’ve decided I can play in this tournament next month, which will take place in Fuzhou. I guess there was a big discussion about that. The coach from here asked if foreign students could play. At first the other schools didn’t like the idea, but he convinced them that I am a student here at this university, and I should be able to play on their team. So I’m interested to see what kind of reactions I get in Fuzhou from the other coaches when the tournament starts. He probably didn’t tell them that this foreign student was 6’8” either. Let’s see if they can come up with anything to keep me off the court this time.

Mark’s story

The only sport I’ve played here has been basketball, and that’s because—being a Briton—I decided I wanted to do something to keep myself fit. I’ve always played something. First it was rugby, recently it was squash. I used to play basketball at school, and I really enjoyed it. In China there’s no particular cult of keeping fit.  You see people running, but they are runners, not people who are doing it for fun or to keep healthy. I don’t think tai chi makes you very fit, though it might make you supple.

The Chinese who do some sport are all incredibly thin. If you pushed them they’d probably fall over. Most of the guys I play basketball are pretty small, but they’re actually quite strong, they have a kind of wiry strength and a lot of stamina, though none of them is strong in terms of having big muscles.  They’re by no means weak and puny, which seems quite surprising to me, given how little meat they eat. They always seem to eat rice. They can’t throw as much weight as I can, but it doesn’t really matter in basketball.

I started playing basketball here by just going to one of the outdoor courts and using sign language to get myself on. I started playing and after that you don’t really need very much communication. I went out there and messed around with whoever was there. The university team noticed me because I was a foreigner, and they came round and asked me to come play with them. That was just before the 36th anniversary celebration [October 1, 1985], and they were having a tournament of basketball matches in the open stadium. I was really out of form at that time. I hadn’t played basketball seriously for ten years. It was difficult trying to explain that because the captain’s English and my Chinese weren’t up to it.

I’ll remember that for a little while, the first time that I played for the university team. It was this kind of round-robin competition. There were about three hundred people in the light ground watching this match, and when we warmed up I could feel everybody watching me miss all those baskets. I was benched for the first fifteen minutes, first quarter or something like that. Then they brought me on. Ann was sitting in the crowd, and she told me the people behind her had been saying for the first quarter, “There’s a foreigner over there. Wonder when he’s going to come on?”

“Oh, he’s coming on. He’s coming on.”

Somebody in the other team threw a long ball down the court, and I virtually threw myself at the ball to put it out of bounds, and it sort of glanced off my arm. It was nothing dramatic, just the sort of thing you might do automatically that might get a hao chou [good move] from someone. But since it was the first thing I did, I got a tumultuous round of applause.

From then on, I’m afraid it was laughter. It was a bit of an embarrassing experience, but when you go out and play basketball, you’ve got to be prepared to face that. It seemed unfortunate, when we were in defense, that I didn’t understand who the captain wanted me to mark [guard]. This guy shot four baskets in a row from a long way out, and I think the captain thought I should have been out there. That was a bit embarrassing. Then the first time I got the ball in my hands I think I made a complete mess of it. Over the whole place there was laughter. If it had been someone else, probably the audience would have laughed, but maybe not so heartily. I didn’t take any offense at that, but they took me off after ten minutes.

Then the next night there was a game inside that gym where we had dances. Of course this time it was even worse because it was simply a court with three hundred people crammed in around the side of the court. From the edge of the court to the wall it’s maybe six or seven feet on one side—there’s enough room for maybe a foot outside the court and then there’s people’s feet and a bench and then people standing behind the bench and then a wall. More space at the ends of the court. If you were running and you couldn’t stop yourself, you would just run right into the crowd. That made it even more immediate.  There were also people outside. The windows and the doors were packed very close.

They put me on straightaway, but again I was off after ten or fifteen minutes. I’m not quite sure what the whole idea was of me playing because there were plenty of other players around. I was by no means really worth putting on. I’m not sure, but I think maybe the captain thought added interest to have a foreigner playing, and as long as I didn’t make too many cop-ups or really give a lot away, having me on for ten or fifteen minutes was a nice gesture.

In the team talks, the captain was giving a pep talk for a long time, and I was just standing there, and didn’t understand any of what was going on, and then at the very end he said, “MacGregor, cover this man.”  That’s me—done in a short sentence.

That was very early on. I played quite a bit after that, and just before I sprained my ankle I was certainly getting a little bit better. I was actually scoring a few baskets and I was more than pleased.

By British standards, which are very high, the basketball they play here is really not good at all for a university team. It’s nice in a way not to have any of the pressure I know American and British universities have. Every Wednesday and every Saturday you have a match, and probably at least one, and maybe both, are important matches you have to win. There’s a lot of competition about it. Here it seems to be much more laid back, and people really do just play for fun, because they enjoy playing. It doesn’t do their basketball very much good. Because what you find is that—and this is something that Bob also noticed when he played—Chinese students who play here are very, very selfish. When they have the ball and they’re running up, they’ll go for the big shot–the dazzle stuff—and try and get it in the basket instead of passing to the next man. Part of that has got to do with the fact that it’s more “fun,” so it doesn’t matter that they miss it. Whereas perhaps with the American teams and British teams, it’s much more important that you play a tight game. You make sure when you shoot at the basket you have a pretty good chance of getting the shot in, so you don’t have quite so much fancy stuff. These students love to run up, put the ball around their waist under their leg and up into the basket. Not just simple straightforward straight-in. You see a lot of them doing that, but it means that they don’t play so well in terms of teamwork. They’re much more a set of individuals. In a way I found that quite surprising for China. In the political rhetoric, there’s so much emphasis on the masses, if you like, and less emphasis on the individual. [The same thing was true in my classes, individual students asking questions rather than listening to the answer to the same question I just gave someone else.]

It’s not always true that the team doesn’t work well together, but it was the very first thing that I noticed. The first time I just went to look at this team playing, I found myself thinking, “Now here you have five men defending and your five men outside. In an American basketball team you’d see the ball get passed to the other players, like boom—boom—boom—boom—boom—boom—boom—boom—SHOT. Here the ball goes boom-boom-SHOT, and it’s just one or two little passes. Our way is to stretch people out, to create something, and then you’ve got a basket. I wonder, if they had the pressure of competition on them, if they were playing matches twice a week, whether their style would change and they would come to that. Look at something like China’s top volleyball team. They play together.

It seems quite contradictory. The theory of everybody pulling together in this kind of a society, the whole theory of socialism, which is what my students tell me this is, is more to do with helping each other than cutting each other’s throats. One doesn’t get in front of the other and say “tough luck,” but it doesn’t seem to work like that in practice, at least on the basketball court.