Several days before leaving for Beijing, Weiss had contemplated his wardrobe. He knew the CBA was instituting a dress code for coaches, and had he been one, he would have packed his tailored suits from coaching in the NBA. But he was a consultant, and if a consultant was not expected to sit on the bench, he might not need the suits. Knowing almost nothing about his new team, his new country, or his new owner, Weiss called the person who, along with LeGarie, was most responsible for his job: Bruce O'Neil.
During the 1970s, O'Neil had coached at the University of Hawaii, his alma mater, and led the team to a winning record. But he was pushed out after three seasons when NCAA investigators discovered rules infractions. He returned to his home state of Oregon and started over, founding a production company that made instructional sports videos. A natural salesman, O'Neil traveled to Japan and discovered a big market for baseball training videos; he also sold videos to ESPN. But he missed basketball, so he sold the production company and founded the United States Basketball Academy in Oregon as a training camp for international teams. He returned to Asia to drum up business and made his first visit to China in 1995. He was exhilarated. Kids were playing all over the country. The NBA was seeping into the youth culture, and O'Neil felt like an explorer who had unwittingly stumbled upon basketball's New World.
He spoke no Chinese but visited China so frequently that he soon ingratiated himself with the Communist Party bureaucrats who ran the Chinese Basketball Association, partly by identifying the dilemma of their existence: They oversaw a socialist-era system that produced poor players and desperately needed reform, yet their jobs, status, and livelihoods were dependent on that system. Any outsider who wanted to improve Chinese basketball, and profit from it, not only had to persuade the CBA bureaucrats to change but also reassure them that change would not render them obsolete. O'Neil took them on golf junkets to Hawaii or Las Vegas, and for several years organized tryout camps where Chinese teams could evaluate and draft Americans interested in playing in the league. In Oregon, he tailored his academy toward Chinese teams and even hired cooks from China. One of his clients was Boss Wang, who had sent over the Shanxi Brave Dragons for the summer. When Boss Wang had stormed into Oregon, looking for a former NBA coach, Bruce O'Neil was enlisted to help. He soon connected the team with Warren LeGarie, who offered up Bob Weiss for the job. Once a deal was struck, O'Neil had told Weiss to expect the unexpected in China. Now that advice was being proven wise.
"You'll need to bring the suits," O'Neil told Weiss. "You're going to be the head coach."
"I am?" Weiss stammered into the telephone. "What happened?"
Until this moment, knowing practically nothing about the Shanxi Brave Dragons had not bothered Weiss, just as the Shanxi Brave Dragons had not seemed bothered by knowing so little about him. Weiss had wanted a job and a chance for an interesting life experience in a foreign country. He had NBA on his chest, and that was all that mattered to Boss Wang. The Chinese coach Bob Weiss had been expecting to mentor had been fired, O'Neil now explained, so Weiss would have to run the team. The Chinese coach would remain through the transition, and the team would find a young Chinese coach who would spend the season as an assistant and be groomed for the future.
"Fine with me," Weiss said, pausing for a moment before asking the question that had not preoccupied him so much before. "What can you tell me about the owner?"
Weiss knew only the essential facts about Boss Wang. He was Chinese, very rich, had made his money in steel, and was absolutely bonkers about basketball, especially NBA basketball, which Weiss assumed counted as a point in his favor. But Weiss did not know his philosophy on basketball, or whether he even had a philosophy; he knew almost nothing about Boss Wang's temperament; nor did he know how involved, or not, Boss Wang expected to be with the team. Weiss could not even pronounce his new boss's full name: Wang Xingjiang.
Weiss did know that relationships were essential in professional basketball, and, given that success hinges on personal chemistry, front office executives in the NBA usually wanted a personal relationship with the coach. When Weiss had interviewed to coach the Atlanta Hawks, his most important meeting came with the team president, Stan Kasten, a New Yorker with a New Yorker's distrust of anyone who appeared too unblemished.
"Bob, I've got a problem," Kasten had told Weiss. "No matter who I call, everybody tells me you are a great guy. That bothers me. I want to find one person who doesn't like you."
Weiss reached into his pocket and pulled out a pen. He scribbled a number on a piece of paper and pushed it across the table.
"What's this?" Kasten asked.
"That's my ex-wife's number. Call her."
Kasten laughed, and Weiss got the job.
Now Bruce O'Neil paused. He admired Boss Wang's toughness and his passion for basketball, but he knew his reputation for meddling and had watched him quarrel with the Chinese coach during the team's training sessions in Oregon.
"He's a very proud, passionate guy," O'Neil said. "He overreacts to certain things and oversteps certain boundaries, at least as we would see them. It's going to be a volatile situation. But you can handle it."
O'Neil then hesitated, and added, "I hope." He was laughing, sort of.
The discussion meandered to the subject of firing coaches.
"How many has he fired?" Weiss asked. He had no interest in traveling halfway around the world for the pleasure of getting canned again.
The precise number escaped O'Neil but he said it didn't matter because Weiss existed in a different category. "You don't have to worry about it," he said. "You're coming from the NBA. He can't fire you.
"This is going to be your basketball adventure," O'Neil said, "and probably the biggest adventure of your life."
From Brave Dragons by Jim Yardley. Copyright 2012 by Jim Yardley. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.