Fight the Power

From SLAM Online:

Before Yao Ming, there was Mu Tiezhu.

In November 1978, Mu led the Chinese national basketball team to Washington, DC to play the Georgetown University Hoyas. The Hoyas, on the cusp of becoming one of the most storied teams in American college basketball, took a nine-point lead into the second half when, suddenly, they could no longer get a shot past all 228 centimeters–one less than Yao–of Mu’s gigantic frame. They missed 13 straight shots, and the Chinese went on an 18-0 run and won the game, 75-69. Exactly one month later, the United States and the People’s Republic of China announced they would be establishing diplomatic relations.

The game last Thursday in Beijing between Georgetown and the Bayi Rockets, the one that descended into a free-for-all melee of punches and kicks and water bottles raining down on the players, draws some strange parallels to its predecessor 33 years ago. Bayi, the Chinese military team, was also the team Mu Tiezhu played for and coached for the better part of his career. Georgetown’s current coach, John Thompson III, who ordered his players off the court just as the fracas was getting dangerously out of control, is the son of John Thompson Jr., the legendary Georgetown coach who simply couldn’t get his players to score against Mu in November 1978. And as in November 1978, last week’s game came at an important time in U.S.-China relations, with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden visiting China in an effort to smooth over all the usual rough patches–Chinese monetary policy, arms sales to Taiwan, human rights–not to mention the shrinking prospects of China’s trillions of U.S. dollar reserves.

Historians will tell you, if they even remember it, that the Chinese team’s win over Georgetown in 1978 played no part in getting the two Cold War rivals to talk to each other, and today’s experts will likewise say that there is no serious danger that last week’s brawl will have much of an effect on U.S.-China relations. They will point to the fact that there is no sign that Biden’s trip–which fortuitously included a visit to a different, peaceful Georgetown game–or bilateral relations have been in any way disrupted by what is already no longer a front page or even trending story. Sports diplomacy, they might say, makes for a great story, but seldom has a genuine geopolitical impact. The legendary Christmas ceasefire and football match between German and British troops in 1914 was followed by the most vicious carnage the world had ever seen. Jesse Owen’s remarkable triumphs with Hitler in the stands at the 1936 Berlin Olympics did nothing to quell the Fuhrer’s murderous racism. More recently, the temporary peace in the Ivory Coast after its football team qualified for the 2006 World Cup was upended by the civil war earlier this year. And even the celebrated ping pong diplomacy between the American and Chinese table tennis teams in 1971 took place more than seven years before Mu Tiezhu stopped Georgetown and their countries agreed to exchange ambassadors.

But here’s what the historians and the experts don’t know about sports: they don’t know that the next time I want to go play some pickup ball in Beijing, I’m going to think twice about wearing the Hoyas t-shirt I bought the day I graduated from Georgetown, and that if I’m ever back in a Georgetown gym, I’m probably not going to wear some of the China gear I picked up at the Beijing Olympics. They don’t know that Chinese national basketball teams have in recent years gotten disturbingly thuggish; they have literally pulled some of the same chair-throwing and kick-’em-while-they’re-down tactics against Puerto Rico, Brazil, and now Georgetown. And that in this day and age, Georgetown fans and American basketball players everywhere are going to point to the incontrovertible YouTube evidence of this and assume that most Chinese basketball players are cheap and dirty.

I have no problem blaming the Bayi Rockets for what happened last Thursday in Beijing. The video makes it pretty clear, at least to me, that it was Bayi players who took an aggressive game to another level, and then chased after and ganged up against and piled on their guests. But even if I’m wrong, even if it’s because I’m a biased Georgetown alum, the Chinese basketball machine–the same one that seems to now just have been lucky to have churned out a Yao Ming–needs some fixing. There is something wrong with the system when its players are defecting from abusive coaches and cannot go more than a couple years without getting into a fight in international, friendly competition. And it is threatening to grossly misrepresent the millions upon millions of amateur Chinese basketball players all over China and all over the world who play not because they’ll ever put on a Georgetown uniform or win a medal. They, like the vast majority of all athletes, play for something else. They play for the love of the game.

The Bayi-Georgetown game failed us. If we’re going to fight about a hard foul, you can bet we’re going to fight about selling fighter planes to Taiwan. That’s what makes sports diplomacy so compelling. It’s not because some Germans and Brits stepping out of the trenches to kick a football around on Christmas is going to end a war. It’s because they show us what we’re capable of. On a bad night like last Thursday, sports shows us how small grievances can spin wildly out of control. But on a good night, on Christmas night in 1914, on the night the World Cup began in 2006, or even that November night in 1978 when Mu Tiezhu and the Chinese national team took on the mighty Georgetown Hoyas, sports shows us that if only our politicians and our politics played out a little more like this, if only we all got together not to show up our opponents but to share something, something like the love of a game, there’s an enduring, if cliche, hope that maybe we would have less to fight about.

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