Brave Dragons

Jim Yardley's book, "Brave Dragons", tells the story of an American coach's efforts to help struggling Chinese basketball attain a winning season.

Jim Yardley’s, Brave Dragons

Wang Xingjiang, referred to as “Boss Wang” by his players, is the millionaire steel magnate and real life owner of the Chinese basketball team, The Brave Dragons. His ardent devotion to basketball, and his competitive need to win, is inversely proportionate with his team’s poor standing among the echelons of the sport. In 2008, he hazarded an experiment that is chronicled in Jim Yardley’s book, The Brave Dragons: recruit an American coach to improve their prospects. 

He lives in Taiyuan, the gritty industrial capital of Shanxi Province, which is the coal heartland of China.

Boss Wang is an idiosyncratic character. His ascendancy to fantastic wealth was the result of Chinese reform and policies, which had a seismic impact on their economy and society, making “multimillionaires out of semiliterate coal bosses”. The coal industry brought windfalls and wealth for many people in Taiyuan, but shrouds the city in an opaque vapor.

One is startled to see the tempestuous bullying techniques of his upbringing applied in his tough-love approach to his players. Readers also learn the affecting story of his youth during the mass starvations sprung from Mao’s “Great Leap Forward”– eating tree bark, worms, and roots – until later in the 1960s he professes “basketball gave me the chance to leave the factory and eat for free. Basketball changed my life.”

Wang’s adverse style of training is conveyed in an anecdote: when Wang and his assistants deposit their players at the bottom of a steep, stony hill that leads up to the temple and exhorts the team to piggy back one another up and down the path. Alas, his disciplinarian methods have not yielded any success.

Enter Robert Weiss, a cancer survivor and former veteran coach of several NBA teams. According to Yardley, Bob Weiss “ had spent the first six decades of his life happily confined to the United States of America. The prospect of international travel so thoroughly unnerved him that he had never applied for a passport. He worried about terrorists, and he worried about silly things, like getting lost.”

Despite Weiss’ complacency in the States, Boss Wang approached him during his post-cancer convalescence to solicit consultation for the Brave Dragons. At the time, Weiss resided with his wife Tracy in Seattle. In need of a job while also aware of the legacy potentially installed for him as the first American coach in such an undertaking, Bob was embedded to Taiyun for the 2008-09-basketball season. He began to reconsider his views about the rest of the world, open to the idea that going overseas might be fun, an “adventure as well as a paycheck.”

Thus inaugurated an experience of clashing cultures and an illuminating look into contemporary Chinese society. As Robert Weiss soon discovered, Boss Wang’s methods seemed exorbitant, cruel, and even detrimental by the standards of Western NBA practice.

Weiss bore witness to Boss Wang’s combustible persona. It was not uncommon to find Wang in paroxysms of rage, vociferously berating and even, at times, physically assailing members of his team.

In a candid but politically incorrect moment, one Chinese Coach, Liu Tie, confesses that he believes his countrymen are “Genetically inferior… as far as the physical demands of basketball… we know we Chinese players are different than African-American players. They are more physically gifted… no country on Earth believes in Darwin more than China.”

Such sentiments underscored for Bob Weiss not only the contrary philosophy in sports, but in culture as well. Despite this and through Weiss’ efforts, the Shanxi Brave Dragons placed 10th in their season, with 26 wins and 24 losses, which made it one of the most dramatic turn-around in the history of the Chinese league. Weiss addressed the team and told the players that he admired them for overcoming so much adversity, that they had shown resilience and character and told them to be proud of their effort.

Though Bob Weiss prevailed in delivering for the Brave Dragons a winning season, his fish-out-of-water tale is more than merely an account of an underdog drama; it also serves as a revelatory exegesis on Chinese character and perspective, and how their attitudes are in many ways diametrically opposite to that of Western thinking. 

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Brave Dragons