Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Last week's column

White Rice and Mickey D's:
Life of an NBA Exile in China

May 11, 2007

There are many different expat communities in China, ranging from students to retirees setting out on second careers. One of the most interesting and unusual is also one of the smallest -- the Chinese Basketball Association's 30 foreign players. Their position in society is rather strange, at once profoundly engulfed in Chinese culture and living on its fringes. They are extreme expats, often living in smaller cities in the Chinese interior, isolated from communities of fellow Americans and highly dependent on one another.

All but one of the CBA's 16 teams have two foreigners. (The champion Bayi Rockets represent the People's Liberation Army and have no outsiders.) They are almost all African-Americans, most of whom speak no Chinese and have little outside support systems in the country. They live in hotels, while their Chinese teammates bunk in dorm-type accommodations, and make from $8,000-25,000 a month, plus lodging and a modest food per diem. Unlike American professional sports leagues, the CBA doesn't seem to have a lot of leaguewide standards, so the foreign players' living conditions and day-to-day quality of life vary widely from team to team.

The foreign players include several who have played in the NBA and quite a few college standouts. Looking over the list, I focused on God Shammgod, whom I fondly remembered as a quick, gutsy point guard who led the 1997 Providence Friars team to the NCAA tournament's Elite Eight. He was playing in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, one of the most polluted cities in the world.

I traveled to the dusty, dingy burg and found God in the second-rate hotel across the street from the arena where the team stayed on game nights. His regular residence was in a nicer hotel across town, but in either place he spent most of his time with his best friend -- his Apple laptop. If Shamm, as he prefers to be called, is in China and he's not playing ball, he's likely online, downloading NBA games or highlights, talking on Skype, emailing or IMing with his wife, kids and countless friends, including NBA stars Chauncey Billups and Kevin Garnett.

Like those old pals, Mr. Shammgod makes a living playing basketball, but they don't have to endure hours of repetitive, endurance-test practices, or wade through cigarette-smoke-clogged hallways to enter their locker room. Or stay in hotels without shower curtains and with old cigarette butts on the bathroom floor. Obviously, this wasn't what Mr. Shammgod had in mind when he went pro after his sophomore year of college.

He was drafted in the second round of the 1997 NBA Draft by the Washington Wizards, played 20 games and was cut the following year. He thought he would be back in the league before long but instead has been on a decadelong international journey that has taken him to China, Poland, Saudi Arabia and now back to China, where he played for the worst team in a mediocre league. Yet I found the 30-year-old New Yorker in good spirits, keeping his eyes on the prize -- making some money, then returning home to continue his quest for one last shot at the NBA.

"This would have made me crazy when I was younger but now I know you can't control everything and you don't get anywhere pounding your head against the wall," said Mr. Shammgod.

The two foreign teammates are often each other's best friends and support systems. Mr. Shammgod, however, spent much of the season as the lone American on Shanxi because 7-foot-tall Rashid Byrd clashed with management and left for the U.S., only to return a month later.

"I can't handle this situation," said Mr. Byrd, shortly before heading home the first time. "This is my first time outside the U.S. and it might be my last after this."

Jason Dixon shakes his head when talking about Mr. Byrd's struggles. A funny, quiet 6-9 center, Mr. Dixon is an eight-year member of the Guangdong Tigers. "It's their country, their league and their game and you can't change it," he says. "The sooner you understand that the better off you'll be. I've seen so many guys come over here and fight the system instead of making peace with it."

It can be a lot to grapple with. The owner of Mr. Shammgod's team instructs the coach from the bench at home games and over the phone for away matches. The two foreign players can only play a combined five quarters per game, leading to bizarre substitution patterns. In the middle of the past season, the CBA took a 50-day break so the National Team could practice for the Asian Games. The rest of the players practiced daily for the entire period. Mr. Shammgod's team allowed him to return to New York for a 10-day visit with his wife and three kids. Other teams made their foreign players stick around.

Food is another constant concern. Mr. Shammgod tries to eat all of his meals at Pizza Hut or McDonald's, Taiyuan's only two Western establishments. We ate at McDonald's three times during my 24-hour visit, my first visits to a Chinese Mickey D's. When he can't make it to one of those places, he sticks with rice and fresh fruit. Even Mr. Dixon, who speaks some Chinese and is fairly well assimilated, tries to avoid local cuisine. "They eat too much weird stuff," he says, noting that he follows the lead of a Muslim teammate at team meals because he won't eat dog.

"Beijing and Shanghai are nice," said Mr. Shammgod. "Living there would be easy. They have [T.G.I.] Friday's, Outback Steakhouse and all kinds of American restaurants."

I caught up with Mr. Shammgod a few weeks later when the team played Beijing, and all of those Western outfits seemed far, far away. The team was staying in a ramshackle, sprawling hotel near the arena, on the city's far Western fringe, close to an hour from the central business district. He had been there for two days with no Internet access and no acceptable food, living on white rice and Coke. It was just the latest insult in a year gone bad. The team was on its fourth coach. Mr. Byrd was gone for the second time, and the season was winding down to a 4-26 record. Mr. Shammgod dominated the action in the run-down arena, scoring 46 points and handing out about 20 assists, but his team still lost by a point after a series of last-minute calls against them. This is standard practice in China, where the home team hires the referees.

After the game, we piled into a Chinese friend's subcompact and headed downtown in search of a restaurant that was still serving food at 10:30 Sunday night. I made a few phone calls and Friday's said they were open until midnight.

Over a plate of chicken wings and fried shrimp, I asked Mr. Shammgod if he had any thoughts about where he might be playing next year.

"Hopefully the NBA." He dunked a wing into a dish of hot sauce. "And if not … we'll see what works out, but I've been saving money and making good investments. I'd really like to stay in the U.S."