Double dribble

Updated: 2012-03-23 11:08

(China Daily)

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Overcoming different attitudes, language and culture is far from a slam dunk

Double dribble
Head coach Brian Goorjian gives instructions to the Dongguan Leopards in a game against the Shanxi Brave Dragons in the CBA league. [Provided to China Daily]

Coaching basketball is hard enough, but try moving from the US and plying your trade in China to see just how tough it can be. Foreign coaches are up against a language barrier, a new culture, different rules and norms, players who are, at times, suspicious of the newcomer and poorly trained, and quick-tempered management. It's a high mountain to climb.

"I'm telling people, 'I've got a head full of grey hair', " says Jim Cleamons, head coach of the Zhejiang Lions in the Chinese Basketball Association.

The CBA season began in November with Cleamons and three other US coaches in place: Brian Goorjian at the Dongguan Leopards, the Xinjiang Flying Tigers' Bob Donewald and Dan Panaggio of the Shanghai Sharks.

Double dribble
Jim Cleamons is head coach of the Zhejiang Lions. [Provided to China Daily]

All but Donewald remain, but considering the challenges they faced, one out of four is pretty good.

Can we talk?


China Daily asked two foreign CBA coaches for tips they'd pass on if any of their colleagues tried to make the transition to working in China.


• Be tough. "If you don't have thick skin and your ownership doesn't have thick skin, it's gonna be a short marriage, and that's just the truth. So do your homework as a future coach and make sure once again you understand what you're getting into."

• Don't complain. "We are the captains of the ship. A lot of times that ship is going down before we even set foot aboard, and you can't cry wolf: That's unprofessional. So you take your lumps and you move on."

• Be flexible. "It's not the RX factor, where one prescription is good for everybody. Every team doesn't have to do the same thing. Lord knows that doesn't work."

• Have patient partners. "It's going to take some time to build and mold and find the recipe for what works, and (the) ownership has to be willing to be patient. That's what any coach would like to hear: 'I'm going to be patient with you, we're going to grow as a group and a family, and we're going to have some ups and downs.'"


• Be true to yourself. "That's really hard to do, and I still think you need to do that. Stay with your convictions, and don't think you have to change just because it's China."

• Don't think you know it all. "Your way is not the highway."

• Don't be arrogant. "Don't think you know it all. Be open."

The first problem new coaches face is the most obvious: the language. Most of the players speak Chinese. Most foreign coaches don't. Enter a third party, and a whole new challenge. A knowledgeable, conscientious interpreter is as crucial as he is hard to find.

With two years at the team's helm, and three in total with the organization, 58-year-old Goorjian is the dean of CBA coaches from the US. He says his team's interpreter is so good, he considers him not just a colleague, but a friend.

Even so, Goorjian finds one of his key strengths as a coach - an intuitive ability to connect with players on a personal level - rendered useless.

"I'll say 'Hey, let's me and you go have a cup of coffee,' and then I go sit down and I find out that he's got a problem at home with his wife, or he's been thrown out of the house, or the kid's upset," Goorjian says. "You find something out like that. Or 'Hey coach, you've been in me too much, I'm losing my confidence' - that kind of conversation. That person wouldn't say it to me if there was another person involved and I wouldn't ask those questions."


On the court, the language barrier can eat at a coach's ability to convey the nuance and emotion of his message, and that's assuming the correct message is even being sent.

"If I want to say (to the interpreter) that you need to tell this kid he needs to get back on defense, and it's three times in a row - and then the guy turns around and says it in a polite (manner). Or maybe he turns around and says 'This guy doesn't know what he's talking about," Goorjian says.

"When I talk to the other Western coaches, they'll say (the same thing). Based on the kid's reaction, I don't know if (the interpreter) is saying what I said."

Cleamons, whose former jobs include time as an assistant at the Los Angeles Lakers under Phil Jackson and head coach of the Dallas Mavericks, worked with an interpreter while conducting coaching clinics in Japan some years ago, and says he learned a few tricks. He aims for a specific rhythm and cadence in his speech that he hopes is universally understood, and tailors his instruction to be less technical and more broad.

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