In the midst of a busy season with play-off bound Guangsha, Eli Holman made time for Shark Fin Hoops to discuss the CBA on and off-the-court. In a wide ranging talk, the third-year import breaks down life in the Lions, Stephon Marbury and the everyday lifestyle of being a foreign player in China.
Andrew Crawford: By Chinese standards, Hangzhou is a pretty small city. As an overseas player, what is life like there compared to living in larger cities (Beijing, Shanghai) where there will be more foreigners and Western foods?
Eli Holman: Personally, I enjoy Hangzhou. I think it’s beautiful and everyone I have encountered is nice. Hangzhou has a lot of places that have western restaurants that makes it very easy to get a little feel of back home stateside; Slim’s Steakhouse, Hard Rock Cafe, and Outback, lots of other stuff. So its good.
AC: What does the team, which traditionally punches above its weight, mean to the city? As a returning player, how do the fans respond to you coming back to Guangsha?
EH: Being here, being part of Guangsha for three years now has been great. I get fan mail, gifts all throughout the year from the fans. I honestly think that Guangsha has some of the best fans in CBA; they love the team, which makes it easy for guys such as myself to want to play here and give them the best of me.
AC: Since you’ve arrived in the league, the amount of overall scoring has exploded and especially, foreign guards are posting huge numbers every night; why do you think that is?
EH: I couldn’t really pinpoint a specific answer to that, but there are some players that are more difficult to guard in this league. You know, it’s like when you play against Jordan, Lebron, or Kobe; you know their going to drop big numbers so it’s not a matter of stopping them, but a matter of trying to contain them.
AC: Obviously Courtney plays his part on defense, but it’s clear that foreign frontcourt players have very important roles on both sides of the court. Do you think it’s hard for newcomers to adjust to the CBA’s need for their foreign bigs to do so much on defense but also offense? Can you talk about those unique demands?
EH: So the way I see it, every team in the CBA relies strongly on their foreigners– even the teams with good Chinese players. Courtney came over here and it didn’t take him long to adjust to the CBA and now he’s a top five on both ends of the floor.
In terms of adjust, I personally always want to give my best effort on both ends of the court. There are a lot of quality bigs in this league but I feel like if I bring 100% effort every night on both ends of the court I’ll be just fine.
AC: How is working under Coach Li different from coaches you’ve had in America or elsewhere?
EH: Playing under him the last three years has been a good experience. He has a lot of knowledge, he knows how to win and he makes us part of the family. I’ve played for a couple of coaches in other countries and even back Stateside that come in with this mindset that a young player getting big money for the first time is just making sure his check gets here on time and then goes home. I am here to win and Coach Li knows that so I love playing for Coach Li.
AC: What Chinese players do you look out for as a tough match up?
EH: I respect all of them. They’re all tough match ups because each player brings something different to every game. I never underestimate an opponent and never will.
AC: Watching the current CBA, it seems that young local players are becoming specialists (rim protectors like Zhou Qi, 3 + D guys, etc) that help compliment the lead American scorer. Do you think this is a long term trend or the league reacting to the current crop of NBA guards entering the league?
EH: Honestly, I don’t think it has anything to do with NBA guards coming over to the CBA. I say that because I’ve watched guys on my team like Hu [Jingqui], number twenty-one. He’s improved by 50% or more from the first year I played with him in terms of rebounding, scoring, blocking shots, free throws, etc. Getting these young guys to be good or the best…its like a Chinese ritual, just as with foreigners when we train in the offseason. We simply train to get better and be the best, not because of the guy we may have to face months from now, but because we desire to be the “BEST”.
AC: Guangsha has a track record of bringing along quality Chinese guards at a time when there aren’t a lot of good young Chinese guards for the national team to choose from. What does Guangsha do that’s different from other CBA teams?
EH: The CBA is still a growing league with a lot of developing young Chinese players. Guangsha, you know, makes it a point to find players they can build with. Look at Beijing, they won three championships with the same team. Why? Because they found players they can build with and it worked in their favor. This is what Guangsha is doing and it’s working.
AC: Speaking to a lot of agents and former CBA players, Guangsha has a reputation for being honest and doing business the right way– are overseas players aware of this coming in and how big of a factor is this when settling on a team?
EH: I’ll say this, Guangsha has made me a part of their family and I pray it stays that way for a long time. They are honest and I respect them a lot for how they treat me and everyone else here. I know other CBA teams are very interested in me [as a future signing] but I don’t pay attention at all because my team is Guangsha and like you said, they do business the right way.
AC: You probably watched Stephon Marbury growing up and now you’ve played against him in the CBA. How much does he mean to Chinese basketball and what will be the effect once he retires in a few months?
EH: Stephon Marbury has played a HUGE role in his time in the CBA. I’ve been playing against him for three years and it has been truly an experience. He went out of his way to send his condolences when I lost my father to cancer [on Christmas Day, 2015], which took my level of respect for him even higher. The CBA will definitely miss him as a player but he’s also has won over the heart of China and that’s a legacy in itself. Hopefully he sticks around and shares his wisdom as a coach.
AC: At the risk of asking a loaded question– do you want to stay at Guangsha after this year? As one of the few impactful foreign guys who has played multiple seasons with one CBA team, you’re in a rare position. A Chinese columnist recently called for Shandong to retire Pooh Jeter’s number– is being one of the few foreigners with a retired number in China something you’ve thought about?
EH:. This is a great question. I want to finish my career in the CBA and my heart is with Guangsha. If fit was up to me, I would spend the rest of my career with this team with these same guys. I never thought about having my jersey retired with Guangsha, but I know that would be an honor. I still have a lot of work to do to even be considered for such an honor but I’m very blessed to have been with Guangsha for three years and pray for many more. I’m just excited to play with guys like Courtney and the Chinese players.
AC: What is the best thing about playing in China?
EH: The best thing about playing in China for me is being able to get up every morning and going to do what I love doing with the guys. Everyday is a new experience no matter how long I’ve been in the CBA and I love it because it’s with a staff and team that I love, respect, and would go to war for because I know the feeling is mutual. Knowing all of that, this is what makes it the best for me and what it’s all about.