Basketball Diplomacy: Love for the Sonics lives on in China

A late night game of street ball in Hong Kong (Photo by Marcus Hansson)

A late night game of street ball in Hong Kong (Photo by Marcus Hansson)

Once people discover that I speak some basic Chinese, the typical conversation I have here in Juijiang goes something like this:

A few standard queries regarding my nationality, occupation, marital status, salary, and maybe my opinions on Chinese food.

And then it happens.

“Which city are you from?”

“I am from Seattle.” I say, bracing myself for the nearly inevitable response.

“Ah, Seattle. The Chaoyinsu” (literally “Exceed Sound Speed” – the Supersonics).

Our hapless Seattleite protagonist now must explain how the Sonics have moved to another city, they are no longer called the Supersonics, and how Seattle sports fans constantly suffer from the trauma of having defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.

I’ve had this conversation (with some slight variations) dozens of times over the last three years.

Future NBA players in rural Guizhou Province, China. (Photo by Thomas Galvez)

Future NBA players in rural Guizhou Province, China. (Photo by Thomas Galvez)

When I first came to China to teach English at Jiujiang University, my Chinese ability was limited to saying “hello” and “vegetarian”.

My commitment to vegetarianism in the Middle Kingdom was quickly overwhelmed, but my ability to speak Chinese made rapid strides in the small city on the southern banks of the Yangtze River.

Jiangxi Province is essentially the Chinese equivalent of the state of Arkansas–a very hospitable if relatively underdeveloped southern territory along the country’s main waterway. In this relatively insulated region, I had no choice but to learn their language if I wished to communicate effectively.

The topic of basketball is hard to avoid for an American in China. Basketball is by far the most popular sport in the People’s Republic, and in the Chinese worldview, the sport is inseparably linked with the United States.

The melodic sound of dribbling can be heard at six in the morning throughout China’s towns and cities, as high school and college students cram in a few games before their morning classes.

Everyone from young children to middle-aged Party members closely follow the NBA.“Kobe” is the most popular self-selected English name for my male students. The NBA now hosts exhibition games in China’s major cities, and the sold-out tickets are more expensive than they are in American venues.

The obligatory basketball court in a southern Chinese village. (Photo by Brendan O'Reilly)

The obligatory basketball court in a southern Chinese village. (Photo by Brendan O’Reilly)

This basketball madness puts a Seattleite resident of China in a somewhat awkward position.

My earliest memories of collective athletic glory are the Sonics’ stunning victories, and ultimate defeat at the hands of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, in the 1996 NBA season.

Now I find myself forced to try to explain the Sonic’s departure from Seattle on a regular basis–in Mandarin Chinese, no less.

Of course, Chinese people have strong impressions of Seattle that have nothing to do with basketball.

Geography, international trade, and cultural assets give Seattle a reputation and influence in China far beyond what might be expected of our not-so-big city. Boeing, Starbucks, and Microsoft are well known to the economically oriented and increasingly consumerist Chinese youth. “Sleepless in Seattle” is enduringly popular throughout the Middle Kingdom.

Finally, Seattle’s deep personal connection to Kung Fu legend Bruce Lee and current American ambassador to China Gary Locke serve to cement Seattle’s place in the popular imagination of the Chinese.

President Obama shares shooting techniques with Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan in the Oval Office in 2009. (Photo by Pete Souza)

President Obama shares shooting techniques with Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan in the Oval Office in 2009. (Photo by Pete Souza)

A dynamic economy and deep cultural ties go a long way in promoting Seattle’s image in China. But without the Chaoyinsu in Seattle, we’re missing out on a huge potential source of cultural influence in the world’s most populous country.

In recent weeks we’ve been strapped on an emotional roller coaster as rumors circulate of a possible deal that could result in the rebirth of the Sonics franchise.

If and when a deal goes through that results in the Sonics’ “return”, the Seattleite residents of China like me will breathe a sigh of relief.

Until then, I’ll keep having to tell my Chinese friends that the Seattle Chaoyinsu are long gone and they’ll have to root for the Oklahoma City Leisheng instead.

Brendan O'Reilly is a writer and educator from Seattle. He is a regular contributor to the Hong Kong-based Asia Times. Brendan currently serves as an unofficial cultural ambassador to the taxi drivers, snack sellers, shopkeepers, and restauranteurs of southern China.

2 COMMENTS

  1. When we adopted our youngest daughter in Guangzhou in 1993, I brought along a baby-sized Sonics outfit and wrapped her in it to leave the orphanage. Wore some swag myself while teaching English in Kunming in 1990. Order a few t-shirts from Sonicsgate and use them for guanxi.
    Also, words like “xiaotou” (thief) might be helpful to sprinkle into the conversation.

  2. Interesting article by Americas foremost expert on the Far East. He has a gripping use of verbs and nouns which makes the reader not want to stop reading.
    Of course we always do. How sad!

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