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Cover image: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.
Salt Lake City’s Deseret News recently published a thoughtful, nicely written, but rather downbeat article about China’s most popular basketball player, Jimmer Fredette, the star who once stunned US crowds while playing for Brigham Young University. The article, “Lonely Master: From March Madness to Shanghai, the Unlikely Journey of Jimmer Fredette” by Jesse Hyde, March 12, 2018, has many positive things to say about Jimmer, but the general tone of the article is that Jimmer has missed out on his US dreams and thus had to settle for something terribly inferior by coming to the grim and gritty land of China. As a biased China fan and a big fan of Jimmer, I think there’s another perspective that ought to be considered.
Yes, the CBA (Chinese Basketball Association) is a far weaker competitive arena than the NBA, and yes, it is disappointing that his NBA career did not give him the opportunities and playing time he sought. But don’t shed too many tears for Jimmer: things might not be all that grim.
The negative picture painted of China is a bit disappointing. Foreigners first coming here can be overwhelmed and challenged by some of the differences, but to those who give it a chance, it is a beautiful, exciting place. It is also a land of opportunity where Jimmer is visible and influential to millions of people in ways that would not be possible in Europe or the US.
I have met Jimmer and chatted a few times but don’t know him well nor can I speak for him. But what he is doing here is remarkable and already has touched many people. His goodness, his honesty, his humility, and his high standards have also helped him touch people beyond what athletic skills alone could do. For someone who possibly might have a sense of a mission higher than temporal success alone, coming to China brings many opportunities to achieve greater good, while also benefiting from a shorter season and excellent pay. Seems like a win/win to me. His presence in China just might be part of something big, at least in the minds of some of his fans here.
One of those fans, a Communist Party official, requested a chance to meet Jimmer last year. I was honored to be part of the little gathering where introductions were made. Jimmer with his characteristic class and humility brought gifts for the Chinese men who had come — framed photos of him as keepsakes. I received a photo, too. They were thrilled. Before Jimmer showed up, one man in the small group, a business leader in charge of the large complex where we rent some beautiful space to hold LDS services, chattered excitedly about Jimmer and quoted statistics from Jimmer’s games when he was at BYU and in China. I loved his enthusiasm for Jimmer and the sport. The official (I think he was the source) had gifts also, a terrific album of Chinese postage stamps. It was a beautiful souvenir for each of the foreigners at this event, which I’m proudly holding in the photo below.
With typical Jimmer class, Jimmer noticed a couple of keenly interested staff members from the little cafe where we met and invited them to get their photos taken also. It was a big day for all of us.
At this point in reading the article, I wondered if the staff of the Deseret News have ever been in Salt Lake City during the winter months, when the winter inversion traps pollution in the Salt Lake Valley and leads to painfully high levels of particles, nitrogen oxide, and other pollutants? Of if they have ever been near operations of the massive copper mine that scars the Valley? Or drove through Utah County in the days when the Geneva Steel works were cranking out massive whiffs of chemicals into the air? Or if they have lived near a pulp and paper mill in the United States? Plenty of whiffs there (unlike the generally more advanced pulp mills in China and Japan that can be essentially free of odor).As for Salt Lake’s air quality challenges and the irony of the article’s incessant complaints about China, I think the Deseret News needs a reminder. Here’s one, a view from the LA Times, Feb. 2, 2017, on an article which discusses Utah’s “really bad smog problem”:
Other tantalizing reminders of how the outside world views Salt Lake and its grimy winter air include Popular Science‘s 2017 article, “Inside Salt Lake City’s Dreary, Dangerous Smog Dome“; the 2016 Fox13 report, “Inversion Conditions in Utah Worse than Ever; Area Hospitals See Spike in Patients” — complete with genuinely grim video of a frighteningly bad pollution; or an older “Salt Lake City Being Smothered by Smog” from CBS News (2013), which stated that at that time, Salt Lake was experiencing the worst air quality in the country. Also see Powder Magazine‘s “Smog Lake City: Salt Lake City Chokes on Its Own Smoggy Air,” which has a terrific photo illustrating the inversion layer phenomenon. (After looking at that and thinking about what I used to breathe there, I’m going to feel real sorry for any Chinese athletes from beautiful Shanghai who someday have to settle for a pro gig in Salt Lake City.)
Shanghai air can get smoggy and is typically worse than most places in the US (though also typically better than Beijing), but apart from an occasional painter using oil-based paint or a vehicle burning too much oil, as in almost any city, noticeable “whiffs of chemicals” are something I generally don’t experience here, unless those chemicals include the cinnamon aromas coming from Shanghai’s amazing Cinnaswirl bakery with world-class cinnamon rolls, or from the intoxicating smells of any of the hundreds of different cuisines available in Shanghai.
Those are whiffs you really can almost taste, and yes, chemicals are involved, but tasty natural ones. OK, we do have stinky tofu, which does have a noticeable smell from its own unusual natural chemistry — maybe that’s what the writer encountered here. But you can just take a few steps and be free of that. No need to taste. (But even that can be quite good, as I was surprised to learn.)
China has pollution, certainly. There are spots that are gritty or grimy, just as in America. But it’s also one of the most beautiful and exciting places to live, especially Shanghai. For me personally, my respiratory health during my nearly seven years in Shanghai has been much better than it was in the US, where I would often get bronchitis or other issues in winter. Life for me as a teenager in Salt Lake City was especially rough during winter due to respiratory problems. Here it’s been great and I’ve almost never had to miss work due to illness. One or two days for an injury, but my health has been terrific. Part of that is from the food, which is high in fresh produce and generally quite healthy.
Update, March 18, 2018: Today I spoke with the China President and co-founder of a major global company who currently lives in Shanghai. He has spent much more time with Jimmer than I have and has frequently had him in his home. He noted that the Deseret News article was rich in irony, given that Utah is often depicted as a second-rate location for professional athletes or other professionals. It’s viewed as a boring, backward place with bad weather, bad food, and a strange culture. Pity the pros who sign a contract to work there. Now here’s a Utah newspaper saying much the same about another athlete going to China.To illustrate this irony, see, for example, “Do We Have to Play There? The Top Five Places NBA Players Dread to Play” at Bleacher Report, where Utah was once rated in the top five worst places for NBA players, partly because of “the fact that there is little to do in Salt Lake, and the weather is terrible for most of the season.” Terrible weather? See the Dec. 2017 report from the Salt Lake Tribune, whose headline speaks of “The dirty, cough-inducing inversion fog hanging over the Wasatch Front.” Makes me relieved to be in Shanghai!
One of the saddest parts and most distressing of the Deseret News article was the image it created of poor Jimmer not being able to find good food in China. The unfortunate athlete has to just smile and ask the waitress for plain old rice because what’s on the menu is horrific: “cow’s brain” (which I don’t recall ever seeing on a menu in my six years of adventure here) or “live chicken head” (I have seen chicken served with the head, certainly an oddity for Americans, but the roasted or boiled chicken always seemed dead to me). When we discussed this report about Jimmer’s alleged diet of rice when eating out, the corporate leader I spoke with who knows Jimmer was rather surprised. He explained that Jimmer, more than anyone else he knows here, loves eating out at numerous different restaurants and trying different dishes. It appears that he’s an adventurous eater. Perhaps he’s been in a bad restaurant a time or two that only had strange stuff, but there’s no need to shed tears for Jimmer about living off of rice alone.Further, can you imagine a coach and fellow team members letting their star player just sit there and starve because there’s nothing to eat except cow’s brain? Any city with a basketball team will have pizza or whatever else your key player wants. Anyone who has spent more than a few days in China should know that once you learn a little about Chinese food, there are many great options and good food can be found even in remote small towns. There’s some kind of misunderstanding in the article’s coverage of Jimmer’s diet.
If you love good food, China offers an incredible diversity, even within the category of purely Chinese food, with fabulous delights from the distinct cuisines of Guanzhou (Cantonese), Shanghai, the Yangzhou/Jiangsu area, Shandong, Xi’An (such fabulous noodles!), Beijing, Xinjiang Province, Yunnan (a favorite of mine, somewhat similar to Thai), Hunan, Sichuan, Anhui, Tibet, Mongolia (for a real change of pace), and many more. No nation has better produce, better and more interesting fruit, or more delicious and diverse mushrooms (a favorite of mine). Seafood in America is boring and so often overcooked compared to even basic seafood here, which is almost always tender and tantalizing. Chinese food lacks the excess sugar often encountered in the US and for me has been remarkably healthy, as far as I can tell, and so delicious.There’s no reason for Jimmer to go hungry, and it seems that this is not a real problem. However, there is a need for a little card in Chinese that foreigners can carry to explain at restaurants what they can’t eat and what they like to eat, so that nobody needs to leave a restaurant having eaten only rice due to fear of unknown horror from a menu. That’s one of my resolutions in the near future, to create this kind of resource to help new arrivals in China learn to better cope with ordering Chinese food. Jimmer probably has no need of such a resource, but it might help some other lonely master.
Speaking of loneliness, the article makes much of the fact that Jimmer is living away from his family during the (short) basketball season here. Is this really unusual? NBA players get traded a lot, they are on the road a lot, and sometimes it just makes sense for the spouse and kids to settle in one location while day is away working. There’s a lot of loneliness during basketball season. For Jimmer, this was not a new issue after coming to China. As reported in a 2014 news story about Whitney Fredette:
The Fredettes chose not to live in New Orleans, where Jimmer currently plays for the Pelicans. Whitney said the couple moved around every six months or so between Jimmer’s stints with the Sacramento Kings and Chicago Bulls. They currently own a home in Colorado.
So Jimmer was based in New Orleans while Whitney was apparently in Colorado. Understandable. Being in China makes it harder to shuttle back and forth, but whether in the NBA or CBA, professional sports requires coping with bouts of loneliness. I’ll bet that NBA players stationed in cities away from their homes often are like Jimmer, not caring to decorate their temporary apartments with lots of personal effects. Is this really so surprising? If Jimmer’s NBA experienced had turned out better, would things be any different? Once children come and a family needs a stable home, loneliness during the season may be fairly common. Don’t blame China.
I’m disappointed with how much misunderstanding there is about China in the West. The “Lonely Master” article doesn’t help. Come give China a chance. It’s one of the nicest places in the world, in my opinion. And one of the safest and tastiest.
The NBA/CBA lifestyle can be challenging, but don’t blame China for that. Anyplace can seem grim when you are away from family, but with such a short playing season, we hope that Jimmer can continue to thrive here and increasingly experience the beauty and wonders of China.
As a reminder of the surprising beauty and sometimes even miraculous nature of life in Shanghai, here are images of one of Shanghai’s secrets: its impressive angels rising from the ground to watch over this city (more about the Shanghai angels and their story is on my Shake Well Blog at JeffLindsay.com). May Jimmer continue to be among them.