It was a day before my first preseason game with the Zhejiang Lions of the Chinese Basketball Association. I don’t remember the name of the town we were in, but I do remember the thump. I’d only been in the country a few months, and really just the big cities like Shanghai. Hangzhou, where I lived during the season, wasn’t Shanghai by any means, but compared to this town, it was a metropolis.
This was my first time seeing the not-so-glamorous side of the country.
Something was slamming against my window. I’m talking like someone was throwing rocks at it or something. The more I listened, though, I realized the sound was coming from inside the room.
I crept up to the window, took hold of the curtains and threw them back. There it was — leaping into the glass, desperate to escape — the biggest cockroach I’d ever seen in my life. Like, at least four inches long.
I flung open the window as hard and quickly as I could. As soon as I did, a swarm of those giant cockroaches flew out of the window.
I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto.
There weren’t any singing munchkins or good witches in China, but some of my experiences there, on and off the court, made me think I was somewhere over the rainbow.
That atmosphere of the games, whether you’re in a big city or small village, is completely different from the NBA. The fans are crazy there, and really get into the game the way NBA fans don’t. It’s an amazing feeling. Unfortunately, that feeling is kinda diminished when you look up and see this huge cloud of cigarette smoke hovering over the court. Yeah, in the CBA, fans can still smoke in the arenas.
As far as the actual basketball goes, it was kind of a double-edged sword, too. On the one hand, it wasn’t the best competition. On the other, though, it meant I was The Man.
In the NBA, I’m more of a role player. I try to get guys involved and just do whatever the team needs me to do to get a win. That’s exactly what I started doing in my first game in China. I didn’t really take over, I was just passing the ball around, taking a shot if it was open but not really forcing it. After the first few minutes of that, though, I noticed something strange. When I had the ball, nobody was expecting the pass — not the players, not the coach, not the fans.
Holy crap, they really just want me to score all the points. All right.
I launched from deep, slashed to the rim, took guys on one-on-one, skied for rebounds, swatted shots. Even though the entire defense was keying in on me, I still wound up with 43 points and 28 rebounds.
I’m like, So that’s what it’s like to be KD!
Those games gave me a newfound respect for guys like Durant and LeBron, the ones who do everything for their team night in and night out.
If I was going to be The Guy, though, I didn’t want to just go through the motions. I wanted to be the leader and make our team the best we could possibly be.
I noticed that a lot of our players didn’t have a good feel for the game. Their fundamentals were fine, but the stuff that comes naturally to people who have been playing since they were basically in diapers weren’t there.
For example, if I’m driving towards you, don’t run towards me, because that brings your man to me, too. Cut to the rim, or space out so you can get a shot. They didn’t really recognize that.
Sometimes, coach would yell “PASS!” during a game, and the players would get so scared, they’d pass immediately without looking around. There’d be a defender right in between the player and his teammate, and he’d get the easiest steal ever. I remember one guy stealing the ball and looking at the player, puzzled, like he was asking “Were you throwing this to me?”
We had one guy on our team who was a shooter. The only problem is, he shot every time, in every situation — open, guarded, off the dribble, whatever. He’d get his shot blocked sometimes because the defense knew he’d always shoot, and close out hard. I explained how to pump fake, and showed him different ways of getting open through cuts and screens. Once he started doing those things, he scored six to eight more points per game.
There was another aspect missing on the court, but one I really couldn’t teach: chemistry.
It’s hard to bond as a team in China, because the players have no time off. Right now, the NBA is really concerned with recovery and injury prevention. That’s not really the case in China.
On days when you’re not playing, you’re practicing twice a day. I had to work a rest day into my contract. And forget about an offseason. They essentially have two seasons over there, and as soon as they’re done with the first, they only have a week or two off until the next one.
I’d gone out to dinner with one or two teammates before, passing around my iPhone to translate conversation, but we hadn’t had any team outings.
The players even have a curfew, and teams are really strict about it. There was one player on my team who went out for a drink, broke curfew, and was suspended for the next game.
Chemistry is crucial, though. And I knew we needed to build it if we were going to improve as a team. So, one day, I asked our general manager if we could break curfew and go out as a team. She agreed.
I asked the team where they wanted to go. I didn’t need the translator to understand.
They all said it at once.
I thought they just meant going out to a bar that has a karaoke machine, but in China, they have karaoke clubs.
We walked into this massive building, not quite warehouse size, but close. I walked up to the desk and told the guy we wanted to sing. He leaves and comes back with like 20 girls. Maybe something got lost in translation?
He leads us into this long, long room with a sectional couch big enough for the entire team, a table full of liquor. Neon lights lined the place, and several big screen TVs hung from the wall.
At this point, I had no clue what was going on.
We sat down on the couch, the team and the girls. Someone pressed a button, and music blared from the speakers. I had no idea where this was going. Then they started singing.
Seriously, that’s all we did. The guys belted out song after song, with the rest of the team cheering on. It was so great, because it wasn’t about the partying or drinking, it was about bonding as a team. I learned so much about my team that night, just as people. We cracked jokes, took pictures, just had an amazing time. Everyone sang. Well, not everyone. I decided to spare them from my voice. Even though it was weird, and not at all what I expected, it was my favorite memory from my time in China.
After that, we really started playing better as a team. That’s not a coincidence.
For all of the weird, crazy, unimaginable experiences I had in China, I’m grateful for my time there because it taught me a lot about myself. Being away from everything you know gives you a lot of time to reflect on what’s important in your life
I realized that I’m a pretty sensitive guy, but I struggle with expressing myself. I promised myself that, when I got home, I’d start telling the important people in my life that I love them, and show them how much I care. I’d enjoy their company more. More than that, I’d also start appreciating people in general, even someone I just meet for a day or two.
Since I’ve been back, I’ve been more mindful of this. I tell my friends and family I love them more often. I eat at new restaurants, try new experiences, go outside of my comfort zone. There are a lot of people that would love to do what I’m doing. I can’t take this life for granted.