12/09/2011 08:21 am ET Updated Feb 08, 2012

Culture Shocked On China's Basketball Courts

Not long after I moved to China in 2007, I experienced big time culture shock. I stepped onto a basketball court.

I was working at the China Daily, and word got out quick there was a tall guy at the newspaper. During one of my first shifts, the foreign editor swung by my desk to recruit me to play for the company team and that weekend we went to the outdoor courts at the university across the street for a scrimmage.

It didn't take long to discover that although the essentials of the sport were the same -- dribble around and try to put the ball in the basket -- the nuances were slightly different in China.

At 6'3", I was a good six inches taller than the average player on the court. The hoop was barely over nine feet high, which meant I could dunk. This caused quite the stir. My driving and shooting abilities also played well in Chinese street ball, in which absolutely zero defense is played.

Some of the other differences were less subtle. For one, players in North America didn't often wear jeans. The court was covered with a layer of dirt, so you didn't so much run down the court as you did skate or ski. Players sometimes refreshed themselves between games with a cigarette.

My initial impression of the Chinese version of "basketball" was that it was a sport that combined elements of the Western version of the game with rugby, World Wrestling Entertainment, knock-off jerseys and some yet-to be invented sport that allowed for traveling, phantom foul calls, grappling and wild shots that somehow, someway, found their way into the basket way more often than they should have.

For a while, I was the basketball sensation of the three-block radius around the China Daily. The paper made new home and away uniforms, scheduled a game with a fearsome team from the Ministry of Health and ran a Q&A in the company newsletter with me and an Australian in the features section. He was our point guard. We felt like stars.

Basketball is huge in China. Millions play the game and the country is the NBA's second biggest market. China's own league, the Chinese Basketball Association, once considered a bit of a joke, has this year generated unprecedented excitement.

Beijing's team, the Shougang Ducks, has Stephon Marbury, the former NBA star/problem child who is enjoying a second career in China. And because of the NBA lockout, several former NBA players - including Wilson Chandler, J.R. Smith, and Kenyon Martin - signed in China and are locked into their contracts.

Whatever culture shock I faced back at China Daily must pale compared to what these millionaire athletes face.

The Beijing Ducks, for example, play in a small stadium in a gritty suburb at the last stop on subway Line 1. When I watched the team play a few years ago, fans seated near me said they had obtained tickets through their danwei, the word for work unit. The only people more disinterested in the game than the spectators were the players. The stadium's concession served an array of things you'd never eat and the only beers available were the one's we'd smuggled in.

(This year might be different, however. When I tried to get tickets to a recent Ducks game, they were sold-out well in advance and scalpers were selling tickets worth $12.50 for more than $50.)

One of the biggest differences between the Chinese game and Western game is the physicality. Games here can get scrappy fast, and fights, or at least near-fight theatrics, are common. In each of the three leagues I've played in in Beijing, at least one team has been kicked out for fighting.

In August, the Georgetown Hoyas traveled to China to play a series of exhibition games, including one against the Bayi Rockets, the People's Liberation Army team and the most loathed basketball club in China. A brawl ensued. Benches were cleared. Beat-downs were given and suffered. Egos and faces were bruised.

Anybody surprised by this hasn't played basketball here.

Despite the differences, I've had great times playing hoops here. One of my most memorable days in China was playing basketball during Chinese New Year on a mountaintop village in Yunnan province populated with Tibetan Catholics. The entire community was out drinking bottles of beer and watching as we played in the shadows of snowy mountains. It was magical.

There's an enormous pool of untapped basketball talent in China. Yao Ming is planning to open a basketball academy in Shanghai. Five Star runs camps here and youth basketball is growing. There's little doubt China will one day be an international powerhouse.

I learned quickly not to underestimate the competition in China. A few weeks after I joined the China Daily team, the paper scheduled a game against a team from Nike China. Our team of mostly foreigners squared off against Nike's all Chinese team with a crowd of China Daily employees watching.

We got pummeled.

For a few precious weeks, though, I was China Daily's LeBron. A couple days before a match the paper had scheduled against the Ministry of Health, the foreign editor came by my desk and told me with great disappointment that the game had been cancelled. I asked him what happened.

"They found out you could dunk," he said.

"But you know I can't actually dunk on a regulation hoop."

He shrugged. "They want a month to prepare."

Chinese Hoop Dreams