Former Los Angeles Clipper big man Keith Closs played for the Yunnan Bulls during the 2008/09 CBA season, averaging 16.9ppg (whilst shooting nearly 60% from the floor) and 11.9 rpg. He would also lead the league in blocks with 5.9 per game. Now living in California, he talked to Shark Fin Hoops about his season in south-west China and playing for what was at the time one of the worst teams in the country.
Andrew Crawford: How was the adjustment process dealing when moving to Yunnan?
Keith Closs: It wasn’t difficult for me at all; I just had to get out and practice, then get out on the court.
AC: What was it like living in Mengzhi itself?
KC: We had to go to the city center to find any entertainment but I was fortunate enough to meet a tour guide who would take me around town to show me the different sights, to the water parks, to a restaurant, which her family owned. It was great; the city was very beautiful.
AC: It sounds like you had a fairly straight-forward existence.
KC: A couple of my teammates spoke English, so they would translate things if I needed them to. I was surprised that a large portion of the population could speak English. Because of my height and because I was playing for the hometown, they were happy to come and talk to me.
AC: How were the fans at the home games?
KC: Very intense; they really love the sport of basketball there. Our home fans, they were great. The team wasn’t doing so good but the crowd always cheered us on; they wouldn’t boo us. They were very loyal to their home team.
AC: So you were popular with the fans?
KC: I was very popular, yes. I got gifts and invites to dinner all the time.
AC: How did you find the food?
KC: I only ate McDonald’s and KFC. I think the one time I went to dinner with the tour guide, I had Chinese food- it was pretty good.
AC: What surprised you about China?
KC: For me, it was the fact that they took great care of their artifacts and historical sites; the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, the Forbidden City. Everything that I saw as a kid in my school books- I couldn’t believe how well-preserved they were.
AC: You’d just wander around cities when you went on the road?
KC: Yeah, I never stayed in my hotel room. I’d just walk around the city and explore. I’m a pretty visual guy so I’d use landmarks to know where I was going so I never managed to get lost.
AC: Any cities you really liked?
KC: I loved Nanjing – it was beautiful. Suzhou was another favorite of mine, Guangzhou too.
AC: And a city you didn’t like?
KC: Urumqi [capital city of Xinjiang Province].
AC: The Yunnan team you were on was pretty bad [Yunnan would go 6-44 that year]. Was it tough knowing you had to go out every game and fill up the stat sheet if your team was going to win?
KC: That just comes with the territory; I understood that’s what was expected of the American players. For me, the most important thing was to try and keep my teammates involved and make them better. They respected me very much for that.
AC: Your teammate Gabe Muoneke got caught up in a fairly infamous incident involving himself, China’s national team captain Liu Wei and a group of his Shanghai Sharks teammates.
KC: They jumped Gabe while he was holding his child. I thought it was very immature, very unprofessional. When I found out what happened, I went looking for [Liu] but his teammates had told him I was coming. What Liu did, especially as Gabe was holding his child [at the time]; nobody is ever supposed to do that. Nobody should be caught in the middle of some crap like that.
AC: What was the difference between the NBA and China at the time?
KC: It was mainly the basketball IQ, basic things like rotations on defense. Lets say I help my teammate [by double teaming his man], someone’s supposed to come round and cover my back to prevent my man from scoring easily but they would rarely rotate over. I would have to explain it over and over again in practice in order for them to grasp the concept.
AC: That season had some ridiculous shooting stats; most of the top ten scorers in the league where going off for thirty-four, thirty-five points a game. How much of that was bad defense?
KC: All the scoring was put on the shoulders of the Americans so that’s what they went out and did; get as many points as possible.
AC: Were there any Chinese players that were tough to play against?
AC: So what was the hardest part of playing in China?
KC: The most difficult thing was playing against the officials. I remember in one game I was thrown out of bounds by another American, right in front of the officials and they just shrugged their shoulders. They wouldn’t call a foul. It was a blatant elbow to the throat and there was no whistle call. It [the refereeing] meant you had to make adjustments to how you play but once I did, it was alright.
AC: You’re on your sixth season in the Drew League; this year’s MVP Mike Efevberha had a strong season in China last year, do you guys talk about the CBA much?
KC: Oh yeah, we talk about playing in China all the time– I’m very proud of Mike and what he’s doing there. He’s worked hard, he’s always worked hard.
AC: What advice would you give to players going out to China?
KC: Be ready for the officiating because that was the worst part of my experience. They have to keep their cool when things go bad and keep their composure. Other than that, strive to perform to the best of your ability and stay out of trouble. The officiating really is the thing they have to worry about it – everything else is the same as home other than the predominant language is Mandarin rather than English.