Professional basketball and Chinese history and culture are not topics commonly lumped together, but Jim Yardley takes on the challenge in Brave Dragons. I originally picked this book looking for a new take on China, which I got, but I do have to say that I wasn’t expected to be quite so overwhelmed with basketball. (Okay, to be fair, the cover sporting a basketball jersey should have given me a clue that the book would be heavy on the sports, but I looked right past that to the awesome font that also adorns the cover.)
Right off the bat, I must admit that this was not the book for me, but I definitely would have bought it and put it on the shelf of my classroom. There is a strong market for this book. I am not that market. I had some hoop-obsessed students who would have devoured this book, which is filled with the jargon of the game, court-side wheelings and dealings and an insider’s look at what a budding professional basketball league looks like.
Yardley, after a handful of setbacks in is NBA coaching career in the US, is offered the position of head coach of the Shangxi Dragons, a bottom of the barrel Chinese professional team based in Taiyuan, part of the northern coal country in China. He goes there, having no previous experience living abroad, expecting to take full-coaching responsibilities (with the help of a translator) and with a hope of improving the team’s horrible record. Yardley quickly learns that not only is China physically on the other side of the world from his home in Washington state, but that the mental shift needed for this new lifestyle and job is nearly as large.
I love that Yardley took his story off the hardwood, trying to dig into the culture of China to understand what factors might be playing into the decisions being made by his players and his front office. He includes tidbits about the country’s history, about their sports training programs and a view into where the nation might be headed. Like with many things in China, the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) is built on layers of bureaucracy and an ever-present need to “save face.” I had to laugh to myself as Yardley learned to navigate the world of appearances versus reality that becomes so confusing when the concept of “face saving” rears its sometimes befuddling head.
Having read extensively about Chinese history and lived the culture on a daily basis, at times I felt like the book took too cursory of a glance at some of these aspects, maybe playing up the ones Westerners would find odd in an attempt to draw readers into the story. For those unfamiliar with the Middle Kingdom, the book is a great starting place. As a teacher, I would have proffered it to the students who I knew had a love of the game and then hoped it would spark a wider interest in the world. This book is perfectly suited to do that- start with a topic that is familiar and of interest to a wide population and through the medium, introduce an entire new area of exploration to the reader.
Basketball isn’t my thing. China is (kinda’) my thing. Combine them and I end up on the fence about ranking this book. Would I recommend it to others? Yes! There are definitely some of my students who will be getting emails about it. Would I read it again? No. I like the idea, but it was just too detailed when it came to that large orange ball with the black stripes that tall guys (and gals) bounce up and down a hardwood floor and attempt to get in that woven basket hanging from a round, metal hoop. With that said, Jim Yardley’s Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing earns: