Friendship Game Turns Into BasketBRAWL

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Transcript Below:

Bayi Rockets – Georgetown Hoyas Friendship Game Turns Into BasketBRAWL

China Sourcing Information Center- Sports Edition!

In my China video blog posts I tend to focus on business topics, but the events surrounding the recent basketbrawl game between the Bayi Rockets and Hoyas…wow, I can’t help myself, I need to shed some light on what is going on.  And as the US-China relationship is in the spotlight, this game does have the ability impact business climate as well.

Before we get to the fight, let’s set the tone and look at the recent events this week leading up to the fight, I mean friendship match.

1.  S&P downgrades US sovereign debt from AAA to AA+. This hurts China, the largest holder of US debt.  Chinese leadership has used the opportunity to scold the US for its poor financial leadership.

2.  Vice President Joe Biden is in China on a so-called “Charm Offensive” to meet with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping who is the heir apparent to take over leadership of China in near future.

3.  China’s first ever aircraft carrier completes its sea trials.

Let’s take a step back and look at the big big picture. For 1000’s of years of Chinese history, for the most part, China’s boarders have been fairly well defined and more importantly, in all that history, there have been very few times that China has made military incursions outside of China.

In my opinion, the Chinese people and Chinese leadership don’t have aspirations for global dominance, but they very much want to be powerful enough so that no nation, even the US, has the ability to put China on its knees again like what happened when the Western powers carved up China as the Qing Dynasty fell in 1911.  You may be thinking, 1911 that’s ancient history. But not to the Chinese.  The massive loss of face to the Western and Japanese powers leading up to, and through WWII is fresh in the mind of most Chinese common folk and especially leadership.

Fast forward…Basically, if we take a snap shot of recent events, it may falsely feel like there is a swing in the pendulum of the world order, but in reality, the sharp criticism over US debt, the launch of the Chinese air craft carrier and the arrival of a Joe Biden’s pucker up to China…is a well orchestrated public relations move by Beijing designed to give the impression (to the Chinese people most importantly) that China is strong and standing on its own.

The reality, behind the scenes, is that leadership in both China and the US are pissing their pants scared that we will have a double dip recession. This would hurt both sides and the best way to avoid it is for China and the US to cooperate.  But both sides certainly want the political boost that they are standing strong the other nation, but in reality the motivation is to cooperate rather than agitate.

Now that we just set the global stage for this one basketball game, let’s now take a behind the scenes look at the actors on this stage, in these case the two teams. Then we’ll talk about the fight.

I was surprised that the Western press hasn’t explained who the “BaYi Rockets” are.    August first or “Ba Yi” in Mandarin Chinese refers to the NanChang uprising when the PLA (People’s Liberation Army), known at the time as the Red Army,  was founded in 1927.  The Bayi Rockets are the Chinese military’s team in the Chinese version of the NBA.  I know, in the past, some of the team members had served in the Army, and while today’s players are professional athletes, the perception is that BaYi is very much the face and spirit of the military in Chinese sporting events from basketball to Ping-Pong.  In the USA, the military academies participate in college sports. Imagine if the pentagon had a professional sports team. That is what BaYi is in China.

Now, what does Georgetown represent?  Not only is Georgetown based in the US capital, but it is the State Department’s go-to school for new recruits.  While it is a private university, it certainly plays a large role in grooming the future of DC political leadership.

Now let’s look at the motivation of our actors.  I feel sorry for the Bayi team, they must have been under so much pressure.  They are professional military athletes playing college kids from the USA at a time when China symbolically is stepping onto the global stage as a world power. If they lost…wow, talk about a loss of face: “Chinese military beaten by US college students”.

But the basketball players are not the only actors on stage.  The pivotal player in this 3-act drama were the refs.  With 57 free throws granted to BaYi and only 15 to G-town, I think it is reasonable to suspect that the ref was trying to keep the game close.  Chinese basketball fans know that US college level b-ball is probably on par with Chinese pro level. So as long as the game was close, the BaYi team would not lose too much face.  Since this game was a “friendship match” which is essentially playing sports to create political goodwill, I don’t think it is out of the realm of possibility that the refs were instructed, or at least personally made the decisions, to “keep it close.”  I doubt the refs were aiming to make sure BaYi would win, but it sure feels to me that on the national stage we have two superpowers meeting as equal partners up in Beijing, and the ref probably felt motivated to ensure a similar balance of power was played out on the court.

Stage is set. You have your Chinese military athletes revved up to win one for China by playing their hardest and most physical basketball possible. They are playing on home turf and for national pride.  You have your young and excitable US hoops players who are equally motivated to win. This is, after all, perennial Big East basketball powerhouse Georgetown we are talking about. These players have potential NBA careers, every time they step on the court, doesn’t matter if in China or the US, they aim to win.

In retrospect, had the game not been very physical and contested,  now that would have been a surprise. That a fight broke out, that is almost to be expected given the circumstances.

Who is the idiot that schedule this game?

Apparent the US Ambassador to China Gary Locke and VP Biden had a chance to visit with the players before the game.  Somebody should have taken BOTH teams behind closed doors in advance of the game and said “play nice like our leaders are doing in Beijing.”

Any American that has played ball in China could have warned the team that even US college students are expected by Chinese to play at the same level as the the Dream Team, so don’t count on the refs to give you the call and expect that the “no blood no foul” rule is very much in effect.

Yes, the game was a physical one, the refs may have been one sided, national pride was at surprise… multiple shoving matches take place during the game and eventually a bench clearing brawl ends the game.  Fearing for the safety of his players, wisely, Coach Thomson gets his team off the court and the game ends in a 64-64 tie.

You can watch the fight on youtube, but here are some note worthy items, behind the scenes, that make the story even more interesting.

1.  With so much national pride at stake, I was surprised that the majority of Chinese bloggers actually criticize the Bayi team.  I thought it was only in the movies where Rocky wins over the foreign crowd!  But on line in China were statements like:

“Aren’t Bayi players soldiers? Why would they beat up a bunch of college students?”, “What a loss of face for the people’s army!”

2.  The Chinese censors have done a good job of blocking the initial video, so during the first 24 hours after the fight, it was pretty hard for people in China to see the video in the media or major websites.  I heard about the fight from the US newsfeed and when I look up in the Chinese press, for the first few hours after the event I could only find news like “friendly match ends in 64-64 tie”. But after comments and video started leaking out via blogs, then the mainstream China press made things public. But the media  message was clearly that this is an example of poor sportsmanship and should not be interpreted as a statement of the bi-lateral relationship between the two countries.

3.  The two teams were scheduled to play a 2nd match later in G-town’s China tour, lucky Bayi has been replaced by another team, but still a lot of eye’s watching.

4.  How damage control was conducted tell us more about the US-China relationship than the actual fight.  While both sides did place the blame on the refs,  for the most part the two sides expressed embarrassment, lack of self control and didn’t stoke the fires by blaming the other side. The day after, coaches and captains met to shake hands and exchange signed memorabilia before leaving town.  It was like Beijing and Washington called up the teams and said “hug it out fellas”.

Let’s hope,  calm head prevail at the national level, and China-US can work together to avoid a double dip recession and avoid a nasty fight like we saw on the basketball court.


  1. Mike Bellamy, with CSIC on September 20, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    Hi Matt,
    Thanks for the comments. I think it also has something to do w population density. In my small hometown near the Canada boarder w population 2000, you say hello when you pass somebody on the sidewalk and you hold doors for the person behind you and you sure as heck don’t yell at the top of your lungs “servant come here” at the restaurants like we do here in China. When Chinese people know each other, they treat each other with great respect and violence is unheard of. But the population is so massive that it simply is not realistic to say hello to the people you walk past, and if you help hold the door for the people behind you, you may stand there as a door man for hours! I’m no cultural anthropologist, but I get the feeling living here, that Chinese put great emphasis on maintaining harmony where it counts (among people in their direct group) and if an outsider is not part of this direct group, then there is no advantage to make the effort to be nice for the sake of being nice. Having grown up in the Northern States and moved to the US South for school, I think I could make similar comparisons between North and South when it comes to manners. Like you pointed out, when we talk about China, I’m not saying one system is better than the others, or that one group is more polite, or more violent, but there are clearly differences.

    Thanks again for your comments.

    Best Regards,

  2. matthewcavanaugh on September 16, 2011 at 11:51 pm

    A lot of American media have explained this as China swinging back – the result of hundreds of years of western repression. While there may definitely be some truth to this angle, there is a lot of anger, generally, in China. All you have to do is go to a train station, airport, hotel front desk, and you will see customers screaming at customer service people. I have been on airplanes when all of the passengers nearly tore apart the flight attendants due to delays. I have seen many, many hotel guests lash out viciously (sometimes for pretty good reason) at front desk clerks. I have seen police called to videotape crowds during airport riots. American people have many faults, and of course, they also have anger issues. But the Chinese people as a whole, I believe, possess a particular ease with which they spew fire on their fellow citizens. Or on Americans. When you go to China enough times, this is one of the prominent themes that cements itself. So I don’t buy that excuse of ‘western repression’.

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