2016 May 24
The day starts with a tinge of excitement. Did we really just beat the CBA Champs? Can we do it again? As we are boarding the bus, I try to think of all the things I would do differently if I were the coach of the Whales. Then I thought about the way to counteract it. I try to play the game in my head over and over, seeing what happens when we play. I try to anticipate every possible scenario.
The ride appears to be uneventful, and when we arrive at the promotion three hours later, the guys are met by 100 or so enthusiastic basketball fans. Both teams are there and the Cheer Squad. The podium is tucked away in a downtown shopping district. Balloons. Banners. A blowup arch. Everyone signs a large poster commemorating the event. There is much glee, but it is short glee. We are back on the bus in no time and arrive at the hotel just in time for lunch.
The weather looks threatening and I am tired from the road and decide a nap is the best way to spend the afternoon. By the time pregame meal rolls around, I have a good feeling about how things are going to play out tonight. The players straggle to the bus and away we go.
This arena is nice. The seating capacity is around 7,000. It’s bright and the floor is full size. This will work for us because we like to run, but will work against us as the Whales will have more room on the perimeter for their shooters. The place is packed.
The national anthems are played tonight. I stood with my hand over my heart and singing while The Star Spangled Banner played. With the words…and the home of the brave…I lower my hand and start to turn. Did you know there was a second verse? I suppose I did, but I have never ever heard it played at the game. The arena DJ most certainly just grabbed the first version of the anthem they found on the internet and used it. At one point during the extended time, I motion to the scorer’s table to cut it. I mean, what if there are 4 or 5 verses? The Chinese Anthem is quite short. A call to arms, trumpet intro, followed by throbbing percussion, some lyrics, a crescendo, and done. I look around the arena and hardly anyone is singing. I mean not even moving their lips. Is it because they don’t know it or don’t like it? Strikes me odd each time. In the USA, I am surprised when the anthem is not followed by at least a couple USA…USA…USA chants. Here, there is polite clapping.
My goal last night was to win in such a fashion that the Whales would not want to come back tonight. Sounded bold as you read that yesterday, but it is the only way. If they had won, our cloak of invincibility would have been gone. If we won a close game, they would have come back at us with double the effort to beat an American team knowing that only the smallest thing could turn the game. No, we had to destroy their hope.
It was a good time to get off to a great start; and we did. It was 26-3 when Robert hopped off the bench and whispered into my ear to let them score. Apparently, Mr. Gao had sent him. Imagine selling 7,000 tickets to a show no one wants to watch anymore and there are two hours left. Remember when I said we are part Lakers, part Globetrotters? The Whales make a couple shots, we miss a couple shots and the first quarter ends 34-12. Clearly, the Whales are done. The USA wants to pad their stats, but they too know it garbage time. I ask the point guards to walk the ball up the floor if we get a rebound. They can run on turnovers. It is not exactly a stall offense, but it takes a few extra seconds off most possessions. You would think I stole the team’s fries. The faces, the comments, and then their play was atrocious. There were three straight possessions where 5 USA players did not cross mid-court converting to defense. Even as I typed the word “converting” I felt like I just insulted the word “converting.”
Time out. I send the players to the bench and tell them to have a seat. I motion to Robert to bring Mr. Gao to the court so we can talk. With Robert as my mouthpiece, I tell Mr. Gao that we cannot play like this. That I cannot coach with one hand tied behind my back. We need to be allowed to play. I am pretty sure Robert was nervous delivering this message. I am hoping he has grasped the “tiger and stripes” concept. I am also pretty sure he has never been summoned to the court for a chat with the coach. He takes a moment, nods his head, and gives the thumb up, literally as he speaks no English. The second quarter comes to a fast paced close. The guys are hyped because of the on-court summit and finish the half strong. At the half the score is 60-33.
In the locker room at halftime, I tell the guys how disappointed I am in them. That I did not tell them to stop playing. That I did not tell the quit. That quitting is the least attractive quality in an athlete. I would rather be called a non-talented guy that hustles on every play than a talented guy who quits. They put up some initial resistance, but they knew I was right.
Remember, this game is over. It is halftime and it’s over. Back to the court. There is a dunk contest every game. Two Americans and two Chinese players. The USA wins every time. Not that the Chinese can’t dunk, they just don’t do it with the same flair.
The game resumes and there is no buzz. The fans are not into it. The teams are not into it. An interesting side note: I didn’t realize the Jumbotron at our end of the court converted to a huge TV during game action. The one I had been watching just shows the game stats. I look up and there I am. Maybe 10 feet tall. In living color. It was surreal. I then became very conscious of what I was doing. The third quarter ends 98-63. I wanted to go the locker room. I wanted there to be a mercy rule. There was not.
The fourth quarter was loathsome. Lazy defense. Cherry picking fast breaks. Uncontested baskets at both ends. The kind of action Las Vegas hates as basketball gives away points that impact the over/under and the spread. In the immortal words of Ricky Watters, “for who, for what?” As the final minute wound down the USA finds itself with the ball and a 3 on 1. This will be a lay-up, we just don’t know by whom or by what means: off the glass, alley oop dunk, jumping over the lone defender and jamming it with two hands followed by an extended rim hang to accentuate the action? Nope, a missed pull up jumper mid-lane. I don’t think too much of it as we are up by so much, but apparently that was the straw that broke the camels back.
I am finishing off the handshake line. I always go last. By the time I get to the bench, there is a commotion. My first thought is a security breach. But it is worse than that, two USA players are going at it. Yelling, swearing, a punch flies, our guys are grabbing the combatants in an effort to separate them. These are big guys with big egos. Do not allow the perception of disrespect to enter the picture. Especially when it comes to basketball and especially in front of thousands of fans. Apparently, player 1 barked at player 2 about not passing the ball on the final possession. Player 2 apparently didn’t like that. Additionally, there had been bad feeling between these two all day going back to a situation on the bus about seating arrangements (of which, we have none) and about where in cabin luggage should be place (also a policy we do not have). Now we have a full scale debacle. It continues down the tunnel, into the locker room. Player 2 is rushed out into the hallway, player 1 is breathing fire in the locker room, a caged bull ready to explode. It is ugly. The police are all around now. Spectators milling about, trying to watch the most exciting thing to happen tonight. It’s a public relations nightmare on full display.
It takes over an hour to get things to the point where we can leave. Player 2 has been whisked through the bowels of the building and put onto the Cheer Squad bus. The rest of the team has waited enough time to allow for that bus to have a head start enough for player 2 to be escorted to his room and sequestered. In the meantime, I am with player 1. Soothing, comforting, and suspending him until further notice. He doesn’t understand why he suspended for defending himself. I assure him that his actions were embarrassing enough to warrant a suspension and that while he was not the one who threw a punch, his actions and threats were serious violations of any teams’ protocol. He is calming down. He understands that the suspension involves being sequestered in his room until the morning and that food will be brought to him. No leaving for any reason.
While all of this is happening, Robert and I are on the phone with the travel coordinators in the USA. I know how these things end and it’s not pretty. There is no way these two guys can ever get passed this exchange. Several players express their concern for the safety of players 1 and 2. We all know there is only one solution. I make the call to send player 2 home, to the USA. Arrangements are made and by the time the team bus arrives at the hotel, the deal is done. Player 1 is escorted to his room, reminded of the rules of his sequestration and the assurance that things will be worked out. He does not know player 2 is on the way out.
I stop in to see player 2. He is upset at his actions, at being suspended, and certainly about being sent home. He knows this is going to impact his chance of hooking on with a Chinese team. While I am in there, Robert and Mr. Gao visit. Mr. Gao gives him all the details of his departure, and travel schedule back the USA. Player 2 is a decent guy who has not made professional decisions on this trip. Hopefully, he is able to get on track and find a team down the line.
I get to my room and there are many bags of laundry waiting for me. I separated, sort, categorize and display it such a way then when the players swoop through, they can grab and go quickly. Funny thing, I also get the bag of clean uniforms for the Whales. Imagine their surprise when all of their home uniforms are missing.
It is about 2 am when I crawl into bed. The Cheer Squad and player 2 are leaving at 5. I tell myself that I will be in the lobby when it happens, but I don’t. When I get up at 5:30 I feel badly that I did not say goodbye. I should have been there for him.
OBTW, final score 121-96. 10 games, 10 wins. This was a costly win.