On his first morning in China, former NBA point guard Stephon Marbury went to the lobby of his hotel to attend what his translator had described as a "banquet" thrown by the management of the Shanxi Brave Dragons, who'd brought in the player for a second consecutive season in the hopes of shedding their reputation as one of the worst outfits in China's not very distinguished league. Enticing Marbury, the biggest celebrity ever to play in the Chinese Basketball Association, should have been cause for jubilation. Yet it was hard to detect much joy at the "banquet," which was taking place in a room the size of a parking space off the hotel's dining hall. The guest list consisted of two grimly perspiring middle-rung executives and a translator. No food was served, just tea.
One got the sense that the finer points of graceful living didn't count much in the Brave Dragons' hometown of Taiyuan, an industrial city variously described in the online travel literature as "gritty," "smoggy," and "a fucking shithole." Outside, in the late autumn chill, the coal plants were going full tilt. Even with the windows closed, the air smelled like an emergency and had a salty chemical flavor you could taste with your eyes.