A cross over dribble from above the key, left to right. Teammates pull the other defenders away from the ball. Right hand extends kissing the ball off the glass into the basket; first point of the game, one to nothing. Teammates slap hands and smile. The opponents wear a smirk that says that move is not going to work again.
Scenes like these are repeated hundreds of times at Dongdan Park everyday. Most of the time it is Chinese hands putting the ball into the hoop; this time it was my American hands.
I consider myself an outgoing person. But with no knowledge of Mandarin, being extroverted proved to be a difficult task for me in Beijing. All that changed however when I was introduced to Dongdan Park, a cluster of basketball courts near the heart of Beijing.
Basketball, as well as other sports, have brought people of different backgrounds together for centuries. The English introduced cricket to India and even today, in areas gripped by civil war, sports are often used to reunite an embattled people. I am not from a recently colonized country or from a war-torn state, but hoped that basketball would help me find common ground with people here.
Stepping onto the courts at Dongdan Park I felt more at home than I have since arriving in Beijing just under a month ago. One could hear the squeak of shoes on the concrete, the clatter of the ball as it hit the rim and even the grunts of men playing together with the same goal. The most difficult part for me was communicating with the players that I wanted to join their game but after that obstacle was overcome, with a series of gestures, I soon was playing, smiling and goofing around with them.
Sometimes I would miss when a person called a foul; at other times I would hand the ball to the other team thinking they had made a call; still everyone on the court remained understanding of the communication gap.
The courts are sprinkled with the jerseys of Yao Ming and Kobe Bryant. The red Houston Rockets jersey with Yao written across the back can be seen almost as much as a plain white sports t-shirt. The popularity of jerseys from the NBA would make anyone who does not know think that the NBA was a Chinese league. The acceptance of the NBA into the culture of these players makes it easier for me to step onto the courts but it does not mean that they can speak my language. Some players are fluent in basketball-speak belting out expressions such as "nice shot," or "good block," but when you ask them a question that strays from the basketball court they get shy and shrug their shoulders.
Every day is a challenge when one lives in a city where one cannot communicate with the average person. Yet basketball has enabled me to communicate without language. Basketball is basketball no matter what people call it or where it is played. As soon as people come together to try to put a ball through a hoop suspended 3.048 m above the ground, people are playing basketball. The court might be designed differently but the goal of the game is the same.
More important is the camaraderie that comes from being on a team. Even after my team for the afternoon split and each member went his own way I still felt a bond with each of those players. Being outgoing and creating relationships with people in Beijing is still difficult for me, however I now have a place where I can be outgoing and foster relationships; even if those relationships only last for the three hours I am on the court.
(China Daily August 5, 2009)