Every day at 11:20 am, I gather with some of the Chinese school teachers at the gymnasium for a game of basketball.
We don’t just play basketball, though. We bleed basketball. The games are one hour of sheer intensity.
Injuries are common. One of the Chinese teachers, who I’ll refer to as “The Best Friend” here, sprained his ankle about a month ago. He was on crutches for weeks. Another teacher broke his pinky. It didn’t just break; it took a 90-degree bend the wrong direction. Collisions are common. So is falling, physical wrestling for a rebound, and taunting.
After “The Best Friend” was injured, the Foreign Languages Department manager was pretty exasperated.
“These men,” she said to me while rolling her eyes. “They do this every day, no protection. How can we have the teachers dropping like flies because of pickup basketball?”
I was immediately thinking back to when the other teachers convinced me to play.
“Just for fun,” one of the Chinese teachers, “Ed”, casually told me in an effort to have me join them. “It doesn’t matter if you’re good or bad, win or lose.”
It is fun, I will admit. In fact, it’s a daily highlight. Here I’ll introduce some of the characters who play on my team; they make for some over-the-top stories.
Ed, whose Chinese name sounds like “Chongli”, is about my age. He’s one of the Chinese English teachers, so we run into each daily. He’s also the guy who convinced me to join in their lunchtime basketball shenanigans.
He’s very competitive and just over 6 feet tall, which puts him on the taller end of the height spectrum. He’s also one of the better players, easily the best on our time. He has a sense of humor that I’m still trying to understand (some things get lost in translation), but a few times he’s definitely made me laugh.
The previous American teacher here, David, used to get drunk with Ed all the time. Ed boasted this to me once at lunch when we were talking about David, who essentially retired shortly after I arrived. “Years back we would finish class and go out, have many beers. But now I have a three-year-old, so not enough time. It kind of sucks, because playing with the three-year-old is so boring.”
Ed is a huge Houston Rockets fan. It isn’t uncommon for him to live-stream Houston Rockets games on his phone shortly before we play, in order to get himself amped up. I’ve seen him in a James Harden jersey from time to time.
Once, he overheard me telling a story to “The Best Friend” about how pet birds can cuss if their owners are foul-mouthed. He must have just heard me say “Dirty Words” because he said, “Dirty Words! Yes, we often say very dirty words to each other during basketball in Chinese. Perhaps soon you will learn these words and use them as well.”
“The Best Friend”
I refer to this guy as The Best Friend because he’s my best friend at the school, and I can’t pronounce or write his name for the life of me. It’s one of the tougher names. I also forget his name entirely about three times a week, and now I’m too embarrassed to ask him for his English name (I’ve been at the school for almost five months).
He’s tall—close to my height—and pretty athletic too. He’s also an English teacher at the school. Usually I, him, and Ed are on the same team. I referred to our team once as “Team English,” which I think they got a kick out of. The other team refers to us as “The really tall team that can’t shoot.” That’s also pretty accurate.
The Best Friend tore something in his foot years back, so it constantly reinjures itself. If not for the foot, he’d be a basketball machine. The day of his last ankle sprain, he was really on fire. It actually broke my heart a little seeing him go down that day. Regardless, he’s moving around again.
The other day, we were talking about holidays and family. This is what he told me:
“I visited America once, and saw how big the families are. I really like that. It makes Holiday meals so much more interesting, with all the people and family drama. Here in China, most just have one kid. One child policy, you know. So, holiday meals with the family are just the same few people. Same old, same old. So much more boring.”
He tried to help me with my shot once because frankly, my shot really sucks. Then he saw that I’m left handed.
“Oh damn. I don’t know how to teach you since I’m right-handed. You might be stuck with the incorrect shot, but the good news is, left-handed people are clever.”
I told him it was fine. I was cool just going for rebounds and assisting.
The other players refer to this guy as “The Boss” because he’s the Dean of Students at the school. He’s older, likely mid-to-late 50s, and short, likely the shortest player. He’s at least a foot shorter than me.
“The Boss is really bad at basketball,” Ed told me once. “But we let him shoot anyways, because he’s the boss. So now he thinks he’s really good, but really, he kind of sucks.”
The Boss is always on “Team English” as well, mostly to balance out the height (me, The Best Friend, and Ed are the three tallest players at the school).
The Boss is also the definition of streaky. He has a shot technique that’s odder than anything I’ve ever seen—even stranger than mine. There are days when The Boss makes ten 3-point shots in a row and I’m in total awe. There are also days, though, when The Boss attempts ten 3-pointers in a row, but none of them even hit the board (what we call “air balls”).
Here’s my favorite story of The Boss (because it involves me). On one of the days he ended up being “on,” I had been the one to pass to him immediately before he took his first shot. Mind you, he always stands on the same spot outside the 3-point line and waits for someone to pass to him. Being eager to get the ball out of my own hands, I lobbed it over to The Boss. His first shot was good.
The next time we had the ball, I assisted The Boss in the same manner. He drilled the second 3-pointer as well.
Being as superstitious as he is, The Boss became immediately convinced that I was his “good luck” foreigner. He insisted to Ed and The Best Friend that from then on, I should be the only one to assist him for every single shot, until his good luck well ran dry.
Every time I got the ball, I’d see The Boss’s eyes light up in eager anticipation. He’d wave his arms and clap his hands. I’d lob him the ball, and more often than not he’d make the shot. It wasn’t long before he was sporting the biggest grin I’ve ever seen and shouting various things in Chinese. Suddenly, I was The Boss’s assist maestro.
Something tells me The Boss is his own best friend and worst enemy on the basketball court.
“They could have blocked all of his shots if they wanted,” Ed told me after the game. “They just let him keep shooting… because he’s the boss.”
Those are the three constant players on my team. Once, there was some drama in a ten-player game. We had lost the game by quite a bit, and The Boss argued with our team’s fifth player over whose fault it was. To prove that it wasn’t The Boss’s fault, The Boss decided he would play for the other team the next day. He claimed that if the other team won, it would prove that our team’s fifth player was the real problem.
In The Boss’s mind, you see, he is the captain, the Lebron James, the MVP. To suggest that he was in fact causing us to lose was the ultimate sleight.
In exchange for The Boss, the other team gave us a particularly manic player who lifts his shirt up and screams every time he makes a shot. He’s actually much better than The Boss, but this was a negative for our team; it means people actually try to guard him.
Unfortunately, the other team beat us that day, allowing The Boss to claim that he, in fact, could not possibly be the reason we had lost the day before.
“We could have beaten them,” Ed casually told me after the game. “We just kept letting The Boss shoot… because he’s The Boss. Every day, we just let him shoot.”
The next day, The Boss was back on our team again, feeling newly triumphant and confident in his own abilities.
So there you have it. “Team English.” An average height advantage of six inches, an average age advantage of a few years (we would be significantly younger as a whole if not for The Boss), more speed, and more jumping ability. And yet, somehow, we still lose about 2/3 of the time.