In recent months there has been no shortage of Sino-American tension on trade, arms sales and internet politics. But, thankfully, none of it has extended beyond verbal frustration.
Until now, that is. For the first sign of barbs turning to blows, look no further than this year’s Chinese basketball final – where an American and a Chinese player came to fisticuffs.
Anyone looking to draw geopolitical symbolism from the bout will need to know that the Chinese basketballer struck first but ineffectively. He was then knocked unconscious by a single punch from the American – the speed and strength of which seemed to take Du completely unaware.
More than a few US senators will be hoping the Politburo draws a moral from the story: if you pick a fight with Uncle Sam, you’d better be ready for the retaliation.
Sadly, the analogy isn’t quite perfect: the senators seem to be the ones picking most of the verbal fights (chiding China on its currency, talking up tariffs and the like).
Basketball, moreover, is not normally associated with politics, and still less with players knocking each other out. So how did this extraordinary situation occur?
The scene was the second match of five in this year’s final between the Guangdong Southern Tigers and the Xinjiang Snow Leopards. In the first match, the 2.02 metre tall American Charles Gaines had shot 30 points for Xinjiang and proven to be the team’s star player. So in the second match Guangdong’s Du Feng had vowed to contain the man from the University of Southern Mississippi.
According to the Qilu Evening News, Du used a number of “tricks” to “restrain” Gaines, who scored only 19 points in the second game. The American became annoyed by the way he was being marked, and the encounter grew testier with each passing minute.
By the end of the fourth quarter, Du’s aggressive play had achieved its aim: Xinjiang trailed by five points, and in the dying seconds missed a vital three pointer. That’s when – to use a phrase familiar to pub landlords from Cardiff to Croydon (although less so in Chengdu and Chongqing) – ‘it all kicked-off’.
Beneath the hoop, Du and Gaines faced-off over a contended rebound. Du banged the American in the chest, says the Beijing News. But he was quite unprepared for Gaines reaction. Using what the Qilu Evening News described as “American boxing skills”, Gaines struck back with a surprise uppercut. TV footage captures Du going down faster than a subprime mortgage.
Pandemonium broke out around the stadium, as Du lay spread-eagled. Rather embarrassingly, his sister suddenly appeared in tears beside him.
Cigarette butts and bottles rained in on court from the livid Guangdong fans. One local supporter – perhaps feeling a little humiliated by round one of the confrontation – sought to restore national honour, running up to Gaines and punching him.
As the American was escorted from the court, the noisy and violent scene resembled a gladiatorial frenzy. The Beijing News called it a “disgusting scandal” and labelled the episode the “worst, ugliest and most humiliating” the China Basketball Association had produced in the last 15 years.
Secretly, of course, many people would admit it sounds like the type of clash that makes for rather enjoyable viewing.
But it was not an isolated incident, the newspaper also pointed out. It says the CBA has frequently experienced fights among players, as well as unruly scenes involving spectators. Benchmarked against the orderliness of the American NBA, the poor management of the league is bringing “shame” on China.
This latest debacle has done nothing to change that perception. After the fight first hit the headlines, significant fines and punishments were anticipated. However, the CBA failed to suspend either player, arguing that because the punches were thrown after the final whistle they didn’t merit disciplinary action. The Jinan Times also reports that Gaines got away with a warning because his punch was deemed ‘instinctive’ rather than ‘intentional’.
Meanwhile, Du – who lay concussed on the floor for half an hour after being struck – returned for the next game and helped Guangdong win the series 4 games to 1 (and clinch its third straight CBA title). However, for many Chinese basketball fans that achievement has been overshadowed by this unseemly debacle.
Reuters reckons it might even lead to an anti-American backlash in the sport: “The incident will further fuel debate about American imports to the CBA, who critics say are too aggressive and reduce the playing opportunities for local players.”
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