Lost in Translation

Jesus brought basketball to China. Okay, that might be a stretch, but it’s not exactly wrong. Missionaries did it in the early 1890s, a handful of years after James Naismith first hammered peach baskets to the wall of a Massachusetts YMCA. They built courts there, and now if you enter the walls of the Forbidden City, you’ll find basketball courts between centuries-old palaces, just waiting for a pickup game.

The Chinese army brought Chinese basketball to America. And yes, that is exactly true. Mao Zedong banned all Western influences and culture—Beethoven, bibles, and baseball were all taboo—but basketball was always encouraged, especially in military camps. He viewed the game as a way to increase comradery and project national strength. For many years, only two sports were allowed in the country: basketball and ping pong. When Wang Zhizhi became the first Chinese national to play in the NBA in 2001, he was a member of the People’s Liberation Army and was ordered to report for duty back in China after every NBA season.

It was Yao Ming, though, who tied the NBA and China at the hip. More than 200 million Chinese fans watched Yao’s first NBA game (compare that to the 98 million Americans who watched Super Bowl LIII this year). In 2008, over a thousand people lined up for the opening of Beijing’s NBA Store. Just a month ago, the country hosted the FIBA World Cup. This week was supposed to be a celebration of the union between country and league, with two NBA preseason games in Shanghai, broadcasting live on ESPN.

By now, you’ve heard how Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey set off a geopolitical frenzy last week with a simple tweet in support of the Hong Kong protestors. He was asked to delete the image, the team’s owner apologized, and Morey issued a statement saying, “I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China.” The NBA issued a soft, vague statement initially, but yesterday, commissioner Adam Silver clarified the league’s position.

“It is inevitable that people around the world–including from America and China–will have different viewpoints over different issues,” he said. “It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences. However, the NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues. We simply could not operate that way.”

China reacted swiftly. Eleven of the league’s 13 partners in the country have cut ties. The preseason games in Shanghai won’t be broadcast on Chinese TV. The Chinese Basketball Association, led by Yao Ming, cancelled a game against the Rockets G-League affiliate. And Rockets apparel can no longer be sold online.

Much has been made about how complicated of an issue this is. There are complicated aspects, sure; nearly everything that touches China is complex. But the heart of the disagreement between the NBA and China, between two contradictory world views, is pretty simple. It isn’t about Hong Kong or selling out for international money. It’s about the role sports should play in bringing people together.

Whether we should be mixing sports and politics is, like nearly everything these days, a hot button issue in the states, but whether our sports figures are expected to express themselves is not. People might have disagreed with Colin Kaepernick, but the idea that a quarterback would be voicing his opinion on world affairs has been drilled into us since the Joe Namath days. In fact, we can trace this expectation back even further. The first sports superstar in America was John L. Sullivan, a bare-knuckled boxer from the 1880s, and he travelled around the country speaking in support of prohibition. Since then, the more loud-mouthed our athletes, the more popular they are—and that’s been true from Babe Ruth to Baker Mayfield.

The way Chinese view sports, though, can best be seen on propaganda posters: “Friendship First, Competition Second,” read some. Others say, “Boost National Image.” Sports, to the Chinese, are a means to an end. They’re about working with a team, about discipline. Last year, Yao Ming told Sports Illustrated, “I’m tired of being known.”

As an American, it’s impossible to completely understand the Chinese perspective, but to red, white, and blue eyes, the idea that sports should avoid entangling itself with the outside world is antithetical to what makes sports such a lasting, powerful force. Everything we love about these games—the traditions, the heightened stakes, the characters—all come from the freedom of expression. When sports bring the outside world in, they can best reflect and inform the outside world as well.

In the end, it comes back to missionaries and militaries. Americans brought basketball to China as a way to express their beliefs and to, hopefully, start a larger dialogue. China deployed a soldier to advance its national aims. Which team would you rather play for?

Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images

Idol Worship

At its best, gymnastics is all about expression. That’s why Simone Biles is the GOAT, and last weekend, she cemented that legacy with her record 21st World Championship medal. Biles is only 22, and she already has four gymnastic moves named in her honor. She’s an athletic marvel who can jump twice her height, but Biles’ most unique asset is her smile. Gymnasts are instructed to smile after every routine, and almost always, they look forced and uncomfortable. But Biles beams. She’s channeling something undeniably authentic, expressing herself in a completely unique way. She brings joy to the sport. It makes all of us smile, too.

Check out her floor exercise here. It’s never too early to start getting ready for the 2020 Olympics.

Tom Pennington / Getty Images

Holy Wars

When Texas first played OU, Oklahoma was still called the Indian Territories, making the matchup quite literally one between cowboys and Indians. Animosity still runs deep between these two schools—and states. This week across Texas highways, signs urging drivers not to text conclude by saying, “OU sucks.”

But the Red River Shootout’s signature element is its venue. Played at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, nearly halfway between the two campuses, it’s the most unique atmosphere in college football. That’s because the Cotton Bowl sits smack in the middle of the Texas State Fair, so when the game is over, ticket holders (red and burnt orange are split down the 50-yard-line) head outside to eat deep fried butter, win a giant stuffed ape, and risk their lives on a rickety carnival ride. What’s not to love?

If you can’t make it to the fair, make yourself a corny dog and watch Saturday at noon EST.

So Let It Be Written…

‘She’s Like My Second Mom’: In the NBA, No One Gets Things Done Like Chrysa Chin

By Yaron Weitzman • Bleacher Report

Meet Chrysa Chin, the woman who Chris Paul describes by saying, “I can’t think of a person who has a better relationship with guys in the NBA.” The 56 year-old gives NBA stars advice on everything from finances and insurance to relationships and car trouble.

More Than a Game

By Michael J. Mooney • Texas Monthly

When high schools from El Paso and Plano, TX, scheduled a football game over a year ago, it was just supposed to be a typical out of conference showdown. But this summer, a graduate of Plano High drove to El Paso and murdered 22 innocent people who were shopping at a Walmart. Last Friday, that typical out of conference game became an opportunity for two cities to heal.

The Untold Story of Mike Leach’s ‘Lost’ OU Play Script That Fooled Texas

By Jake Trotter • ESPN

Need more proof of how bitter the rivalry between Texas and OU is? In 1999, Mike Leach, then a graduate assistant for the Sooners, left a fake play sheet on the Texas sideline before the game. The Longhorns thought they had struck gold, but after OU went up 17-0 early, they realized they’d been duped. This is the story of how Leach pulled off the trick.

Harry How / Getty Images

The Aftermath of Loss

There are many life lessons we learn from sports, and often, we learn those in the wake of a loss. Defeat doesn’t get much more brutal than the way the Los Angeles Dodgers fell to the Washington Nationals on Wednesday, after Clayton Kershaw surrendered back to back home runs and Joe Kelly gave up a grand slam in the 10th inning. Kershaw was visibly shaken, and when reporters grilled him postgame, he didn’t have many answers. “I don’t know,” he said repeatedly. Those are the type of losses that hurt the most, that make you question whether or not it’s worth playing or watching sports, but they also make the victories so much sweeter. The question now for Kershaw and the Dodgers is: Can they move on from this, or will they be haunted by ghosts?

Old School

The Disciples of St. Darrell on a Wild Weekend

by Dan JenkinsSports Illustrated • November 11, 1963

Nobody wrote about college football better than the late Dan Jenkins. He understood that it’s never been about the actual game, but instead, everything that surrounds it. This look at a group of Texas Longhorn fans on the weekend of Texas-OU shows the web of traditions that have been built around a little football game.

Atta Kenare / AFP via Getty Images

When Passion Is Finally Shared

Thursday was a seminal day in Iran: For the first time in 40 years, women were allowed to attend a soccer game. Woman had traditionally been barred from the game to keep them from witnessing foul language and violence, but after pressure from women’s rights groups and FIFA, the Iranian government amended their policy for the Iranian national team’s game against Cambodia. Tickets sold out in minutes, and hours before the game, women stood in the stands cheering and blowing on vuvuzelas. There wasn’t anything happening on the pitch yet, but it didn’t matter. There was a lot to cheer.

Iran’s domestic league starts play on October 21st. We’ll watch closely to see if women supporters are allowed to cheer again.

Last Words

“Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.” –Nelson Mandela