I didn't have a ticket to Sunday night's ballyhooed game between Team USA and China. My press pass wouldn't even get me a seat in the basement of the Olympic basketball gymnasium. Most of the press were watching the game on flat screens at the Main Press Center (just think about that: they flew all they way to Beijing to watch the game on TV). Scalpers were asking for more than $1,400 for the hottest ducat in town.
So where could a red-blooded American reporter — impartial and objective, of course — find a place to watch the game and enjoy the company of his compatriots?
Hooters, of course.
The Atlanta-based chain was a natural place — more natural, perhaps, than any Hooters in Southern California — to watch Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the rest of Team USA play in the cauldron of the pro-China Olympic Sports Center Gymnasium. It seemed like the Americans who couldn't score tickets had come to Hooters, knowing they could get a slice of home and a plate of chicken wings — albeit with Chinese characteristics.
I spotted four guys who were decked out in U.S. gear. They were attacking the plate of wings and washing it down with a cold glass of ... Guinness. Hey, whatever makes the wings go down.
But these weren't your typical fans. They were four Marines living in Beijing and guarding the U.S. Embassy in China (they had met President Bush a few days before at the opening of the new embassy building). They had the night off — and enjoying it as if they were back home. This was a night to cheer on the Redeem Team.
Was there a better table to join and watch the game with? You know the answer.
During the game I asked about home, the wings, how Beijing compared to the States and the prospects of Team USA winning the gold.
Their takes: Home was Philadelphia for Sambo Phoeuk, Phoenix for Cody Frey, New York City for Harold Vincent, San Francisco for J.R. Guinto. The wings were decent — but not like home (what is?). Team USA was going to make the final, everyone agreed, but winning the gold was far from guaranteed.
"Sometimes stuff happens," said Phoeuk, who was wearing a Wade jersey. When asked why he wasn't guaranteeing gold, he said, "You never know."
The bar was getting rowdy, especially once Yao Ming opened the game with a 3-pointer from the top of the key. Chinese fans, a large contingent that rivaled U.S. fans in the house, exploded when the shot went down. Hope was high, especially during the first quarter when China stayed close.
But once Team USA started to exert their authority, the Marines roared with each emphatic dunk, yelling "Face!" whenever James or Dwight Howard rocked the rim. Which was quite a bit once Team USA took control of the game. The poor Hooters manager, playing peacemaker, had to plead for the group to turn it down a notch, afraid of an international incident spoiling the unrefined, yet tacky environment.
"I couldn't ask for a better place to be, honestly," said Guinto after polishing off another wing. He was talking about being stationed in Beijing, but he seemed to sum up a night when they had no other place to go than a Hooters in the center of Beijing. He was thousands of miles away from California, but he was having fun, watching the weekend's biggest event with his military brothers and fellow hoops junkies (who were Chinese, American, Australian, German, to name just a few).
Chants of "U-S-A" broke out when Team USA's 101-70 victory wound down. There was no international incident, other than my flat Tsingtao beer I had to send back. The Marines headed out even though the waitresses were dancing in front of the bar. The next morning, they would be back on duty.
They couldn't be night owls.