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Originally published February 17, 2012 at 5:31 AM | Page modified February 18, 2012 at 12:04 AM

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Book review

'Brave Dragons': Basketball as a mirror to modern China

Jim Yardley's "Brave Dragons" tells the story of an American basketball player and coach recruited to coach a Chinese basketball team. Complications ensue. Yardley discusses his book Tuesday at the Seattle Public Library.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Jim Yardley

The author of "Brave Dragons" will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Microsoft auditorium at the Downtown Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle; free (206-386-4636 or www.spl.org).
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Wang Xingjiang, the megalomaniac owner of the Shanxi Brave Dragons of the Chinese Basketball Association, fired an average of three coaches a year, hit a player who didn't follow his instructions, and is "regarded as just short of a madman" by his peers.

Worth about $260 million, he's one of the richest men in China and used to getting his way. Boss Wang (as he's known) wants to turn the team from 5-24 losers into champions. The path to B-ball enlightenment, he feels, is to emulate American-style basketball, and the best way to instill that spirit in his players is to hire a former NBA coach.

Bob Weiss is a longtime NBA player with a respectable, though unspectacular, career. He went into coaching but was, in 2008, unemployed. With one child in college, another in high school and an expensive but unmarketable home, Weiss was amenable to an offer from China.

To say he had no idea what he was letting himself in for is an understatement. Within the course of a season, Boss Wang promoted him from consultant to coach, demoted him and hired a Chinese coach to run the team, then, in the course of one 24-hour period, promoted him back to coach, demoted him again and then "re-promoted" him.

"Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing" (Knopf, 300 pp., $26.95) has all the ingredients of a farce: larger-than-life characters, sudden plot twists and don't-let-the-door-hit-you-on-the-way-out moments.

But to his credit, "Brave Dragons" author Jim Yardley, a former New York Times China bureau chief, sees the bigger picture: In many ways, basketball is a metaphor for the emergence of China as an economic power and its relationship with the rest of the world.

Several historical forces are at work. For one, the nation was subjugated, exploited and humiliated by a series of Western powers and Japan, setting up ambivalent feelings toward outsiders — both a sense of distrust and a desire "for some historical score setting."

In terms of basketball, there exists a sizable inferiority complex. Liu Tie, Weiss' co-coach, told Yardley, "As we all know, Asian players are not as capable as players elsewhere." This became a self-fulfilling prophesy, as state training funds were directed toward sports where the government felt its athletes had a better chance of success.

Moreover, the Chinese Basketball Association is an arm of the government; as a result, league bureaucrats were more interested in protecting their positions and not creating waves than risking change. While Boss Wang wanted Weiss to introduce NBA flair, he felt uncomfortable with the American's relaxed approach.

So he hired Liu Tie to take charge and run same-old, same-old drills. As Liu noted, discipline "works especially well in China."

In short: Weiss ran "into the hard invisible wall of Chinese culture. His expertise was to be exploited, but also contained."

And it wasn't Weiss alone. NBA expansion plans were viewed ambivalently by the authorities: "The Chinese league saw the NBA as both a model and a threat," Yardley writes.

Weiss, who improved the Dragons' record, was invited to return to coach the team, but sat out the following season instead. He returned to China to coach in 2010-11, albeit a different club. He's now doing color commentary for Pac-12 games.

Yardley has done an excellent job in giving us a peek into what makes China tick in an eminently readable manner.

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