Learning to slam dunk
First one Chinese player dunked the ball into the net. Then another. Then another.
The way the Chinese men's basketball team warmed up for their Olympic match against the USA tonight revealed a huge amount about how China has changed in recent years.
Chinese players never used to slam dunk (unlike their counterparts in the American NBA, who made the slam their jaw-dropping, signature move). The slam was once seen in China as selfish, individualistic, and possibly even morally corrupt - therefore, entirely unsuitable for a diligent, loyal Communist.
For years, Chinese players played an elegant, non-physical, even slightly clinical form of basketball. And they also did all their playing inside China - far from the reach of the decadent west.
But at the same time as Chinese players were gently throwing the ball into the net (in as socialist a fashion as they could possibly manage), the NBA was looking hungrily at China.
In 1990, the NBA Commissioner David Stern, began his attempt to break into the Chinese market. For him, success meant recruiting a few Chinese stars, and then taking them over to America to play in his league (thereby giving hundreds of millions of Chinese consumers a reason to watch NBA games - and adverts).
After years of negotiations (chronicled in the book 'Operation Yao Ming' by Brooke Larmer) China agreed to release two basketball players to the NBA. The first player - Wang Zhizhi - made little impact. The second - Yao Ming - did much better. He's now one of the biggest stars in the NBA - and also possibly the most famous Chinese person in the world.
When he went over to America, Yao Ming at first refused to slam dunk the ball. Eventually (as told by Larmer) his coach told him that if he didn't slam the ball into the net like a true NBA player, the rest of the team would be made to run laps of the court as punishment. So, Yao began to dunk (at 7 foot 6, dunking for Yao doesn't appear to be more taxing than dropping a letter into a postbox).
Gradually, Yao Ming and the rest of China began to adopt the NBA's style of play. Chinese players got more physical, they dunked, they fouled, they cheered when they scored. They also began to copy NBA players and wear baggy shorts (a change from the plain, much shorter gym shorts the Chinese used to wear).
So, tonight in Beijing, Chinese players in baggy shorts - led by their very first NBA exports Yao Ming and Wang Zhizhi - queued up to dunk the ball into the net. There was little difference between them and the players warming up on the other side of the court - the American stars of the NBA (apart from a noticeable lack of tattoos on the Chinese players' arms).
Through basketball, China has learned not to be too afraid or sceptical of American influence. It's even learned to copy what the Americans do. The next step for China is to beat the Americans at their own game.
But that may have to wait for a bit. Tonight the Americans won the game pretty easily (101-70).
The US team may have been spurred by a couple of spectators with the same name. George Bush Senior (who was once the US envoy to China) and the current President Bush watched the game from some reasonably ordinary seats near the halfway line (we'd all been expecting them to pick the much more plush box seats higher up.) It was a little odd to look over at the stands and see the man who can start a nuclear war (and also his father, who could once do the same) blending into the rest of the crowd. Then again, President Bush once owned a major league baseball team and routinely sat in the stands near the dugout, allowing him to mix with the players and the fans - a nifty way of being seen as a man of the people as he began his political career.
So, next time I go to an Olympic event, I'll take along my binoculars and see if I can spot China's President Hu Jintao sitting in the bleachers.