Any American who has spent time traveling in Northeast China by taxi can cite two irrefutable facts about their drivers: they rarely bathe, and every last one of them has a vocabulary of at least two English words. The typical Chinese cab driver will use either word at every opportunity and with equal relish, chewing on each letter for all it's worth:
I've ridden in at least a hundred different taxis during my six years in China, and I've been involved in a hundred variations of the exact same conversation:
Cab Driver: notices I'm a foreigner: "ooooooh-kay!"
- awkward pause -
Cab Driver: "Ni shi na-ge guo-jia-de?" (What country are you from?)
Me: "Mei-guo." (America)
Cab Driver: gives the thumps-up: "ennnnn-beeeee-ay!"
- awkward pause -
Cab Driver: "Ni mei-ge-yue zhuan duo-shao qian?" (How much money do you earn per month?)
Needless to say, the NBA is a pretty big deal over here. Basketball and soccer are by far the two most popular spectator sports, and the prevailing wisdom among Chinese people when dealing with Westerner men is "If he's from Europe, talk soccer. If he's from America, talk NBA." The average Chinese sports fan simply cannot fathom the idea that American football, not basketball, is our most popular sport (They also find it hard to believe that we don't all carry guns, but that's an article for another day). For the non-conformist, football-hating NBA junkie - the kind of oddball American who doesn't want his late-season basketball coverage spoiled by endless debates on who the Jaguars will take with the 6th pick in the NFL Draft - China would be a kind of paradise.
What does all this have to do with the upcoming NBA season? As an established sports blogger - working in pajama pants and an ascot - I feel compelled to write a season preview article, but I don't enjoy making predictions and I don't have access to one of those psychic animals that are all the rage in soccer tournaments. Instead, I've decided to construct a season preview using China's most abundant natural resource:
coal tungsten Chinese people.
I surveyed 16 Chinese basketball fans - mostly from Beijing, but spread out as far as Fujian province in the south, Jilin Province in the Northeast, and Inner Mongolia. There are no real regional difference in the way the Chinese view the NBA, since everyone watched the same games via the Chinese Central Television feed. They vary in age from 15 to 39 - trust me, you won't find many elderly Chinese NBA fans.
I was looking for an opportunity to survey Xunzi, one of the most eminent minds in the history Chinese philosophy, until I found out he died sometime around the year 238 B.C.E. So I did the next best thing: I interviewed his direct descendant, Xun Li-ru - a hardcore Laker fan who has no less than 32 photos of Kobe on her Renren page.
Come, let us learn about the NBA fans who own most of our national debt.
Part One: Chinese Fans' NBA Preferences
1. Who is your favorite team?
And I've had to put up with these people for almost six years! There is, however, a fairly reasonable explanation for their horrible tastes. I grew up a Knick fan because I was raised in the New York area, and fell in love with the Knicks by watching them on MSG. Now imagine a world with no MSG, a world where you can only get your NBA fix through the TNT and ESPN national broadcasts. That is the world the Chinese NBA fan lives in. China's CCTV5 Network is their only source for NBA games. Much like TNT and ESPN, CCTV5 chooses the juiciest, hype-iest match-ups every week, which means a heaping helping of broadcasts featuring those aforementioned crappy clubs for jerks. These poor bastards have been cruelly deprived of Clyde's voice, which has led them down the path to the dark side (It has also directly affected their birthrate, as I covered in this fanpost).
The NBA is often referred to as a fan's league; nowhere is this more true than in China. The Chinese worship NBA stars, and it helps to explain the popularity of a team like the Celtics, who play a style that is often excruciating to watch for we Americans who pronounce the 'r' in 'car'. Any team with a certified "Big Three" will trump a team like the Nuggets, who are infinitely more entertaining to watch but lack the requisite star power.
2. Who is your favorite player?
Tracy McGrady: 3
Manu Ginobili: 1
Russell Westbrook: 1
Jeremy Lin: 1
No surprise that Kobe comes out on top. He's been the most popular athlete in China for the past 5 years or so. Soccer is on par with basketball in terms of popularity, but Kobe's Chinese Q-rating is head-and-shoulders above that of Lionel Messi and Christiano Ronaldo. Kobe's making a mint off of Chinese commercials - hawking Sprite with Chinese pop stars and candy bars with Chinese boys and elephants.
The order of rest of the list is affected by it's small sample size: no way is T-Mac more popular than Lebron. You shouldn't be surprised, however, to see Tracy McGrady on that list instead of another former Rocket. Chinese NBA fans had a very awkward relationship with Yao Ming. They loved him for being Chinese, but they didn't really enjoy his personality or his style of play. Unlike American children who learn about basketball from crusty old men who drone on endlessly about the glory days when men were men and played with the backs to the basket, Chinese children learn the game from their friends and online highlight reels set to crappy hip-hop or metal soundtracks. All the NBA trends that indignant old white men have bitched about for the past two decades - the brashness, the hip-hop style, the ball-hogging one-on-one iso plays - are the same trends that draw many young Chinese people to the league. Yao, with his quiet dignity and Bill Walton-style game, was the NBA hero China deserved, but not the one they wanted.
As for the others, my favorite reasoning game from 23-year-old Zhang Xiao of Beijing, who chose Shaq because, "He is the world's most nimble fatty." (Translated from Chinese) If that quote doesn't end up of Shaq's Hall of Fame plaque, then I'm quitting basketball and America!
3. Who is the most 牛逼 player in the NBA?
Niu-bi is the greatest word in the 5000-year history of the Chinese language. Let's break it down: it's a combination of the word niu, which means "cow" and bi, which means...well, my mom always told me not throw this word around. Let's just say that it's a pejorative word describing a part of the female anatomy, it starts with a 'c' and it rhymes with 1950's Knickerbocker Dick Bunt. You might expect the word to be a kind of slur, but in fact it is the opposite - niubi is a descriptive word with a positive connotation. The way it's been explained to me, it's meaning is something of a mix between "great", "powerful" and "bad-ass." Chinese sports fans love to use the word: ex. "He's a very niubi player."
Here's a list of the players the Chinese consider to be the most niubi:
Wilt Chamberlain: 2
Tracy McGrady: 1
Dwight Howard: 1
Dwyane Wade: 1
Can you see the magnificent symmetry of this word? For an English speaker, the word has a kind of a dual essence, combining undeniable greatness with the attitude of the c-word. There's nobody on that list I would feel uncomfortable describing as niubi. Ever watch Jordan's Hall of Fame acceptance speech? Niubi. Kobe's interviews? Niubi. Lebron and D-Wade making fun of Dirk for being sick during the Finals? Dwight Howard's past two years? ...you get the idea.
So who is the most niubi Knick? I'll leave that to you. Take the poll below.
Part 2: Chinese Fans' Opinions of the Knicks
How many times did I hear Chinese NBA fans mention the Knicks before Linsanity? Wow, that's a tough one. They said a few thing when the Knicks signed Amar'e, said a few more things when they traded for Melo...and, that's about it. Believe it or not, the epic Nate Robinson - Bill Walker trade made not a ripple over here. Back home the Knicks were a national joke, but in China they were - gasp - irrelevant. Does China have any opinions at all about our beloved 'bockers?
As it turns out, their opinions are not all that different from our own.
First, the good news: the "World's Most Famous Sports Arena" is, in fact, pretty damn famous all over the world. Of the 16 people I surveyed, six of them mentioned the Garden right off the bat when I asked them to give their impressions of the Knicks. This is pretty unique to the Knicks - ask Chinese fans their impression of any other team and you're likely to get a list of that team's current and/or former star players (a Magic, Cavs or Raptors fan would have no fun whatsoever talking NBA with a Chinese person.) Every fan knew of Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony, but only three fans mentioned those players when I asked them about the Knicks.
Some of the answers were seemingly designed to stroke egos of Knick fans everywhere. According to 31-year-old Wu Wei of Jilin Province, "The Knicks are a team with a unique spirit. The team is more than just the players. Madison Square Garden and the fans there give me a deep impression."
A few fans even seem aware of the Knicks' semi-glorious recent past. I got one mention each of Patrick Ewing and Allan Houston. I guess they weren't Charlie Ward fans.
Sadly, there's more to the Knicks than MSG and Allan Houston. There's also the legacy of front office incompetence and ridiculous contracts...like the one they gave Allan Houston. Eight of the 16 fans brought up money when asked about the Knicks. Now, Chinese is a language that values concision and word economy - they don't load their sentences with a's, an's and the's, and they don't feel the need to use conjunctions and linking verbs at all times, like we English-speakers do. They are quite fond of using cheng-yu, the traditional four-to-eight-word sayings that often convey deeper meanings. True to form, two of the fans I expressed their opinions of the Knicks in cheng-yu form:
From Zhao Tian-xi, 16:
有钱乱花 (you qian luan hua) - lit. "have money, recklessly spend"
From Tian Xin, 23:
钱多人傻 (qian duo ren sha) - lit. "money much, people stupid"
...yeah, I think that about sums it up.
The Chinese are also acutely aware that Jeremy Lin moved to the Rockets. Most of the people I asked are happy to see Lin on the Rockets, since they still have a soft spot for the team they watched so often during the Yao era. As you can guess, the Lin - China relationship is a bit awkward. He's their new racial hero, if not their national hero. The Chinese view nationality a bit differently than we do. They have a word, hua-yi, for people of Chinese ancestry born overseas. When these people come to China, the native Chinese do not consider them Americans or Canadians, but hua-yi. My Chinese teacher used to scold my Canadian-born classmate every time he made a mistake: "You're a hua-yi, this should be natural for you. Why don't you understand?" Many of the people I asked consider Lin to be the natural heir to Yao Ming; then again, so do many veteran American sports writers. Lin, to his credit, is taking advantage of the situation by starring in commercials for Chinese KFC. I have to say, his pronunciation is pretty good.
And where does this leave the Jeremy Lin's former team in the eyes of Chinese fans? Why did the Knicks let everyone's favorite hua-yi go for nothing? I must say I was disappointed by their answers - they were so...reasonable. I was hoping for some fire-and-brimstone diatribes against Knicks' ownership - they're crazy, they're stupid, they're racist, etc. With the exception of Hu Yu-biao, 27, who said of the Knicks' front office, "Their brains are underwater," there wasn't a lot of criticism. No fewer than five fans said that Lin wasn't worth the money and the Knicks' front office was right to let him go. Imagine: people giving credit to the Knicks' front office on the Lin deal. Are Knick fans that crazy, or are Chinese fans that naive? I'd say...yes.
Part 3: Who Are Chinese Fans Picking to Make the Finals?
Trust me, you don't want to know. Let's just say they're the two teams everyone in the world is picking to make the Finals, and I don't want to spend any more time thinking about it. If those two team really do make the Finals, I think it's safe to say there will be a lot of niubi on the court.
Let's go Knicks!
P.S. Want to see more photos? Click here for the photo album and story of how we brought the Novak shirt to the Great Wall.