New book details Bob Weiss' basketball adventure in China
"Brave Dragons, A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach and Two Cultures Clashing" isn't just about basketball. It is a serious look at the deep divisions between American and Chinese cultures, using Weiss' season on the brink as a metaphor.
Seattle Times staff columnist
The Taiyuan Brave Dragons were down double digits at halftime and, as often was his custom, team owner Boss Wang was berating his players in a manner that could make Bob Knight blush.
Dragons coach Bob Weiss and American import Bonzi Wells, the former Portland Trail Blazer, watched and listened to the familiar scene before Wells finally had enough. He turned to Garrison, the team's Chinese interpreter, and in a short, profanity-peppered rant asked Garrison to tell Wang to "get his butt in the stands and let Coach Weiss do the coaching."
The room fell quiet. The Dragons came back in the second half and won. After the game, Weiss asked Garrison how he had interpreted Wells' words to the owner.
"I told him," Garrison said, " 'Bonzi says we need to play better defense in the second half.' "
In 2008, Weiss, who had been an NBA coach with the Spurs, Hawks, Clippers and Sonics, was deciding with his wife, Tracy, the next step in his basketball odyssey.
They had talked about Weiss coaching overseas, and the idea of spending a few seasons in Italy or Spain or France or Greece seemed delicious to Tracy.
Weiss talked with his old friend, agent Warren Legarie, who had strong ties in the overseas basketball world. He told Weiss the European leagues weren't looking for American coaches. He suggested China.
After doing his due diligence, Weiss, who recently had undergone successful prostate cancer surgery, accepted what he thought was a consultant's position with the Brave Dragons.
His experiences are at the heart of a remarkable new book, "Brave Dragons, A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach and Two Cultures Clashing," by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jim Yardley.
Before he left for his consultant's job, Weiss was told that Wang, his new boss and a multimillionaire steel-industry magnate, had fired his fifth coach in two years — including the Korean national team coach after one game — and Weiss would become the new coach.
The Brave Dragons had finished 5-24 the previous season; two of the wins were by forfeit. Weiss was going to be the first NBA head coach to become a head coach in the China Basketball Association, starting the next day.
It wasn't just a job Weiss was accepting. It was the adventure of his basketball life.
As the book's subtitle implies, "Brave Dragons" is about much more than basketball. It is about more than Weiss' adventures. It is a serious look at the deep divisions between American and Chinese cultures, using Weiss' season on the brink as a metaphor.
But Weiss, with his curious nature and quick-witted charm, was the perfect protagonist for the book.
"One of the problems with their (basketball) system is that these kids move into dorms in the sixth grade," Weiss said last week over coffee in Madison Park. "Basketball becomes their job. They no longer go to school. They have two practices, maybe three a day.
"So the question is, how do you keep it interesting for them? They would do rote drills, just dribbling up and down the court for a half-hour straight. They do so many drills and they don't do any basketball-decision things. There's no instinct. It's like having a sprinter being trained by a marathon coach. You don't have any fast-twitch drills."
Weiss said many of the Chinese owners hire American coaches to teach the American way, but when the coaches begin teaching, the owners tell them the American way doesn't work with Chinese players.
"They hire you to do it, but then they won't let you do it," Weiss said. "All the Chinese coaches do is yell at the kids. It breeds this system within the players that you have to pace yourself or you're gonna die."
The most intriguing character in the book and in Weiss' life with the Brave Dragons was their owner, whose real name is Wang Xingjiang.
Wang came to all of the Brave Dragons' games, sat on the bench and would make substitution suggestions to Weiss. During one game, a player came off the court after taking an ill-advised three-pointer, and the owner got off the bench and punched the offending player in the back.
"He (Wang) considered himself an expert on basketball in China, because he watched as many NBA games as he could," Weiss said. "He thought he could outsmart everybody. But he had no concept of building a team. They're so afraid of losing control of any situation. So the thing they (owners) do is keep the individual down."
Wang would often address the team and tell the players they weren't good. But he expected them to fight hard. Sometimes Wang kept the team after games for more than an hour, berating the players one-by-one inside a cold, empty gym that would begin to feel like a meat locker.
Listening to Weiss artfully tell his stories, I tried to imagine any other ex-NBA coach lasting more than a day with Wang as his owner. It took a coach with Weiss' easygoing, accepting manner to survive Boss Wang. And for Weiss, this gig was as much about enriching his life as winning games.
"The big job was to get the players to believe in themselves," Weiss said. "After the owner would talk, I would tell the players, 'Look, we have some good pieces here. We can win some games.' "
Although they didn't make the playoffs, the Brave Dragons improved. When they won their season finale with a buzzer-beater against playoff-bound Hangzhous, the players reacted as if they had won the championship.
That win told Weiss that he had done his job and, equally important, he had taught his players that basketball can be played with joy, even with a mercurial owner like Wang.
"To me that win was the culmination of what we were trying to get them to do," Weiss said. "They believed in themselves enough to compete and actually accomplish this.
"There were times early when I thought, 'Do I really want to stay here and do this crap with this guy?' But I hated to leave these players with this owner. And for me it was like reading a bad book, or watching a bad movie. You kind of want to see how it would come out. And it turned out great."
About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
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