2016 May 29
The day is full of meetings about the situation. Conversations about who did this, what should be done about that, and the ever popular, how can we fix this? All of these are above my pay-grade. All I know, somehow, miraculously, we escaped that arena without a serious injury. The guys would be pretty happy just going to the airport and sitting there for two days waiting for the plane back to the USA. Unfortunately, the show must go on. Police are involved. The Chinese Sports Administration is involved. FIBA is involved. Mr. Gao is in full blown crisis control mode. He gets assurances that arena will have extra security and the refs who worked last night will be replaced with FIBA officials. I tell Robert and Mr. Gao that our first choice is not to play to play the game. It is unsafe. However, if we have to put on uniforms and go out there, it will be strictly procedural. We will look like a team, but we won’t play with anywhere near the tenacity and athleticism they are accustomed to. We will play a compact zone, we will advance the ball to the other end of the floor, and we will shoot. We will lose mightily.
Honestly, I don’t think they heard anything after, “We will play.” So when it came time to set the schedule Robert was surprised to hear I wanted the bus at 6:30. “How will you warm up enough,” he asks. “We don’t need to warm up for what we are going through tonight, in fact we are not coming out of the locker room until it’s time for introductions and anthems,” I tell him. Again, a funny face. He tells me because of the bad publicity from last night’s riot, we need to have a ceremonial handshake with the Chinese team on the court before the game starts. It will show that there are no hard feelings. I take great pride in not looking as crazy as I feel. This was one of those moments. I was pretty sure no player would want to see, let alone shake hands with, the Shandong team. “You can do it Beebe,” he says, “just use your American way of dealing with them.” So clearly, there is supposed to be some magic in that old green clipboard still. I ask a couple players and they are not as good at concealing their immediate reaction. I move to the next room, more rejection. I change my strategy knowing I am at the last room where any possibility exists.
Jordan and Tyler have become best friends on this trip. They are the tall and short of our squad and they seem to be really enjoying everything as much as they can. I walk in with one bullet in my gun. Before I ask the real question, I ask if they are able to be bribed. Curious faces indeed, and they ask for what. I explain to them that Chickie and Pete’s is the best sports bar in Philly and one is opening up right near my house by the end of the summer. The next time they swing through Philadelphia, I will buy them dinner. They get excited about the free food, and assure me that they can get to Philadelphia, and then they remind me that I haven’t told them what they need to do. When I tell them they will be shaking hands with the Shandong players for a photo op to assure China that our actions were simply a misunderstanding, not a threat to national security, I got the face. “Tell us more about the restaurant.” Thank God. Behold the power of crab fries.
The arena is quiet. Spooky quiet. I assumed even before last night situation, that tonight’s attendance would be down. Without a Chinese team to watch, how many basketball junkies would come out? I also wondered how many people had seen the video on the internet, yes there is video on the internet, and would come out to see if would happen again or just to heckle the Americans. We get to the same locker room, albeit quite tidy now, and I go to look at our bench area. I have been assured there will be 10 uniforms right behind the bench the whole time. What I see is both impressive and scary. There are 10 SWAT member with helmets, face shields and large arm shields, the kind with the rectangle peep hole to see who they are running over. Ok, check off better security. I go back inside the locker room and wait with the guys. This is when I ask who is interested in playing time tonight. Usually, this question evokes childlike enthusiasm with hand waving and shouts for attention. Not tonight. It’s quiet. I wait it out. Letting a question breathe is a teacher’s friend. Getting the answer first doesn’t make it right, getting the answer right makes it right. There is a pregnant pause. There is a pregnant with twins pause. And then, Jordan is in. quickly followed by Tyler, and Byron, and Aly, and Cal, and Marshall. You can imagine my relief that the number was over 4. Steve, Kyle and Darren took the stand that we shouldn’t be here and their playing would only signify a change of position. I respect that.
Our strategy was to play zone, advance the ball, and get a shot. Not to think about the score, or the other team, the National Team of Tunisia. I decided to bring Marshall off the bench, his left eye still bruised from yesterday. The crazy part was, we were winning 8-4 in the early moments. I know every coach will tell you his team had a chance, and this may have been the best team we played the whole month, but I sincerely believe we would have beaten this team too. It became clear to Tunisia what our strategy, or lack thereof, was and they forced the ball inside and converted basket after basket. We fell behind and slowly fell off the pace as Team USA jacked up three pointer after three pointer. On a plus side, I got to see Byron play extended minutes. His game is smooth: quality shooter, quick, good defender. By the end of the night he had 30 and didn’t look like he pressed to get it.
By halftime, we were down 25. There was a brief flirtation by the players to turn on the jets and beat these guys. We had done that once before already, but Tunisia was a better team, and this was no time to try to prove a point. Besides, we were already proving a point by being there and participating. I reminded them our plan was to get this game behind us and go home. Stick to the plan.
The second half was more of the same. We fell farther and farther behind. For the players, it was the perfect game. Shoot any shot you want, play soft defensively, and the coach isn’t barking and stomping his feet at them. I smile at this, because what if they had won? Imagine if this little Lord of the Flies moment created a victory. Well, fortunately for all coaches everywhere, we kept losing ground. But, midway through the 3rd quarter, Darren asks to go in. I was surprised, but I told him to go in right away.
I am from Philadelphia and we have been known to boo. We take pride in knowing who and when to boo. We are good at it. So imagine my surprise, when after watching this horrible game the fans start to boo each time we touch the ball. I almost kicked myself for not thinking of it. If I had spent money for a ticket to this, I would be booing too. The first time during the boo-fest, we come down and miss a shot. Tunisia converts at the other end. We inbound and the booing begins anew. Marshall has the ball and as he crosses mid-court he launches a rainbow that hits nothing but the bottom of the net. The place goes wild with applause. I am sure our field goal percentage was in the 30’s, so there wasn’t much to cheer about, but at least the fans knew something might be coming along any second. Didn’t matter. Final score 137-58. (Side note: 20 three’s in forty minutes would have generated 60 points. We shot poorly)
So now, there is a hubbub because we lost. When we were rolling teams, there was quickly someone in my ear telling me to hold back, don’t embarrass them, put in some subs, or call a timeout. I did not see anyone slipping a note or speaking quietly to the Tunisians. Why were they unchecked? The after game hallway meeting with Mr. Gao, Robert, the arena, and the Chinese Sports Administration was spirited. I didn’t want to throw our sponsor and translator under the bus, so told everyone who would listen: “Tonight was a show of respect. Our team was there to fulfill its commitment, but the conditions and treatment we received last night were unacceptable and dangerous. If you had any respect for us you would not have put us in this position in the first place. Furthermore, that while there was ample security, two of the referees were the same as last night. Our players don’t do this as a hobby, this is their livelihood. This is how they feed their family. They are too big, too strong, and too fast to let these referees ruin their future. You lied to us to get us here, and we played. We are leaving.” I had practiced most of that all afternoon knowing someone would ask why we were not competitive. The part about the referees was a bonus. Two referees were, in fact, at last night’s game. I am good with faces and spotted them right away. The fact that I could slip in the part about being lied to was great.
We got back to the hotel, ate, packed, and dreamed about apple pie.