LOW MOMENTS IN WORLD BASKETBALL
Posted by Ian Crouch
Joe Biden is busy making friends in Beijing, but, as Evan Osnos notes, the same is not true for every American in China this week. On Thursday, an exhibition basketball game between the Georgetown men’s team and the Bayi Rockets, a Chinese professional club made up of players from the Army, was called early following a bench-clearing brawl that lasted for several minutes and included fist-fights and scrums in every corner of the court. (The video above, first obtained by SportsGrid, shows a couple of players picking up chairs, before deciding better of swinging them.)
The game had been what people call “physical,” yet the Americans had been called for many more fouls than the Chinese—a trend in international contests in China this summer. Gene Wang, reporting on the game for the Washington Post, writes,
A woman sitting in the Georgetown fan section directly behind the bench implored Chinese police to try to calm the situation, saying someone was going to get hurt. The Chinese police had been watching the tensions escalate to the point of physical confrontations but made no attempts to break up any of the fights taking place on the court.
When a measure of order had been restored, Georgetown’s head coach, John Thompson III, ordered his team off the floor. As they headed for the tunnel, the team was pelted with plastic bottles—a frightening scene reminiscent of “The Malice at the Palace,” the players-versus-fans brawl during a game between the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers, in 2004, that itself made international headlines and remains a low point in the history of spectator sports in the United States.
The next time two countries are looking to foster goodwill, they should think of holding something other than a basketball game. Fighting is imprinted in the game’s genetic legacy. Basketball players, after all, were once known as “cagers,” because the frantic early gameplay didn’t include an out-of-bounds rule, meaning that possession fell to a first-grab-first-served style of scrumming that often spilled into the crowd. To protect everyone, the players were caged off from the spectators, which only heightened the physicality of the contests. The modern game has mostly been scrubbed clean, however, at least as we know it in the U.S.
Yet international play had yielded a number of brawls (and brawl videos) in the past few years: Serbia vs. Greece, Bahrain vs. Kuwait, Kuwait vs. Saudi Arabia, Canada vs. Italy, Mexico vs. Uruguay. Each offers a similar tableau: tall, skinny men punching, kicking, bear-hugging, slapping, and chasing one another around the court. Yet each confrontation has its own flair. The fight between Bahrain and Kuwait included one player removing his shoe to wield it as a weapon. The brawl between Serbia and Greece was capped off when Nenad Krstic, an N.B.A. player, threw a chair at his opponents. (Krstic spent the night in an Athens jail.) After the game, Serbia’s coach noted the game’s geopolitical implications: “This shouldn’t have happened. Relations with the Greeks are now very bad.”
You can’t talk about soured international relations and basketball without mentioning the still-controversial gold-medal game in the 1972 Olympics between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., which the Soviets won and the Americans immediately protested. The Americans argued that the Soviets had been given an unfair second chance to score in the final moments. The rules committee—composed of representatives of five countries, three of which, Hungary, Cuba, and Poland, were aligned with the Soviets—rejected the appeal. The Americans refused the silver medal.
Twenty years later, Cold War gamesmanship had given way to a kind of globalist marketing utopia when the Dream Team of American stars rolled into Barcelona and rolled over every team that it faced. They never faced a challenge on the court, but that didn’t stop Charles Barkley, the team’s resident spokesman of goodwill, from stirring up a few minor controversies. Michael Jordan was the king of the court, but Barkley was the jester of the press conference. What was the Dream Team’s goal in a pre-Olympic Tournament of the Americas game against Panama: “To get the Canal back.” After beating Cuba: “Do they still have that scruffy, little guy with the cigar running the country?” Ambassador Barkley saved his choicest remarks for the Olympics. Asked about a stray elbow he threw during an otherwise rote trouncing of Angola, Ambassador Barkley said,
Somebody hits me, I’m going to hit him back. Even if it does look like he hasn’t eaten in a couple weeks. I thought he was going to pull a spear on me.
Barkley was not only wildly insensitive, but oblivious to the humanity of the moment: the Angolan team had been in awe of their famous opponents, asking for autographs and posing for pictures after the game. Later, even Barkley’s own teammates told the press that he needed to cool it.
Last fall, the Chinese national team brawled with Brazil in another of those supposed “friendly” matches that happen around the world. As the Brazilian team made for the exits, Chinese players continued to harry them—running them out of the building. Brazil quickly pulled out of further games in China; the Chinese Basketball Association apologized and said that its players would be compelled to attend something like sensitivity training. (Chinese basketball is gaining a reputation for hard fouls and physical play, and has, as the Times notes today, produced a series of ugly on-court fights.) The Chinese national team was on the court again last night, facing a team of American college kids from Duke in what were, long before the Georgetown chaos this week, dubbed the Friendship Games. Again, most of the foul calls went against the Americans. But no one was punched, kicked, or hit with chairs. The two teams played until the finish. Georgetown and the Bayi Rockets, meanwhile, are scheduled to play again on Sunday, in Shanghai. We’ll see if Joe Biden, with his talk of amity between China and the U.S., has managed to accomplish something after all.