Copyright ©2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist Jim Yardley has served for eight years as a foreign correspondent in China and India. Yardley's also an avid basketball fan. In his new book, "Brave Dragons," Yardley explores some of the cultural differences between China and the U.S. by spending a season with the Chinese basketball team and its American coach. Book critic Maureen Corrigan says "Brave Dragons" is a slam dunk of a tale.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Lin-sanity is the magical byword of this basketball season. As anyone who's even semi-conscious knows, Jeremy Lin, the NBA's first Taiwanese-American player, by way of Harvard, was passed over for college athletic scholarships and ignored in NBA drafts.

Then he landed with the New York Knicks and has since proved to everybody that athletic prejudice against Asians is Lin-credibly stupid. Except, as journalist Jim Yardley points out in his new book on basketball fever in China, Chinese players and coaches happen to endorse that prejudice.

One Chinese coach tells Yardley: We know we Chinese players are different than African-American players. They are more physically gifted. As Yardley comments at the end of this long, politically incorrect conversation, no country on earth believes in Darwin more than China.

Yardley's illuminating book is called "Brave Dragons," which is the name of the struggling pro basketball team from the hyper-polluted northern industrial city of Taiyuan that Yardley attaches himself to for the 2008-2009 season. "Brave Dragons" is to Chinese basketball what Laura Hillenbrand's "Seabiscuit" was to Depression-era horseracing. Both books certainly do justice to their respective sports, but also use them as tools to gain access to wholly different cultures.

Traveling around China with the Brave Dragons as they play teams with names like the Pan Pan Dinosaurs and the Shanghai Sharks gives Yardley a courtside seat from which to observe contemporary China's frantic capitalist expansion and its ambivalent fascination with all things American - first and foremost the NBA.

Like Hillenbrand, Yardley also recognizes that any meta-sports story worth its sweat must be built around the personalities in the game. In the Brave Dragons, Yardley stumbles upon a mother lode of dribbling dreamers, mercenaries, and even heroes in the rough.

As Yardley describes him, Boss Wang, the owner of the Brave Dragons, makes Captain Ahab look wishy-washy. Wang is a millionaire in his 60s, the son of a peasant farmer turned steel baron. He's also known as a bully who punches his players and who's fired 16 coaches since he bought the team in 2002.

The 17th comes on board when Wang decides he wants to nab himself an NBA coach to teach a more high-level, individualistic style of play. Enter Bob Weiss, also in his 60s, a cancer survivor and former coach and assistant coach of several NBA teams. Accepting the job with the Brave Dragons, Yardley says, meant that Weiss was no longer on the NBA discard rack but standing at the front edge of the future of basketball.

Also seeking out a second act in China are Nigerian, Russian and American sort of big time players definitely past their prime. One of the many absorbing subplots in Yardley's book describes the shadow lives of these basketball vagabonds who move from season to season, boosting the level of play in Iraq or Belgium or wherever a paycheck is waiting for them.

The central tension of the Brave Dragons' saga pits Weiss's player-friendly Western style of coaching against Wang and his Chinese assistant coaches' more dictatorial methods. One day a Chinese coach drives the team into the mountains, unloads them at the bottom of a steep incline of stone steps leading to an ancient temple, and orders the players to piggyback each other up and down the steps, running.

Player conditioning is gentler in the NBA, of course, and we readers sense there's a cultural metaphor also being pounded out on those stone steps about Western leniency versus stoical Eastern determination to overcome any obstacles. Fortunately, Yardley always leavens his big think observations with humor.

During practice in their unheated gym, an old warehouse, the polyglot players on the Brave Dragons team struggle to communicate with each other. A four letter word that I can't say on air turns out to be the magic token - a veritable one-syllable lingua franca indicating frustration or praise or friendship that temporarily bridges all cultural schisms. That absurd, lightly obscene moment in Yardley's "Brave Dragons" makes a reader feel that there just might be hope for this old world yet.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Brave Dragons: a Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing" by Jim Yardley.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: