four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
58-May-June-2012
By: 
Jim Yardley
user_rating: 
0

737305.pngJim Yardley is a Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times reporter, former Beijing bureau chief, and avid basketball fan. Brave Dragons examines the state of the game in basketball-crazy China through the lens of one of its most dysfunctional teams.

The Topic: When Wang Xingjiang—"Boss Wang"—a wealthy steel baron and the owner of China’s Taiyuan Brave Dragons, decides to transform his Bad News Bears of a basketball team into a league contender, he brings in manqué American players and hires former NBA player and coach Bob Weiss to lead the way. Sadly for Weiss, Boss Wang’s meddling in the team’s affairs makes George Steinbrenner’s antics with the New York Yankees look tame by comparison: the Brave Dragons’ owner fired 15 or 16 coaches—no one really kept track—in his first six years at the helm; Weiss himself is fired and rehired seemingly on a daily basis. Despite having played the game since 1895, the world’s most populous country has never fielded a truly competitive international team. Through dozens of sharply drawn sketches of players, executives, and other memorable characters, Brave Dragons offers perspective on the great basketball—and cultural—divide.
Knopf. 320 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 9780307272218

AV Club 4 of 5 Stars
"Yardley is persuasive in his overall narrative thrust: Appalled by the many wasteful, exhausting drills players are required to complete to no evident end, Weiss tried to introduce on-court decision-making, individuality, and offensive strategy, but was repeatedly hamstrung by Wang’s counterproductive, domineering decisions. … This is thorough micro- and macro-history, capable of sucking in both the basketball-obsessed and the non-athletically inclined." Vadim Rizov

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"At the same time that Yardley brings these Chinese people to life, he provides an engaging history of basketball in China—and tries to answer why, if the sport is so popular there, its players and its professional league are so bad. … In Yardley’s deft handling, the tale of the Brave Dragons and their American coach becomes something much bigger than an account of an oddball basketball team." Jason Zengerle

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"What a reader will find here … is a rich vein of human drama and comedy. That, as this excellent book makes clear, is both its boon and its bane." Jay Jennings

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing has all the ingredients of a farce: larger-than-life characters, sudden plot twists and don’t-let-the-door-hit-you-on-the-way-out moments. But to his credit … [Yardley] sees the bigger picture: In many ways, basketball is a metaphor for the emergence of China as an economic power and its relationship with the rest of the world." Curt Schleier

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In less capable hands, this journey might have resulted in a simplistic sports yarn—Bad News Bears with Chinese characteristics. But drawing on his six years of experience in China, Yardley manages to capture, in touchingly human detail, the essence of a nation in transition." Brook Larmer

Critical Summary

Jim Yardley’s strength in Brave Dragons, besides his obvious passion for basketball and a solid working knowledge of the game, is his ability to present the players’ and coaches’ compelling stories while not giving short shrift to the big picture—a China wanting desperately to compete on an international stage in basketball yet patently unable to do so. Yardley’s conclusion is succinct and makes the struggle of the Brave Dragons even more captivating: "Private entrepreneurship exists in perpetual tension with the state," he writes, emphasizing the political and social dynamics that have doomed the success of basketball in China, "and those tensions seemed more starkly evident in a basketball league organized to be a commercial exercise, even when it actually was not one." Through sharp-focus profiles and rich historical perspective gained from years of immersion in the culture of the New China, Yardley deftly defines the chasm between East and West.