Upon reading recently that former NBA Star Stephon Marbury (left) was leaving his former Chinese team, Shanxi Zhongyu, after a year's service, my first thought was, 'wow he actually spent a whole season in Taiyuan!'
For the initiated, Taiyuan is the capital city of Shanxi Province, and one of the most highly industrialised city in northern China. Known as the 'coal-mining capital' of China it has little to recommend it to the average tourist, let alone the average former NBA-All Star.
Most visitors' views of the city are similar to those of this commenter on Chinatravel.net:
"It was definitely the most polluted city in PRC. If you think that the coal mining activities have done enough damage to the quality of the air there, wait till you see the amount of chain smokers there...And if that's not enough to put you off, personal hygiene is a huge problem there. Apart from spitting (well, I guess it's the same anywhere else in PRC but somehow, I think it's worst in Taiyuan), the ppl there dont really bath or change their clothes everyday. To make things worst, they don't really care for cleanliness of their surroundings as well...To sum things up, I don't think I'll ever be going back to Taiyuan."
However, despite its rather unappealing visual delights, Taiyuan holds a special place in my heart. It was also the city where I first learned to live and love China. I spent a little under a year there teaching at a university. Although the pollution affected my health, and the grey-ness affected my sanity I found the the people to be extremely friendly.
I can only imagine it was this friendliness, and perhaps the rumoured US$25,000 per month salary which inspired Marbury to sign up with Shanxi Zhongyu and move him and his family to the coal-tinged wonderland of Taiyuan. Prior to his move to China, Marbury was in some kind of emotional wasteland. At the tail end of his career, and with few NBA teams willing to commit to signing him for the next season, his behaviour had become increasingly erratic. He quickly became famous more for things like filming himself eating vaseline and crying.
Neither activity a sure-fire way to assuage any NBA Teams that his famous personality flaws were behind him. However, despite the risk Shanxi Zhongyu, and the city of Taiyuan, welcomed this vaseline-eating baller with open arms.
Taiyuan hasn't always been so welcoming to foreigners though. In fact one of its claims to fame is that it was the site of one of the largest massacres of foreigners during the Boxer Rebellion, when seventy-seven unarmed western missionaries were executed. As luck would have it, the reparations paid by the Chinese Imperial Government to amend for the massacre was actually used to fund the establishment of the institution which eventually evolved into Shanxi University - the university for which I worked in 2001-02.
In many ways it is startling how much Taiyuan, and China, has changed in a little over one hundred years. From a place where a westerner could be decapitated with the assent of the Provincial Governor to one where an African American multiple time NBA All-Star could find himself given a chance at redemption (and make a tidy little bit of cash aswell). Other former NBA Stars have now begun to follow Marbury's lead, with Steve Francis the next great basketball has-been to find his second chance in China, signing with the Beijing Shougang Ducks.
This kind of cross-cultural basketball exchange can only be a good thing for both sides. American basketballers now have a place to eke a few more dollars out of their fast-fading skills, and Chinese basketball fans have the opportunity to see their childhood heroes playing for their home-team. For country which once was responsible for making foreigners 'die endlessly', it is a pleasant thought to see China now act as a halfway house for foreign former basketball stars, as they slowly shuffle their way through the twilight of their career towards retirement.
Note: this article is a revised version of an article written for my blog, 21st Century Marco Polo