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Reviewing the 'Great Brawl of China'

BEIJING – In preparation for their tour to China this week, players from Georgetown’s basketball team participated in an orientation program with officials from the U.S. State Department to prepare them for the ambassadorial role they would play.

Ping Pong Diplomacy this was not.

The now widespread video of the bench-clearing brawl that erupted during a “goodwill game” between the Hoyas and the Bayi Rockets, a China Basketball Association (CBA) team, has generated widespread outrage and buzz on both sides of the Pacific, though Chinese media coverage has been scrubbed away on the Internet due to the embarrassing circumstances.

That the free-for-all occurred during a high-profile visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and thus was an important diplomatic side event for the Chinese hosts makes the whole event all the more startling.

So why did this brawl happen? Reports from those in the stands and conversations with those who closely follow the CBA suggest a confluence of decisions and circumstances that made Thursday’s friendly match primed for some sort of altercation.

Perhaps key to this was the decision to play Bayi in the first place.

Much has been written about the fact that Bayi is a team that represents the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). But while the players are indeed representatives of the army and hold military ranks, it is unlikely that any of them have done serious field training, but rather were recruited specifically for their basketball acumen.

For example, Wang Zhizhi – the first Chinese athlete to play in the NBA – competed for the Bayi Rockets for several seasons, but unless you count the seven CBA Championships he won with Bayi, his active military service seems limited at best.

“There are regular pictures of Wang Zhizhi doing his compulsory annual training,” said Maggie Rauch, editor of China Sports Today, “It’s done, but I don’t know if they go through anything like the training a regular soldier does.”

Nevertheless, Bayi’s military background – the team was founded by members of the PLA – has deeply influenced their style of play, translating into an aggressive, attacking defensive game that often overpowers opponents. The results of such a style speak for themselves: 34 national titles and a Yankees-esque eight wins in 16 CBA championships.

“It’s a big honor to play for Bayi, that and the national team,” said Rauch. “It’s not as big of a deal now since they aren’t winning as much, but it’s still a big deal to be selected to play for them.”

Great legacy and national pride
However, with this national reputation for success comes a strong desire to protect the winning legacy. Jon Pastuszek is a Beijing-based writer who covers the CBA and the Chinese basketball industry on his website, NiuBBall. He noted that player recruitment at early ages, as well as limited education and exposure to foreign players – Bayi is the only CBA team that does not sign foreign players to play for them – may have contributed to a conflation of winning and national pride. 

“They represent the People’s Liberation Army. There are no foreigners on this team, so I think that the team is a bit more nationalistic than maybe other teams are,” said Pastuszek, “[Bayi] are maybe more prone to protect their country and maybe they feel threatened to kind of aggressively attack, if you will.”

(China Daily - Reuters)

Players from Georgetown University and the Bayi Rockets fight during a "Goodwill Game" in Beijing.

That aggression manifested itself in yesterday’s game. Sarah E. Burton, an American living in China for five years, was at the game sitting between the two bench areas of the stands with predominantly Chinese fans. She described a friendly, excited atmosphere amongst the fans, but a very different vibe on the court.

“I think what was surprising to me was that from the very beginning of the game, the Chinese team played a very, very aggressive, defensive game,” said Burton, “In fact I would describe it as streetball.”

“I think at first it surprised the Georgetown players and then it agitated them,” she added.

To Burton, however, things appeared to take a turn for the worse when one of the Bayi players had words with Georgetown coach, John Thompson III.

“One of the most shocking things that I saw last night was one of the more hot headed members of the Chinese basketball team, number 24, approached the Hoyas coach and said in English, he yelled at the Hoyas coach in English and said, ‘Is this how you let your players play?’”

The shocking disrespect of an opposing player chewing out a visiting coach during a goodwill game aside, the comment is all the more surprising coming from a player representing a military team and thus one who necessarily understands and respects hierarchy.

CBA team, CBA officiating, but no CBA security
The scene for the brawl was further set by officiating that seemed heavily biased against Georgetown. In what has been described by all accounts as a physical game played by both sides, the amount of free throws – in other words the amount of fouls called against Georgetown – was stacked heavily in Bayi’s favor, with the Rockets shooting 57 free throws to just 15 for the Hoyas.

“There was more fouling then I’ve ever seen in any basketball game I’ve attended in China,” said Burton.

The disparity in foul calls was not unexpected.

“China’s referees do not have a very good reputation, even amongst the league itself,” said Pastuszek, “There have been a lot of reports of corruption and various scandals… But what you see especially at international competitions is a very large bias from the Chinese refs to the Chinese teams. I think they probably feel that it reflects poorly on China if they lose badly or if they lose by a lot so they call more fouls to keep the game even.”

“This isn’t the first time that it happened amongst universities, but this is the first time it has led to an escalation like this,” he added.

Though Georgetown coaches had probably prepared its players for a one-sided officiated game, the obvious home court advantage paired with an aggressive game plan from Bayi probably caught the Hoyas off-guard. After all, the players are here for a goodwill exhibition, not a physical defensive battle.

“I’ve spent some time with these teams, for [traveling university teams] it’s about visiting China, having an experience they’ve never had before,” said Rauch. “It’s only slightly about basketball. It’s more about promoting their university and representing their country.”

“They don’t come here thinking if you don’t come here without a ‘W’ [win], it’s a disgrace. It’s about going out, playing hard and playing together,” she continued.

The end for collegiate goodwill games?
The Georgetown-Bayi brawl could be seen as a strong disincentive for many NBA stars who have already expressed interest in coming to China to play if the ongoing NBA lockout continues. However, many suggest the real loser will be future collegiate trips for so-called “goodwill games.”

Just this year alone, basketball teams from Yale, University of Hawaii, Duke and Georgetown have travelled to China to play exhibition games. While victory in these games is a matter of pride for the players, the real winners are the American universities eager to tap into the academic and (potential) athletic promise of China’s youth.

Whether university teams will continue to decide to come to China to play friendly matches remains to be seen, but this will almost certainly be a thorny issue for any college athletic director in light of yesterday’s scuffle. Pastuszek believes that schools will need to think twice about sending teams abroad to China: “I think what you are going to see is universities be a little bit more hesitant to use this model in the future to promote their universities.”

For Georgetown at least, the tour will continue, but a Hong Kong TV report now says, it will be an abbreviated schedule in which a second match against Bayi in Shanghai has been canceled. However, players and coaches from both teams met today and according to a report on the Georgetown website, amicably discussed future exchanges between the two teams.

The announcement would seemingly stave off an inglorious end to a basketball connection that goes back to 1978 when China sent its basketball team to the United States to play its first game there against none other than Georgetown University.

Silver Siwei Wang contributed research to this report

Hoyas, Chinese try to make up after brawl