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.”