Former New York Times Beijing bureau chief and Pulitzer Prize winner Jim Yardley uses basketball as a vehicle to illuminate the global story of the Americanization of China. In Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing, Yardley follows the Shanxi Brave Dragons for the 2008 season. He is initially drawn to the team because of the fish-out-of-water hiring of Bob Weiss, a former NBA coach and player. But the players, officials, and owner also draw him in and all have strong roles in this excellent narrative.
The Shanxi Brave Dragons were and remain one of China’s worst professional teams and owner Wang Xingjiang (“Boss Wang”), a peasant turned steel tycoon, was desperate for improvement. He promised Weiss autonomy with the players to infuse the NBA way into this team. Once Weiss landed in China, Wang went back on that promise and refused the players any freedom or individual expression, necessary to truly change their games. Wang, referred to as the Mark Cuban of China, interfered in nearly every aspect of the game, including sitting on the team bench with his mistress, criticizing performances, and in one case physically assaulting one of his players.
This is a fascinating history of basketball in China told with humor and a strong sense of the culture clash between these two countries and people. Readers meet the players, some from around the world, but most from China. These athletes were recruited in elementary school because x-rays of their skeletal structure led to projections of tallness. Training and practice took place in a depressing warehouse in Taiyuan, once ranked as the most polluted city in the world. Coach Weiss had to use an interpreter to communicate with the players and with his assistant Chinese coach, Liu Tie, with whom he faced a constant power struggle. In addition, there was rampant corruption among game officials and a multitude of cultural obstacles. All of these elements combined with excellent research and a clear writing style add up to an engaging narrative that will appeal to sports fans and readers who enjoy well-written contemporary nonfiction.