Big Game, Small World
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S E V E N T E E N : China
PHOTO BY: AL TIELEMANS"So, this book of yours, what’s the point?" I’ve been asked that question, or a variation on it, scores of times. The quick-and-easy answer is it’s an exploration of what basketball can tell us about the world, and what the world can tell us about basketball. And nowhere did basketball shed more light on a patch of the globe than it did on China.

As much as hoops is a team endeavor, we’ve come to accept the transcendent star player as a natural product of the modern game. Michael Jordan is the apotheosis of that evolution. Yet in China under Mao, coaches would convene emergency team meetings if one player dared stand out from the group by scoring too many points. Well into the 1990s China’s national league didn’t even keep individual statistics. The Chinese people nonetheless embraced Jordan—they call him Qiao Dan—as no other people anywhere have venerated an American sports figure. That they did so precisely when their country was adopting the free market and turning to the West was, I came to see, no coincidence.

Here is Yao Ming, the 7’5" center I saw in Shanghai. He’s likely to be the first player chosen in the 2002 NBA draft.

EIGHTEEN: PHILADELPHIA

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