The historic city of Wuchang, a blip in the middle of Henan Province, has a remarkable recent past for being a fairly boring place. Not only is it the birthplace of the Xinhui Revolution, the popular uprising that swept out China's 2,000 year long period of imperial rule, it was also the sight of one of Chinese basketball's most infamous moments. A massive brawl with a team from Brazil made global headlines and dropped a dollop of infamy on China's national team. But what actually happened in the fight beyond the obvious ruckus-related elements was not widely understood. Now, roughly four years after the fight, clearer heads can try to break down the who, what, and why of international basketball's biggest, weirdest brawl.
In May 2010, Bob Donewald, Jr. was appointed to coach the Chinese national team following a successful spell with the Shanghai Sharks. The American had taken the long road to reach this point, having started his coaching career in the British Basketball League (BBL). I know this, believe it or not, because I was a 13-year old spectator at one of the BBL Finals that Donewald's team reached in the late 1990s. At the time, I did not expect to find myself asking him questions at a press conference in China 13 years later. But whatever this makes me, it doubtless makes Donewald a true basketball lifer.
A great developer of talent, Donewald had something the Chinese basketball federation wanted from its team: intensity. Regardless of the result, it was felt within China that a Donewald side was going to battle for everything, and in his introductory press conference, the new coach literally said he wanted players who were willing to die for their country. Those expectations would be tested sooner rather than later.
Six months after the hire, China were preparing for the 2010 Asian Games, a multi-sport event similar to the Olympics. The Chinese national team were defending champions in men's basketball and, despite home court advantage, were expecting a serious challenge. To prepare for this, the Chinese basketball federation had scheduled a five-game scrimmage series against a team from Brazil. A roster of more than 20 players would be assessed during these games before a final squad would be decided upon.
Contrary to some reports, however, the team China faced was not actually the Brazilian national team itself. By 2010, China's Henan province had built up business ties with the Brazilian state of Santa Catarina and the latter had sent a team from one of its bigger cities, Club Joinville, to take part in the scrimmage series. By the fourth game of the series, tensions were already running high between the national team and the lower league Brazilian outfit. The previous three games had been controlled by the Chinese, but Donewald had expressed growing concern about the physicality and fouls that had been dished out by the Brazilian team in previous games. Whatever else anyone might have said about China's national team coach, he didn't lack for prescience.
Breaking Down the Tape
0-13: Right from the first couple of seconds, we can see the tensions ramping up quickly. The first sighting of Donewald is of him going bananas after one of his players, Zhang Qingpeng (no. 6, sitting on the ground) gets wiped out on an illegal screen. Despite the game being less than a minute old, Shilton, the Brazilian team's center, had decided that it would be a perfectly sensible time to elbow the considerably smaller Zhang into the next life.
Given that hard fouls are taken very seriously within Chinese basketball and this was the fourth game of non-stop shenanigans from the Brazilian side, the entire home team was furious. Adding to everyone's anger was that the referees on the floor missed the elbow from Shilton and instead somehow called a foul on Zhang. Here, quite reasonably, we see the first of the coach's f-bombs.
14-32: A furious Donewald goes up to the scorers table to confront someone who is probably a non-participating official; in Chinese basketball, it's not uncommon for a senior referee to oversee the handling of the game from the sidelines. The furniture gets a good whack and the on-court referees then try to step in and calm Donewald down. Good luck with that.
33-52: Donewald returns to the bench. Zhang Qingpeng, who had scored 22 points in the previous game against the Brazilians, is also helped to the sidelines where he eventually would be diagnosed with a concussion and taken to a hospital.
The refereeing crew fail to spot any foul and Donewald loses it again, dropping a sortie of auxiliary f-bombs and some other incendiary language. This gets him a second technical and an automatic ejection. The American though has no intention of walking away and instead stays to (rightly) berate the referees for their ineptitude. After belatedly realizing that they might have screwed up, the officials then decide to give the second Donewald technical to China's team manager, Zhang Xiong. This development is not well received, either. Remember, please, that not even a minute of basketball has elapsed at this point.
53-58: Although completely irreverent to the on-court situation, we get our first real sight of Donewald's unfailingly affable translator, Guo Weisheng, the tall man in the black glasses. Guo also performed the same role for the Shanghai Sharks, and as someone who covered the Sharks for two years as a beat reporter, this is the first time I have seen G-Money--yes, that is his actual English name--not wearing one of his impeccably tailored suits and generally looking like he'd just arrived from the club. For a while, the profile picture on G-Money's Weibo account (China's version of Facebook) was of himself on the beach wearing a tank top and flexing. This man should have a statue of himself built outside of every basketball arena in China.
59-1:09: The game restarts and in the ensuing Chinese possession, the Guangdong Tigers' Zhu Fangyu tries to collect an offensive rebound when a Brazilian player, Paulinho, appears to do something malicious off the ball to a Chinese player. After countless incidents in the previous few days, Zhu, a senior member of the national team, snaps and knocks Paulinho to the ground. There's some pushing and shoving. So far, though, this interaction is relatively non-violent.
1:10-1:15: Okay, scratch that. Here comes the violence: forward Ding Jinghui (no. 4) is pushed in the melee and reacts instinctively as both benches start to clear. Showing remarkable pace for an aging big man, Wang Zhizhi (no. 14), China's first NBA player and a beloved athlete in the country, is one of the first players on the scene.
Given that he is over seven-feet tall and an actual officer in the People's Liberation Army, Wang is probably not a man to trifle with. But Wang himself realizes that at 33 and with a history of injuries, he has no business swimming in a sea of haymakers and instead watches the younger players go to work. It's also important to stress that no mention of Zhizhi can pass without mentioning this incredible photo from his time with the Miami Heat.
1:16-1:19: The reinforcements arrive. Fans of Cal Bears basketball might recognize their former 7'3" center Zhang Zhaoxu steaming right into the middle of the melee and clearly demonstrating that if you're going to learn anything at Berkeley, it's how to get busy during a 40-man free-for-all. Zhang, though, immediately gets force-fed a right hook of terrifying proportions by one of the Brazilian players and understandably is out for the count.
1:20-1:22: Also appearing on the scene is Su Wei, a 7'1" center who is both Zhu's Guangdong teammate and a known enforcer within Chinese basketball. Despite the odds being against him, Su immediately shoves several Brazilians through an advertisement board and begins to swing haymakers wildly.
1-23-1:33: Emerging from the scrum, Zhu unloads several punches on a Brazilian big man and then a Muay Thai-style knee to the head for good measure. For reasons that have never been explained, a Chinese bench player then decides that if the South American giant can't be felled by punches, flicking him with a towel will surely get the job done.
1:34-1:38: Eventually, the Brazilian coaches establish control over their players and lead them off the court. At this point, there is an exchange of insults between the Brazilians and the Chinese, including what local media later described as "provocative expressions and gestures." Ding Jinghui is decidedly unimpressed and comes charging back in for round two, followed quickly by the entire Chinese team.
1:39-1:50: We now enter the bar fight phase of the proceedings as a Brazilian player is knocked to the ground. China's 6'8" point guard Sun Yue (no. 9), who lit up garbage time along with Adam Morrison and DJ Mbenga as part of the Lakers championship team in 2009 (serious, just look at that roster), leads five Chinese players in kicking the unfortunate Brazilian.
1:51-2:10: The chaos spreads back down to the south of the court where the original skirmish with Zhu and Paulinho happened. With most of the action taking place out of the frame, its difficult to see who does what, but by now, almost everybody from both teams are back out on the court.
2:11-2:18: The local police, after seemingly having spent most of the last couple of minutes checking their phones, suddenly realize that there are dozens of gigantic people trying to beat each other into oblivion right over there. The fight is broken up and the two teams are sent to their dressing rooms.
The Brazilian team gets off the court, finally, but not before a couple of them give a gloriously defiant 'U mad, bro?' thumbs up to a TV camera as they leave. Joinville does not return from their dressing room, and the game as a contest is cancelled with only a minute played.
It is announced over the P.A. system that the Chinese team will play a practice game between themselves to fill the time. After the game, Donewald comes out and insists that his players had a right to defend themselves.
The last of the five games is automatically cancelled as the Chinese Basketball Federation goes into full damage control mode. Presumably looking to get out in front of the inevitable FIBA sanctions, it is announced that Donewald and several players will be summoned for an urgent meeting in Beijing. China's governing body also publishes a letter, written in English, that is sent to the Brazilian team apologizing for the conduct of the host players. It is quickly noted that the Chinese Federation incorrectly refers to their own national team coach as "Robert Downey Jr."
Because of the sudden nature of the series' cancellation, both teams are forced to reschedule their flights. Despite trying to put each other in the morgue; everyone, Brazilian and Chinese like, will now have to travel from Wuchang airport to Beijing on the same plane in order to catch various connecting flights home. Along with local journalists waiting for both teams in Beijing, the deputy commissioner of the Chinese Federation, Li Jinsheng is there to personally present flowers to the Brazilian coaches as a way of further apology.
The Chinese roster themselves appear less contrite and at least two players walk through the airport wearing t-shirts reading 'Haters Welcome.' Zhang Qingpeng, the player whose injury sparked the entire situation, is pictured in a neck brace and reportedly has no memory of the injury he sustained, or anything else that occurred in the two hours that followed. It later emerges that Su Wei also required medical attention, in this case for having hit a Brazilian player so hard he broke his arm, and will miss part of the forthcoming Chinese Basketball Association season.
Given the scale of the melee, it also seems almost certain that China's national team will face some kind of punishment on the eve of the Asian Games. But to add to the intrigue, there is speculation that the former head of FIBA himself, 'Carl' Ching Men-Ky, will intervene on behalf of China to try and mediate the situation. A complicated and shadowy figure within world basketball, the Hong Kong national had previously been denied entry to Australia for the 2000 Olympics due to his suspected links to organized crime.
In time, FIBA issues a stern rebuke to the Chinese team that added punishments to those imposed by the Chinese Federation. Almost everyone, including the referees, gets some kind of fine or suspension, but in the long-term, none of the Chinese team appeared to suffer.
As recently as last month, Zhu Fangyu extended his record for the most career points in the CBA to over 10,000. Zhang Zhaoxu, having left Cal for the Yao Ming owned Shanghai Sharks in 2009, is now one of the best-paid players in the league. Bob Donewald, who brought Zhang to Shanghai, is currently coaching for the Memphis Grizzlies' D-League team, the Iowa Energy.
However, in keeping with the narrative of China's basketball team giving approximately zero fucks, the final word should go to Su Wei, the man who decided to fight five Brazilian players at one time. Two years after the on-court melee, Su would gain further infamy in China. He did so by repeatedly calling Stephon Marbury a "bitch" (in English) during a nationally televised CBA Finals game.