2016 May 28
I woke up with an anxious feeling. Not sure if it was the late night beer and peanuts, or the notion that we are close to doing something special. I know I want to win every game and make a statement. As I told the players in Los Angeles, this is as simple as A.B.C., Aspirations Beyond China. I want basketball people to look at our team and say, “I want that guy for my team.”
I spent my day working lineups. After sending home a player, we are now a group of 9. Any time you add or subtract from a group, it is not a bigger or smaller group. It is a new group. This new group has not played a game together. This new group does not have balance, or familiarity with rotations, or a single minute of time playing together. This group is on game #1. I work the lineup with the group I feel will get us off to a good start no matter what the Chinese team has in mind. If they go big we will be able to match, if the go small we will be able to guard it, if they press we will be able to handle it. Instead of two five-minute segments per quarter, I decide to go with three 3:30 minute segments. That’s nine different clusters. I am hoping that by moving players in and out they will not pick up fouls, they will not get too heated with the refs, and they will feel compelled to get to work quickly once they enter the game.
While the arena is not full, the game has drawn a spirited crowd. There are people with big drums banging happily. There are people with big flags waving proudly. There are groups chanting in unison proudly. I love playing in front of an active crowd even if they are rooting for the other team.
When we arrived on the floor for shoot around, there were no basketballs at our end of the court. The Chinese team was already into the well-choreographed stretching and shooting performance. They had 10 balls. When we asked for 3, they declined. WTF? Is that how it’s going to be? I had bumped into the coaches at lunchtime today. They were not Chinese, I thought they were Americans and I said hello, they did not respond. I thought it peculiar, and decided it was ok, because later I was going to say hello to them all night long.
Pregame festivities take a long time. With our regular Cheer Squad long gone, they brought in some local troupe to entertain. Plus a dance group in Michael Jordan jerseys. Plus speeches from three local dignitaries (the time doubled as each was interpreted into English). By the time the player introductions happened, it was 30 minutes after the layup line. Both teams were chomping at the bit to get underway.
As the ball is tossed up, Calvin taps it back to Tyler. Whistle. Illegal touching. WTF? And so it begins. The referees for this game were not of the highest quality. In fact, I question their integrity more than their knowledge of the game and ability to facilitate the game. It is quite clear the challenge we faced.
There were a number of non-calls, especially on moving screens. This is a dangerous play which can result in a serious injury. Every 50/50 ball was decided to be Shandong ball (the actual name of the Chinese team). There was a traveling call while we dribbled. The score table didn’t credit us with consecutive baskets, a 2 and a 3. At one point the team fouls were USA 9, Shandong 1. Clearly, everyone is on this except us. Shandong has even dressed 13, instead of 10, players for the game so they will A) have 15 extra fouls to give during the game and B) their main players will not be worn down by the end of the game. Seems the Serbian born coaches have spoken with their CBA peers about the USA Team. Yes, Serbian. So maybe they didn’t know how to say hello in English earlier, but his perfect use of the language during a pregame court side chat let me know the lunch snub was intentional. That’s cool.
The game is a farce and we are pulling away, up 18 with less than two minutes in the first half. The lineups have been working perfectly and I have been pulling every player who barked at the ref for longer than I cared to watch. The Chinese hit a three and start yapping at our guys. There had been talking all game, but for some reason they chose that moment to declare the comeback had begun. We come down and miss a quick three. Shandong runs the other way and drops in another three. The crowd erupts, the Chinese players get pumped, and then the fit hits the shan.
In basketball, a screen is a perfectly legal and effective way to help your teammate get open. A moving screen violates the rule when a player extends his shoulder, or hip, or leg, or butt into the player being screened. Some big guys are so smooth at this. Others are not. This time is was flagrant. The Shandong player bowled over Marshall as if they were playing football. No call. Marsh is on the ground looking up, and this guy is yacking down at him. Unacceptable. Marshall hops up into his face.
From my vantage point on the bench it looked like a simple push, shove, and curse situation. But the Shandong bench ran onto the court. Which means we have to run onto the court. The referees were no match for this. I have been around some basketball fights, mostly it consists of punches that don’t land because guys don’t want to land them. They are usually short affairs with twice as many peacekeepers as there are combatants. Unfortunately, tonight is not a typical basketball fight. It is chaos. They players, and the coaches from Shandong are all looking for someone to hit. Then the fans get involved. It was as serious as it can get. The fans who couldn’t flood the court started throwing whatever they had. It was raining water bottles, chairs, trash cans, everything and anything. At one point a fan with large chunk or railing was heading our way. The Americans had to fight our way off the court, down the tunnel, and find the sanctuary of the locker room.
My role as calming influence was completely lost in this situation. I tried to guide our guys down the tunnel as quickly as I could. The last player found himself in a bit of a situation as three Shandong players had him at the locker room end of the tunnel. I had one shot at this. I ran toward our guy, pushed him as hard as I could, while body slamming into the door the guys who were holding our players jersey. The jersey tore and our player slipped out of it and got the locker room. I got through the door and moved to the hallway entrance to the locker room. I turned and stood my ground. I was actually thinking of the movie 300. This narrow doorway is where I would make my stand thinking only one person at a time could try to get past. So there I was, standing nose to chest with a panting, sweating, adrenaline rushing player from Shandong. He made his move and in my best dad voice I yelled, “NO”. I raised my finger to his face and yelled it again. He actually stopped. Maybe he was trying to decide which way to kill me, but it was just long enough for the SWAT team to arrive and start pulling guys away from the doorway.
I went into the locker, nine players accounted for. I told them to lock the door and not anyone in. I have been knocking on hotel doors the whole trip and the guys say I have a distinctive and loud knock. I told them unless it’s me, do not open the door. I go out into the hallway and it’s a mob scene of cops, dignitaries and Robert and Mr. Gao. They are under the impression as some time passed, we would all be of cooler mind and we would continue the game. I assured all who would listen, the USA team was done for tonight and may, in fact, be done for tomorrow also. I could see in Robert’s face that he didn’t want to translate that. There was a lengthy discussion, none of which I understood. Ten minutes. Twenty minutes. Thirty minutes. I decide to go back into the locker room and see if we were ok. The arena had sent a medical person, more EMT than Doctor, to assist anyone needing attention. Both Marshall and Jordan were attended to. When I looked around, there were several pieces of aluminum tubing in the player’s hands. I asked what that was about and they said spectators tried to come in the windows. The aluminum was a towel hanging rack they destroyed to make some weapons in case the window invasion was successful. WTF?
Back I go to the hallway. Mr. Gao is now accepting of the fact that tonight’s game is over. He is working with the police to ensure our safe passage back to the hotel. It is over an hour before we are escorted through the bowels of the now dark arena. Uniforms in front of us and behind us. A tunnel of uniforms lead from the arena doorway to the bus door. We drive off the property and onto the quiet street. The bus is quiet, very quiet. As we arrive at the hotel, there is a platoon of uniforms in formation at the front door. Mr. Gao speaks to the team before we unload. He urges the players to control their minds, to act appropriately in the hotel (which, obtw, we share with China), and that he cannot help anyone who does not take this seriously. I think walking past the uniforms cemented how serious China was about this situation.
Inside the hotel, Mr. Gao, Robert and I are up most of the night making arrangements. The guys just want to load up and sleep at the airport and get out of here right now. The town, the sponsors, the Athletic Administration of China need the game to happen. We are all in touch with the coordinators back in the US, and are informed that while skipping the game may seem the right thing now, in the long run playing will be less problematic. It will be a tough sell in the morning when I talk with the players. I am wired and sleep isn’t going to happen any time soon.