A public park is not a public park in Beijing, especially if you have a laminated journalist's credential dangling from your neck.
I found that out when I went to the Dongdan sports complex on Thursday, eager to catch some playground basketball and interview a few hoops junkies three days before the highly-anticipated game between the U.S. men's team and China. The sports complex is centrally located in Beijing, right next to a subway station, which means the courts are always packed.
Despite three full courts and 10 baskets, there are no full-court runs. There are too many players, a common gripe among locals. Games are half-court, four-on-four (and a heads up for those planning on playing here, no one checks the ball). Play to five, baskets are worth one point. Lose, and you might be sitting out for the next 30 minutes. Just like at any other playground in the world, there is no mercy in playground basketball in the heart of Beijing.
The plan was to ask some players what they thought about Sunday's matchup — who are you rooting for? Kobe Bryant or LeBron James? — and share the universal language of basketball, the love for crossovers, layups and dunks.
But first I had to get past the front gate and the security guards.
Like most parks in China, the sports complex requires admission, 15 RMB (about $2.20 U.S.), to enter. When I walked to the entrance, I expected to have easy access to the courts, a quick explanation of why I was there, who I was working for. At worst, I'd pay the entrance fee. Officials had promised unfettered and unfiltered access, but it wasn't that simple.
I was denied at the gate, like a dissed B-list celebrity at the velvet rope of a A-list Hollywood club. The courts were off limits; I hadn't given proper notice to the park that I was coming. For 10 minutes I pleaded in my poor Mandarin that all I wanted was to watch some hoops and interview a few players. Nope, no way, bu ke yi.
Thankfully, the NBC news department has translators to diffuse and solve sticky (and even stickier) situations like this one. After a discussion over the phone, I was allowed to enter the park once I gave them a photocopy of my credential.
My 25-minute ordeal over, I was able to step on the courts — only to be shadowed by a burly, hefty "public security volunteer." Perhaps he was ready to mediate in case I started a heated Kobe or Shaq debate. No matter, I was in my element and eager to talk some hoops.
The NBA's impact and popularity is on display. Players were suited up in NBA jerseys — Kevin Garnett's, Allen Iverson's, Dwyane Wade's, even a retro Washington Bullets Michael Jordan uni. Not to be outdone, one of the two girls playing amongst the boys was wearing a Houston Comets uniform.
I approached Zhao Lei, who was wearing a Team USA T-shirt and waiting on the sidelines for the next game.
"Who are you rooting for on Sunday?" I asked.
"The U.S.," the 28 year old said without hesitation.
"The players," he said. "The U.S. has LeBron James, Kobe ... China just has Yao Ming."
There were other players who were rooting for Team USA, each giving the same explanation. They loved LeBron or Kobe or Jason Kidd. Somewhere, NBA commissioner David Stern is smiling. They all asked if I could hook them up with tickets.
Although the talent at Dongdan might not compare with New York's venerable Rucker Park, the passion is there. Players come three, four times a week, endure crowded courts and long waits, not to mention the 15 RMB admission. Every now and then, there's a talented player who could hoop on any U.S. playground, like the smooth lefty who was piercing through defenses and hitting every open jumper.
"There are some good guys who are insane," said 18-year-old Xiao Ren, a Chinese citizen and Los Angeles-area resident who's here for the Olympics. Ren has rented a private karaoke room for Sunday's game.
After talking to a handful of players — six were rooting for China, three for Team USA, one for a close game — and watching some good (and mostly not-so-good) basketball, I headed for the exit. The "public security volunteer" had long abandoned his vigilance of me, instead telling players on the sidelines to extinguish their cigarettes. I had not stirred up any political dissent or trouble with my innocuous questions.
But as I left, he was standing near the exit. He cracked a big smile and said, "All done?"
"Yep," I replied.
He shook my hand, and I gave him a pat on the back. For a brief moment, all the early consternation was forgotten. Perhaps a game really can be harmonious.