6 rules for playing hoops in China
The first rule that becomes clear upon landing in China is that you must adjust to the country's different organizing principle.
Take, for example, my first day in Hangzhou, where Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner played winter ball. I was waiting patiently near the reception desk of the hotel, hoping to check into my room. Waiting with me was longtime NBA assistant coach Dean Demopoulos, who was spending the season working with Griner as her personal coach. He needed to ask a question of the desk staff, but just when it appeared to be his turn, another customer stepped past him and approached the desk. Demopoulos looked only mildly annoyed and not at all surprised. "They don't really do lines here," he says, then he throws out a number: 1.3 billion.
As in, the number of people in China.
"Everything centers around that number," he says. "Whenever I don't understand something, I remind myself of the population, that the sheer volume of people means the entire country must, by necessity, run on a different organizing principle."
The most obvious example of this is the flow of traffic in China. It's basically a free-for-all, with stoplights and lane lines serving merely as suggestions. For a foreigner, this is challenging, and it makes crossing the street a dangerous proposition. That is, until you adjust to the new rhythm.
Of course, spending a season in China requires learning all kinds of new rules, and that's just the first of six. Here are five more:
2. Have your sneakers near
The basketball schedule in China is often in flux. For Griner, practice times were determined on the day of, and even then they were subject to change, which meant that she could never be too far from the team hotel -- or too far from her phone. Practice could be set for 11 a.m. but, early that morning, suddenly changed to 9 a.m. This was only an inconvenience for Griner, as the rest of the team was not allowed to leave the hotel except for practices and games, so the other players were always near the arena.
Even the broader schedule, like when the league will start and finish, is amended from month to month. For American players like Griner and Maya Moore, long-term schedules must also be adaptable so that they can arrive in China on time and extend their stay to coincide with league playoffs.
All of this can be challenging for players who are used to set schedules. The fluid nature of the practice and game schedule in China keeps players from being able to plan ahead in any significant way.
3. Bring a sweater
The gyms in China are cold -- really cold. Heating such a large space is inefficient and expensive, so the temperature in most arenas hovers somewhere just below 60 degrees. Last winter, Griner often practiced in a hooded sweatshirt, as her home arena was barely heated. Demopoulos tells a story from the beginning of the season, when the Golden Bulls were playing a game on the road in a space even colder than usual, which means it was likely the players could see their breath. Early in the first half, the team's starting guard went down with a blown ACL. For the rest of the game, the injured player sat on the end of the bench, her leg propped on an extra chair, swaddled in blankets.
4. No simple solutions
Griner might not be the best example, because her diet is poor even in the U.S., but she subsisted in China on rotating local (American) fast-food joints -- KFC, Pizza Hut, Burger King, Subway -- and a stockpile of junk food such as Snickers, Skittles and Cheetos. Every trip to the corner store included the purchase of some kind of soda and candy. Even Moore, who makes a concerted effort to eat healthy, recognizes the struggle that China presents. Because of drug testing (in China, much of the meat contains steroids) players can't necessarily eat all of the local food, so Moore tries to cook most of her meals herself. That way she knows exactly what she's eating. But her first year in China, Moore also found herself ordering fried fast food, often because it reminded her of home.
A few nights a week, Griner would take a cab downtown and eat at an American-type restaurant, where she would order steak and fries. Griner does not eat vegetables and does not seem to understand why anyone would, so at the beginning the lettuce garnish on her plate would go untouched. But as a gesture toward growth, she began eating the lettuce -- occasionally. "Every week and a half, I ate it," Griner said. "It would come on the plate, so I tried a piece, and I was like, 'This isn't that bad.' It's a good step for me."
5. The passport run
After being in China for two months, Griner had to make a quick trip to Hong Kong to have her passport stamped. The reason? The visa for playing in the country expires after 60 days, and part of the renewal process is to leave the country, have your passport stamped elsewhere and then come back into China for another 60 days.
Griner didn't mind the trip because it was a break from routine. Plus, she took advantage of the shopping in Hong Kong and came back with a new camera and a pair of bright orange headphones.
6. Always be smiling
China is particularly obsessed with basketball, both the men's and the women's game, and it's especially interested in anyone (or anything) connected to the NBA, including the WNBA. After a game against Moore's team, it took Griner more than 20 minutes to walk from the locker room to the team bus. Fans desperate for a picture surrounded her, the American basketball star. Most of them were wearing gear from NBA teams.
When not at the actual arena, Griner's presence on the streets of China -- she would walk every day from the team hotel to the arena, about a half mile away -- always caused heads to turn.
Of course, that part isn't much different than her life in the states.