SOMEWHERE OVER THE GULF OF ALASKA — Here, on this flight from Beijing back to Los Angeles, I’m thinking about one of the funniest little moments from my time there tracking the Lakers.
It’s juvenile and apropos to no particular topic, so bear with me. As lowbrow as it was, though, it will be a lasting memory, because you don’t forget the laughs.
NBA commissioner David Stern, commish-in-waiting Adam Silver and Yao Ming were sitting at a table on stage in a part of MasterCard Center practically as big as an aircraft hangar, hosting all of the media for the Lakers-Warriors exhibition game Tuesday. Also on stage was a moderator—a distinguished-looking Chinese man—for this news conference announcing the NBA Yao School in Beijing.
Stern spoke in measured tones, all lawyerly and serious about the goal of imparting basketball’s greatest lessons to China’s youth, and then he respectfully alluded to the moderator by name.
“Big Shoe…” Stern said.
Whatever Stern meant to say, whatever this man’s real name is when pronounced more correctly, that is what Stern said. And a minute later, Silver did the same thing, singling out the moderator in his own effort to show kindly respect after being introduced to speak.
“Thank you, Big Shoe…” Silver said.
Oh, it was funny. It really was. I won’t incriminate the English speaker sitting next to me who also, out of respect, was stifling his laughter.
Everybody up there trying to be culturally sensitive and earnest in their formal suits…it was something out of a cross-cultural comedy movie.
As I reflect on the innocent moment and the smile it still brings to my face, I think of how Yao so wonderfully maintained his sense of humor amid all the serious challenges and accomplishments during his career and how Jeremy Lin escapes his pressures with jokes and spoofs now.
What was found in Beijing for the Lakers on this trip was a reminder that it’s the same there as it is here: joy and kindness. Our inherent commonalities as people drive the kindness, which can come in the form of people worrying about offending people, but the joy can rise up out of our differences, too.
We worry too much about what might offend someone. Not everyone is the same, and the contradictions and confusion spice up our lives.
It was asked in the postgame news conference of both Pau Gasol and Golden State star Stephen Curry whether they were offended by the Chinese fans repeatedly chanting Kobe Bryant’s name while they, not he, played.
A lot of Chinese basketball reporters approached me for interviews or casual chats Tuesday, and it was interesting how they wondered whether Bryant is offended or put off by how rabid his fans in China are and how over the top some of them act.
Offended? C’mon. He respects people who try, the fundamental principle on which he and his wife raise their kids.
I’ve written essay upon essay trying to explain Bryant’s immense popularity in China, and you know what it boils down to? His Chinese fans admire and deeply respect how hard he tries. They are also fascinated by how unafraid he is of failure, a rare trait in Asian culture.
You can turn it all around, and the point is the same: One of Lakers forward Marcus Landry’s indelible recollections from last year playing for the Shanghai Sharks was him sitting in a Chinese KFC and eating—and a homeless woman sitting there, watching all 6'7'' of him, and then suddenly coming up and taking some of his food.
She then sat down right there in the same restaurant to eat it while Landry watched, awestruck.
People remember how hard other people try, and it crosses racial, geographic, economic or any other lines.
Many members of the Lakers’ traveling party will remember how Landry tried to help them get tailored $150 custom suits. He camped out there in a hotel ballroom area to coordinate it personally.
Meanwhile, the Warriors used their own connections to have another Chinese tailor make suits for them. Warriors coach Mark Jackson was there, but it’s hard to imagine Jackson getting more than Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni did through Landry. (How many suits did D’Antoni get? Not five, not 10, not 15…)
The whole experience in Beijing for the Lakers and Warriors was understandably similar, including scheduled trips to see the Great Wall of China the same day. The Warriors drew the short straw and practiced later Sunday, meaning they were just going up the hill toward the wall when the Lakers were coming down. And even though the Warriors, not the Lakers, made their excursion mandatory for the players, it got dark before the Warriors could do much more than snap a team photo.
What the Warriors did get to do—and the Lakers are doing with the Shanghai Special Olympics—was an NBA community service event. The Warriors visited the Taijing Migrant School to dedicate a new NBA Cares Reading and Learning Center—stooping down for the kids to tie red scarves around their necks (even Warriors executive board member Jerry West), and Klay Thompson playing ping pong with them and Andre Iguodala playing Connect Four.
These are the kinds of things the players often don’t want to do at first because it takes up their time, and they don’t know what they are going to do with the kids or sick people or with cultural confusion.
But then they try—and they discover the joy and kindness from others and from themselves.
This is why the NBA has no plans to play regular-season games in China despite it being such a bountiful marketplace that Stern spoke of a realistic future decision having to be made about starting some NBA games at odd hours so the Chinese don’t have to watch every game in the morning.
The league recognizes that it not only takes time to fly to China and back, it takes a little time—which the preseason offers—to get beyond the kindness and into the joy.