NEW YORK -- I had lunch yesterday with Josh Boone at a Turkish restaurant down the street from the United Nations, where the former New Jersey Nets forward ate a kafta kebab for the first time in his life and said he was leaning toward returning to China for a second season rather than playing in Turkey, where there is interest in his services.
Boone polished off his plate of lamb, beef, onions, peppers and Turkish rice like a man who hadn't eaten a decent meal in weeks, even though that wasn't quite the case.
Actually, the last time he hadn't had a decent meal for an extended period of time was last fall, after he first arrived in China, where he spent last season playing for the Zhejiang Chouzhou Golden Bulls of the Chinese Basketball Association, making more than $400,000 (he said he was always paid on time; sometimes early) while living in the eastern China city of Yiwu, a metropolis of 1.2 million people nearly 200 miles north of Shanghai.
"My worst day in China?" Boone said. "Probably one of the first days, actually, because I was very sick for the first two weeks I was out there. My stomach was just not tolerating the food. And when I was out there for the first week or so, I was eating nothing but Chinese food when they were taking me out to eat, and there was one day I couldn't even leave the hotel. We were supposed to have a double practice session, and I couldn't even leave the hotel.
"I thought I was about to die."
The culture shock of moving to China is something a number of current NBA players might experience this fall if the NBA lockout extends through the summer and forces players to decide whether they want to wait out the labor stalemate or ply their trade in the world's most populated nation -- a place where Quincy Douby won MVP honors last season and where Stephon Marbury appears to have permanently taken his talents.
The most high-profile player to publicly flirt with the possibility of playing in China is Dwight Howard, who said "I got something up my sleeve" when he spoke with reporters in Spain earlier this week.
Howard was a member of the 2008 U.S. Olympic team that traveled to Macau and Shanghai en route to the Beijing Olympics, where the American players were astounded by the level of popularity enjoyed by teammate Kobe Bryant (who also is being wooed by the Turks).
"I can't imagine that there's not going to be at least few," Boone said when asked how many American players might end up in China if the lockout drags on. "Especially guys that are not under contract right now, they could be essentially leaving money on the table if they didn't.
"Personally, I would love the chance to get to play against Dwight Howard in China. And if someone like him went over, someone that had the big name, he'd be treated like a king, essentially. They would absolutely love him in China," said Boone, who averaged 16.8 points and 10.6 rebounds last season after failing to stick in the NBA.
"For somebody like him to go over, I think he could possibly be a trendsetter. If someone with the stature that Dwight has decided to go over, I think that would kind of pave the way for several other guys who are possibly on the brink. I think that would make some people's decisions easier," Boone said.
It took Boone a couple of weeks to settle in after he arrived in China, though he often ate meals at McDonald's and KFC, didn't see any American civilians for weeks until running into a pair of men from New Jersey at the Golden Arches in Yiwu (they recognized him as Josh Boone of UConn, not Josh Boone of the Nets), and had to play catch-up to be in as good condition as the Chinese players, whose offseason lasts only 3-4 weeks before they return to training for the upcoming season.
Boone found himself playing for a team whose coach clashed with the other American player, Mike James, before James was put back on a plane to America and was replaced by another import, Marcus Williams.
Chinese Basketball Association rules stipulate that no team can have more than two import players, and the total amount of time they can be on the court is restricted to three-quarters of a game (Boone said he often sat out the entire first half and then played all of the third and fourth quarters, while Williams played the entire 48 minutes).
American players are expected to be hyper-productive, and Boone said it took time for his coach to get accustomed to seeing Boone occasionally take a mid-range jumper rather than dunk the ball every time he was fed in the low post.
Boone also clashed with the team's general manager, who told him "You don't drink beer? You no man!" at one of the team's early post-game dinners. "I came back and had like 20 and 10 in the next game, and he said "OK, you a man.' "
Boone also was assigned a translator who was schooled in Canada for 5-6 years but whose culinary tastes were decidedly Chinese. The translator had a particular zest for cow penis, one of the many strange dishes that can be ordered at an authentic mainland China restaurant. (Columnist Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times found the dish quite tasty when he sampled it in 2008.)
"I think I had some kind of eyeball. I'm not sure. But that was before I got wise to the fact that I don't necessarily have to eat what they put in front of me," Boone said. "When I initially got there, there were a lot of times I would be staring at a table full of food and not be able to eat anything. Some of the stuff was just real nasty."
What did Boone do for fun?
"Nothing, really. Basically, as soon as we were done practicing or playing, I went to the hotel. I had my PlayStation and my X-Box over there, I had my computer, so I could keep myself entertained. But there wasn't really a whole lot to do."
Boone became acquainted with bypass Web sites that allowed him to use Facebook and other social media that are blocked by the totalitarian Chinese government, and he had an advantage over his Chinese teammates whose computers were confiscated by team personnel at 10:30 p.m. every night as part of curfew rules (although Boone would nonetheless occasionally see his teammates walking the streets late at night on their way home from karaoke bars).
He complained that when his team played on the road, stat crews consistently failed to credit him with the proper number of rebounds and blocks. He said people on the street would walk up to him and call him "Yao Ming" with smiles on their faces, and he said the team's fan base was particularly loyal, often taking bus trips of 5-6 hours to support the team on the road during the playoffs.
"The food is obviously a lot different and takes some getting used to, especially if you are in a smaller town and don't have access to some of the American restaurants that you have in Beijing and Shanghai," Boone said. "The travel and the accomodations definitely take some getting used to, because you're not staying in Ritz-Carltons over there and you're not taking private jets over there. The nicest place we actually stayed at was a Holiday Inn in Beijing."
All in all, Boone said his year in China was a rewarding experience, though he never had enough free time to see the country's most famous sites, including the Great Wall and the architectural wonder of Shanghai's skyscrapers.
His advice for NBA players considering signing in China: "Probably two things. One, definitely be in shape when you get over there because you're already a couple months behind going in, and it makes the transition so much easier if you're in shape. The other thing is just have an open mind about it. Don't go over with a closed mindset that you're only going to experience what you want to experience, and you're only going to be over there a certain amount of time. Go over there and enjoy the experience."
But be careful what you eat.