Lessons on the Court

DONGGUAN, China—Ever since my first day here, when I vastly overestimated the amount of time I could spend talking with a group of 10-year-old Chinese kids about their favorite foods despite my not speaking Mandarin and their not speaking English, ten minutes of basketball every hour has become an integral part of my lesson plan. Every morning, I am greeted with “Teacher! Teacher! When we play basketball?” The most rambunctious of my eleven students, the bespectacled Martin from Guangzhou, waits for my answer in excited anticipation.

Admittedly, the quality of the game on the court outside the schoolhouse has room for improvement. Martin’s jump shot involves no jump, and the one-armed hurl he makes when throwing the ball at the net barely resembles a shot. There are some eccentricities in the rule book, too: Rule #1—“Teacher Alex doesn’t take a break,” and Rule #2 –“Teacher Alex doesn’t shoot.” But the kids’ love for the game is as genuine as you’ll find on any hard top in America.

NBA Commissioner David Stern would have you believe that basketball’s increasing popularity in what many call the last large untapped market is due to his own concerted efforts to market the game to a Chinese audience. I’m not sure if he’s right. Sure, last weekend I enjoyed a bottle of Tsingtao beer that had the NBA logo on its label, but my students’ knowledge of the NBA lags far behind their ability to run an effective transition offense (damn right I’ve taught them how to run a transition offense). When I went through a list of prominent NBA stars, the only one that rang a bell with any of the kids was Yao Ming and that, well, is because he’s Chinese. What did seem to register was that, when compared to the Boston Celtics’ 17 championship wins, my own Seattle Sonics’single championship is, in their words, “very, very sad.” I neglected to mention the fact that the Sonics no longer exist; one can only imagine what one of my students, Shine, would think of that.

Though I genuinely believe, or at the very least hope, that the many hours I spend in the classroom with the kids are actually improving their English, I must admit that I spend much of the time asking my students if they have understood what I’ve just said. More often than not, I’m met with blank, somewhat judgmental stares. But five times a day, for ten minutes each, I know that my kids are learning something. I know that Jack made five free throws in a row last Thursday, I know that Betty learned how to dribble and that Lily learned how to bounce pass.

Last week my class—class 6—played against class 7 in a friendly basketball game. Shine, Martin, Jack, and the crew won 24-0. Though they can’t understand this article now, hopefully one day they’ll be able to read it and others, and they’ll know that I’m proud of them. Tomorrow’s lesson: sportsmanship.

Alexander Koenig '14, a sports writer, lives in Currier House.