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  • Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing by Jim Yardley
  • Franklin J. Woo (bio)
Jim Yardley. Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. 304pp. Hardcover $26.95, isbn 978-0-307-27221-8.

In writing Brave Dragons, Jim Yardley encapsulates his fourteen years as a successful journalist for the New York Times through the medium of basketball. For eight of those years, he was a foreign correspondent, and he received the 2006 Pulitzer Prize and other awards for international reporting. Brave Dragons was written on the job over a period of three years in three countries: the United States, China, and India. He (with his family) now lives and works in New Delhi.

In writing about basketball and situating his subject in China’s contemporary history, Yardley seems to be enjoying this task thoroughly. “Little did I know,” he writes excitedly, “that basketball would help me understand China, and China’s relationship with the United States, in ways I never imagined” (p. 13). Yardley gives a historical account of how basketball was an American invention: It was James Naismith (1861–1939), Canadian American sports coach and innovator, who in 1891 invented the game primarily as an indoor sport for snowbound regions of the United States. The game became a popular sport for members of the armed forces to expend their excess energy. True to the YMCA’s trinitarian goals of healthy mind, body, and spirit, it was David Willard Lyon (1870–1943), a China missionary, who brought basketball to China in 1895. His aim was to promote “a muscular brand of Christianity rooted in ideas of service and the belief that citizens of a nation must be physically fit for a nation to be strong” to overcome the popular image of China as the sick man of Asia (p. 158).

Yardley follows for a season the Brave Dragons, a third-rate basketball team, its American coach, and two cultures clashing in China’s polluted coal belt of Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi Province. He delights his readers with humor, insight, and tidbits of information on the history of China in a style that is Hesslerian.1 This is all written with the ease of a sports commentator involving his readers to share vicariously in the excitement exhibited by the Dragons’ unruly fans. The season ends with the team losing as many games as it won, earning it tenth place in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA). For the Dragons, it was a much-coveted victory, which they celebrated with unusual elation. Even in a backwater city of Taiyuan, American influence can be seen in its fast-food industries. Yardley recalls, “At a downtown intersection, we deliberated among a KFC, a McDonald’s, and a Pizza Hut, opting for KFC and Mexican-flavored chicken wrap sandwiches. The American fast-food chains were part of a major overhaul of Taiyuan’s downtown” (pp. 81–82).

Sixty-one-year-old Boss Wang (王老板, wanglaoban) is the owner of the team. Like many peasants in a modernizing China, he had gone from rags to riches by producing steel at the right time for China’s building frenzy. After an [End Page 498] unsuccessful attempt to Americanize his team by sending it to the United States to improve its techniques at a basketball camp in Colorado, Wang decided on a new approach by recruiting Bob Weiss, the former head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers (1993–1994) and the Seattle SuperSonics (2005–2006). Weiss’s prestigious title, however, was in name only. Boss Wang left intact Liu Tie, the team’s latest Chinese coach (after firing a series of coaches), and himself as owner to decide on all the important plays. Weiss was an influential coach primarily to the two foreign (American) players, allowed by CBA rules for each team, but he was also influential when the Brave Dragons got into real trouble. Here Yardley suggests with insight a modern version of the difference between Chinese substance and Western utility—the contrasts between the goal of national pride and prestige of the Chinese Basketball Association and that...