London’s Independent newspaper may have best captured the glorious mixture of homeland chest-thumping and international cooperation that is usually felt by a host city.
“The time has therefore come to set aside the curmudgeonly groans and grumbles which have accompanied preparations for London 2012, to forgo the attitude characterised by one foreign commentator as the typically Eeyorish response of the British. In one way, at least, the London Olympics are already a triumph. These are the most inclusive Games in history. For the first time, every competing nation without exception — even repressive Saudi Arabia — is represented by at least one female athlete,” read the lead story in an article titled, “Sit back and let the Games cast their spell.”
As Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, put it, “Through the Olympic spirit, we can instill brotherhood, respect, fair play, gender equality and even combat doping.”
In anticipation of the start of the London Games, two books were within arm’s reach last week. Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing, by Jim Yardley, is easily my favorite book thus far in 2012.
Yardley, a New York Times reporter who once hung his hat at The Anniston Star, tells an amazing story of China’s rapidly growing economy through the lens of pro basketball, a sport that has a tremendous following there. Don’t be fooled. This is no sports book with endless meanderings about strategy and the oversized egos of 7-foot professional athletes. The biggest ego belongs to Boss Wang, the 5-foot-9 owner of the Shanxi Brave Dragons. This Boss, who made his riches in steel, is a member of China’s hotshot set of wealthy entrepreneurs.
The same tough-guy mindset that led Boss Wang from a teen who nearly starved to death during Mao’s Cultural Revolution to nouveau gazzillionaire is applied to his operation of the Brave Dragons. Thus, the owner went through 15 head coaches in a few short years. In 2008, the Boss had a bright idea. The National Basketball Association is the pinnacle of professional basketball, Wang reasoned, so let’s bring in a real NBA coach. The man for the job was Bob Weiss, a third-tier coach who had made a few trips around the NBA coaching carousel and was recovering from cancer surgery.
Once he arrived in China, Weiss confronted a cultural divide he’d never seen in the United States. His tenure in the NBA was treated with great respect. Yet, we get the feeling the Brave Dragons’ management expected the mere presence of Weiss to fix the perennially cellar-dwelling club’s problems.
Boss Wang believed Weiss was too soft for Chinese players, who were accustomed to relentless training. The solution was a complicated scheme that put a Chinese coach in charge of practice and left Weiss with an ambiguous set of responsibilities. “Bob Weiss was running into the hard, invisible wall of Chinese culture,” writes Yardley. “His expertise was to be exploited but also contained.”
In other words, the United States and its NBA were the model for pro basketball in China’s view. However, what worked there wasn’t fully expected to work in China.
The other book I leaned on last week was partly set in China. The Gold Standard: Building a World-Class Team, by famed basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, relates a story of how the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team won gold in the 2008 Beijing Games.
One important task for the coach was to remind the U.S. team that the world was changing. The game that the United States had dominated for decades was evolving. Our global competitors were catching up, and no one should be taken for granted.
Krzyzewski, along with his daughter and co-author Jamie K. Spatola, wrote: “James Naismith invented the game in 1891, the United States had spent many years teaching it to the world. And the world had learned it well. Now, we had to accept the fact that we had something to learn from them. We were at a point where understanding this context, for us, meant shedding the arrogant belief that the game belonged to us and that it was ours to reclaim.”
Along with the IOC’s Rogge, we wish for an Olympics that promotes “brotherhood, respect, fair play” and so on, but are reminded by Brave Dragons and The Gold Standard that some cultural barriers are more difficult to cross than others.
Bob Davis is editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or email@example.com. Twitter: twitter.com/EditorBobDavis