In this guest post, Robeson Taj Frazier, author of The East Is Black: Cold War China in the Black Radical Imagination (December 2014) looks at the history of basketball and the fame of black basketball players in China.
In October 1979, the eminent historian John Hope Franklin traveled to China to participate in a series of academic lectures. While there he was struck by Chinese citizens’ deep interest in black American life and culture. “They knew even the obscure utterances of…Angela Davis, W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers,” he remarked.
Two additional names should have been included: NBA Hall of Famers Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes, the twin pillars of the 1978 champion Washington Bullets (since renamed the Washington Wizards). Just two months prior to Franklin’s visit, Unseld, Hayes and their teammates journeyed to China to participate in several exhibition matches. And over the course of one week, the Bullets put on a show. Thousands of attendees got a chance to witness the Bullets’ exciting, fast-paced, and aggressive style of play—Unseld and Hayes bumping and maneuvering around the likes of the absurdly colossal 7’6 Mu Tiezhu (China’s “Yao Ming” before Yao Ming).
But the biggest show was off the court. Everywhere they went, the Bullets found themselves surrounded by huge crowds. “Throngs of people would stop to see who and what we were,” Unseld said, “To see a bunch of big, tall and, in a lot of cases, African American guys in China was something different.” Unseld demonstrated a similar curiosity; he took advantage of every opportunity to try new food, visit cultural sites, and interact with people. “I was a history major in college and wanted to see everything I could,” he explained.
In the decades that followed, hundreds of black basketball players have traveled to China to play in similar exhibition games and on teams in China’s equivalent to the NBA. The most famous of the lot is former NBA point guard Stephon Marbury. A resident of China for six years, Marbury is perceived as a national hero. After helping his Beijing Ducks team win two championships, he was honored by the city as an honorary citizen and a life-size statue of his likeness that now stands outside the Ducks’ arena. Just a few months ago, the musical “I Am Marbury” opened in Beijing. The performance portrays Marbury as a parable for the challenges and triumph that awaits those willing to migrate to China to pursue their dreams.
The fact that Marbury is depicted as a model for other migrants is problematic to say the least; there are no simple similarities or connections between his personal narrative and the disappointment, terrible work conditions and exploitation, limited choices, and poor quality of life faced by the millions of migrant Chinese and non-Chinese people that flock to cities like Beijing in search of employment and better lives. But Marbury, as well as Unseld, Hayes, and others, are an extension of the cultural linkages that fascinated John Hope Franklin decades ago—their history of Afro-Asian connections, crossovers, and contradictions a story that deserves a thoughtful and critical eye.
Taj Frazier is Assistant Professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. Order The East Is Black at a 30% discount by calling 888-651-0122 and using coupon code E15FRAZI.