Our 25 day journey was quickly coming to an end. Two games remained on the schedule. Up to this point, the travel within the country had been great, other than lugging our baggage up and down steep stairs at the train station. We were not prepared for our next travel arrangements. Due to National Holidays being held during the week, many of the Chinese population utilized this time to travel and visit families and landmarks. Somehow, our scheduled airline flight became overbooked so our promoters had to do double time to get us from point Q to point R. The results were one option and one option only; an 11 hour bus trip. Yes, we had a DVD player with a medium size screen at the front of the bus. Yes, we had ample leg space to stretch out. Yes, we had snacks to munch on but 11 hours is 11 hours. It was the first time during my visit that the words: burnt, bent, beaten, bruised, bitten, be-mused, bummed, be-dazzled, billy-clubbed and botched came to mind. It was only for a second but for a long second. Eventually, we made it to point R, Yixing. We arrived at 9 pm and were served an awesome meal at a very high quality hotel. That helped take the edge off a bit. Most of the players scheduled massages or went to their rooms to watch TV or read their emails.
In my 30 years of coaching I have not seen it all but I have seen a great deal of crazy, out of the ordinary game circumstances. This next one will make my top ten list. I’m not sure it will make David Lettermen’s, but mine? An emphatic yes!
We were minding our own business, trailing by 15 points to the Jiangsu Dragons; yes another Dragon team. All of a sudden, we make our “run” in the fourth quarter. With 7 minutes to play, we are within 1 point when forward Mark Dawson grabs a rebound, outlets it and 8 of the 10 players on the court run down to the Breakers end for a hopeful potential score. I did not continue to fix my eyes on Dawson and the Dragon player still at the other end. What followed was the Dragon player falling on the floor and grabbing his groin area while twisting and turning, grimacing and moaning. The trailing third ref turned around at half court, blew his whistle as Tim Taylor swished a 3 pointer. Not only did they take away the 3 points, they assessed Dawson a technical foul.
If you recall a former Lakers player by the name of Vlade Divac, he was renowned for “inventing” the emotional, “Hollywood” Flop. He would either welcome a slight bump or physical contact from his opponent and immediately fall down, groaning and showing great facial expressions of pain and exasperation. It is possible that Vlade was this Dragon player’s role model. The game changed immediately. Plastic water bottles came flying out of the seats and obviously, out of the hands of the Jiangsu partisan crowd. We naturally had to take cover as 20-30 of these objects came flying at us, in retaliation for an assumed Mark Dawson assault on a Dragon player’s below-the-belt body region. It took 5-6 minutes to clear the bottles and spilled water off the playing court. For safety’s sake, I kept Dawson out of the remaining 7 minutes of the game. Up to this point, he was our leading scorer and rebounder so this did not benefit us whatsoever, from a winning standpoint.
We ended up losing the game by 4 points, 90-86, but more disappointing was the blemish placed on the game itself. I love the game of basketball but it is so much more than just the game. It is about entertainment and integrity. It is also about respect for each team’s efforts and the spirit of competition.
After the game Keith Closs, Mark Dawson and I had dinner with the Dragon coach, who is American and his American player, Donnel Harvey. Harvey played three years in the NBA, made $9 million during that time but failed to improve his skills, namely a jumpshot. Thus, he is settling for $50,000 per month in China with the desire to someday return to the NBA. During our conversation, the Dragon coach said that his player had faked the “assault” and played it up to the referee. I mentioned that I hoped it would not happen the following night. We would be playing them again; fortunately in another city. The coach assured me that he would talk to his players. The line has to be drawn on faking or trying to play the referee’s; in China, the US, Europe, anywhere. It crosses the line when you incite 10,000 plus fans by misleading fans and incompetent, partial referee’s to gain an advantage. It also can lead to a near-riot, which we almost had.
The following night, we played the same Jiangsu Dragons and fell short once again. There were no near-riots. In fact, there were fans up in the stands that were waving the USA flag. Our players absolutely loved this and began a cheer of many fans shouting, USA, USA, USA; similar to the crowd in Fuxin a few weeks back. In a very positive response, many of the 10,000 plus fans began retorting, “China, China, China.” It was a great display of two countries expressing their loyalties in an energetic, enthusiastic way. When the game was over, the Breakers falling short once again by 4 points, the fans all came down on the court for autographs and to just personalize with the Breaker players. It was a great display of blending two teams, two countries and the game of basketball in one unison. James Naismith would have been proud.