Beijing hoops camp a learning experience

BEIJING -- It's too bad the latest labor pact between NBA owners and players already has been decided, because it doesn't include a vital element: Mandatory participation for everyone in an overseas basketball camp.

If the two sides understood what is to be gained -- not just given -- in such camps, players and owners alike would agree to such a provision in a heartbeat and be embarrassed for not having thought of it sooner.

"If you ever made everyone do one of these camps, at least half would want to do it again," said Philadelphia 76ers small forward Kyle Korver, who spent July 14-17 here as an instructor in the league's first Asian Basketball Without Borders camp. "How could you not, after what we saw?"

What he and the rest of the NBA contingent saw, heard and felt on the outskirts of Beijing is what every BWB camper, often for the first time, experiences: How infantile the dream of playing in the NBA truly is. (Put writing or talking about it right there, too.)

How utterly meaningless putting a ball through a hoop can be. How there are kids and families who know poverty and heartache at levels well beyond the most bullet-riddled, crack pipe-littered ghetto the U.S. has to offer. How they don't aspire to have a textbook jump shot, but, believe it or not, a textbook. How, maybe, the 12-year-old boy with no parents or brothers and sisters, who isn't allowed in school and doesn't have a single yuan, isn't the only sad story. Just as sad is the fact that some NBA players actually think they have real problems -- at least until they come here.

"People stay in one little box and think that's the way the world is," says Samuel Dalembert, who asked to do the Asia camp after working last year's camp in South Africa. "Especially guys in the NBA from the United States. They don't realize what they have. They don't know what hardship is. They don't know how to adapt."

The concept of the league's BWB format, which is now held on several continents each summer, is to use the NBA's formidable wealth, talent and influence to improve a region's level of basketball and the standard of living for the poorest segments of the population. A collection of NBA players and coaches runs the region's best teenage players through drills and scrimmages for five days, and in between, visits places like the Hu Lei Migrant School, where the group was serenaded by 225 migrant kids thrilled by the presence not of star athletes, but human beings willing to acknowledge their existence.

Thousands of laborers from China's rural areas have been migrating to Beijing for several years now to serve as the muscle in the city's construction boom. While the laborers invariably find work, officials have refused to allow their children to attend school, prompting volunteers to create unauthorized makeshift classrooms.

Approximately 200 such schools now exist for kids in kindergarten through sixth grade in buildings without restrooms, textbooks or basic supplies. There's no heat during Beijing's 20-below winters, or air conditioning for its 100-degree summers.

Hu Lei, at least, is now different. Reebok dedicated an outdoor basketball court, while the NBA built a one-story, two-room learning center and furnished it with computers, desks, books, heat and AC. It's primitive by U.S. standards, but here it's an oasis of luxury. As Clark Randt, the U.S. ambassador to China, addressed the crowd gathered under a canopy erected over the basketball court for the dedication ceremony, the stench of a nearby pigsty wafted around the proceedings, and a snout would occasionally poke through the hole at the base of a brick wall. Just above the wall, the heads of a few migrant parents could be seen peering down from the hovels they call home surrounding the school.

The kids, amazingly quiet and motionless while sitting on the concrete floor during the 30-minute introductory remarks, then rose and recited a poem, "Who Am I," that went, in part:

Yesterday, someone asked me who I am
I simply did not want to answer, because I was afraid
Afraid that the city kids would laugh at me

Our parents send us to school
Staying silent all the way
Eyes on their pushcart, mud staining their pants

Our school is small
Our classroom is dark
But we do our assignments
And our grades are good

Today, someone asked me who I am
I answered back loud and clear
I am the child of migrant workers
China's doll; the Motherland's flower.

"I've never seen anything like this," says Korver, who grew up in small-town Iowa and attended Creighton. His previous foray outside the U.S. was a vacation last summer in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. If the culture shock caused less of an impact on the other NBA players working the camp, it's only because they all came to the NBA from elsewhere -- Dalembert from Haiti, Bostjan Nachbar from Slovenia, Tony Parker from France and Yao Ming from China.

But even Nachbar and Dalembert were stunned after meeting with kids orphaned by parents who died of AIDS. After crossing the bridge onto a tiny island surrounded by a lily pond in the heart of Tsinghua University, the orphans led the players by hand to railing seats under a wooden pagoda, which featured ceiling beams decorated with hand-painted murals. Several kids told stories about how their parents died of AIDS, how classmates didn't want to sit next to them, how they had no warm clothes and suffered frostbite, how they were afraid to tell anyone what all that felt like -- and how grateful they were now to be in school, wearing clothes, talking to someone who would listen.

Each player then had a chance to sit with the kids, and through an interpreter, ask and answer questions. One 12-year-old boy asked Nachbar, "Do you need a little brother?" Nachbar promised to return to Beijing to visit his new friend and teach him how to play basketball. The boy promised to learn English so they could understand each other better.

Yao, cheered every time he acknowledged the crowd lining the banks on the other side of the pond, said it was humbling to be showered with affection -- and origami gifts -- by kids who have nothing.

"You kids have done nothing wrong and to deal with what you're dealing with ... I know it's a lot to ask of people your age, but I encourage you to keep fighting," Dalembert said.

Korver told them how impressed he was by their strength, and in a turnaround from the norm, asked them to autograph his white T-shirt. He returned to the bus with columns of blue-inked Chinese letters on his sleeves and back.

"I have 15 autographs," he says, "so I'm very happy. This blows the school experience right out of the water."

It's not that there isn't charity work to be done in the U.S. or that NBA players don't help the less fortunate. They do far more than most fans realize. Most are aware of how blessed they are, too. But handing out Christmas gifts or winter coats to people who know you as a celebrity, who wish you luck in your next game or compliment your talent, destroys the gesture's essence.

The value of flying halfway around the world to help someone who can't speak your language, who knows only vaguely about your fame and who can't even dream of having a life like yours, is so much greater. People who do not care about how much money you make or what you drive, and who wouldn't envy you if they did. People who know true poverty, true neglect, true discrimination, and yet, when told you were coming to see them, learned a poem or a song or made a small gift out of paper to greet their guests.

People who remind you, in the starkest way imaginable, that it's not about what you have. It's not even about what you want. It's what you're willing to give. Nobody's a saint. No one can apply such principles to his life every day. But imagine an NBA in which every player and coach had a "little brother" abroad, like Nachbar's 12-year-old. Would Pat Riley still consider kicking Stan Van Gundy to the curb? Would Latrell Sprewell insinuate he can't feed his family without a few extra million? Would a thrown beer cup result in a brawl? Would Shaq lash out every time someone joked about his free throws?

Would the NBA ever be overshadowed by backbiting and griping and immaturity? Probably. Because the truth is, we all could use a little brother. Most of us just have far too much to realize it.

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine and collaborated with Rockets center Yao Ming on "Yao: A Life In Two Worlds."