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Held up in customs

10/14/2014
"Here in China," Griner says, "you just have to forget everything you know, or think you know, and be willing to accept a new set of rules." Sim Chi Yin/VII for ESPN

THE NUMBER OF moving obstacles at a busy intersection in China can feel paralyzing for a pedestrian. None of the cars, mopeds or bikes appears to be following the traffic laws, which makes stepping off the curb a game of chance, like real-life Frogger.

And Brittney Griner is about to step off the curb.

"I've been hit once," she says, seemingly unfazed at a busy corner in Zhejiang. "A moped ran into me from behind, but it wasn't going that fast. It was my fault. I was trying to avoid traffic."

Wait ... what? Trying to avoid traffic is bad? "Totally wrong here," Griner says. "You can't stop walking. If you're in motion, they'll flow around you. It's when you stop, when you freeze, that it becomes dangerous."

The 6'8" Griner begins walking across the intersection and doesn't break stride. Mopeds deftly angle around her, while cars speed up to flash by before she enters their lane. The whole scene looks practiced, predetermined, an elaborate dance. She's on her way to meet her skills coach, Dean Demopoulos, for a morning workout inside the Zhejiang Golden Bulls' arena. It's early January, and the facility will be like most basketball arenas in China -- uncomfortably chilly and filled with cigarette smoke.

These are minor irritations compared with everything else Griner has faced since landing here on Nov. 4. Within a week of her arrival, almost half of her teammates went on strike for two weeks, protesting their harsh treatment by first-year head coach Li Xin. Soon enough, after a few subpar performances, Griner found herself in Li's cross hairs. "Any loss is always about what I did wrong," Griner says. "I could score 100 points, but if we lost the game, it's, 'Well, you should have scored 200.'"

China is a lucrative market for WNBA stars, but the culture clash -- and expectations -- can make the transition difficult for a young player trying to improve her game. Griner, 23, has embraced her surroundings as best she can, trying to strike a balance between comfort and immersion. She stays up late, connecting with family and friends who are starting their day back in Houston. She also learns some Chinese from her teammates, hanging out with them in their hotel because, unlike Griner, they are forbidden to leave the premises without permission.

Every morning, Griner takes the elevator down to the hotel lobby, pushes through the revolving doors and then jaywalks across the street to Subway for a chicken teriyaki sub -- exactly what she would order at home in the U.S. Food in hand, she heads to the arena, where she works on her own game and then later dutifully executes Li's commands during practice, even if Griner and Demopoulos have a dozen ideas of how she could be used more effectively. "Here in China," Griner says, "you just have to forget everything you know, or think you know, and be willing to accept a new set of rules."

GRINER SPENT MUCH of the past year adjusting to life as a professional. She left for China a few weeks after her rookie season with the Phoenix Mercury. Since last spring, she has gone from living in an off-campus house in Waco, Texas, to an apartment in Phoenix, to a top-floor suite at the Zhejiang International Hotel in Hangzhou province. She also feuded with her former college coach, Baylor's Kim Mulkey, made headlines for publicly coming out as gay1, strode to the stage as the No. 1 pick in the 2013 WNBA draft, then battled nagging injuries. Griner signed with the Golden Bulls because they offered money that few teams could match: approximately $600,000 for a four-month season. But the quality of play in China is worse than in Europe. So too is the isolation.

The Women's Chinese Basketball Association (WCBA) launched in 2002, and its 12 teams operate in tandem with the country's wildly popular men's league (CBA) in much the same way that the WNBA and NBA are aligned. The WCBA and CBA share a governing body, with several cities supporting a team in each league. Two years ago, former Connecticut star Maya Moore became the first transcendent American player to join the WCBA, and she proved to be the perfect ambassador, bringing dynamic Western-style moves along with her trademark humility. Moore averaged 38.7 points per game during the 2012-13 season, and the Shanxi Flame won the league title. This season, the WCBA featured some of the best players in the world, including Moore, Griner, Sylvia Fowles and Nnemkadi Ogwumike from the U.S., along with Liz Cambage and Lauren Jackson of Australia.

Before Moore blew open the door to the Chinese market, the top-paying countries were Russia and Turkey. But star players in Europe are surrounded by capable talent, as those leagues allow multiple foreigners on a roster. In China, each team can have only one non-Asian player. During some games, Griner grabs rebounds over women who don't reach her shoulders. She occasionally looks like a summer counselor playing with the campers.

This talent gap is why she hired Demopoulos. If the competition couldn't make her better, she needed a coach who could. The 60-year-old Demopoulos is a basketball junkie, a longtime assistant at the college and NBA levels. As he walks toward the baggage claim at Hangzhou International Airport after a midseason loss, Demopoulos complains about the concept of "making the extra pass," which he believes is an example of what's wrong with the game these days. Sure, he loves the play itself -- the last rotation of the ball, finding the open player at the end of the shot clock -- but the word "extra" bugs him. "What's so extra about it?" Animated now, Demopoulos lets his carry-on bag drop off his shoulder, then bends his knees and whips an imaginary pass to the corner shooter. Like every other assistant coach, he is able to turn any location into a half-court set. "Why are we telling players they've done something extra or special?" he says. "It's not an extra pass; it's the right pass."

The imaginary court vanishes. Demopoulos smiles. "Phew, thanks," he says. "I got my fix. I feel better now."

When Demopoulos interviewed for this gig2, he was unemployed for the first time in his career, having been fired by the Clippers in 2012. A few months in China seemed, if not quite the ideal situation, at least not a terrible one. But once Griner and Demopoulos got to Zhejiang, their plans didn't play out as expected. The team's unpredictable practice schedule required them to adjust on the fly, going lighter on their individual sessions. Demopoulos also discovered that the coaching staff had no interest in his input. So he spends practices wandering around speaking in English as players and coaches just nod and wait for him to walk away. "That's one of the good things here," he says during an afternoon practice, clearly frustrated. "You can say what you want because they don't know what it means."

Freezing out Demopoulos is a curious move in a country obsessed with the NBA. But Li rules with harsh words and an iron fist. She grew up near the North Korea border and has a military background; she was also the first woman to coach a CBA men's team. She has a habit of calling practice on short notice, keeping her players on a tight leash. When the veterans went on strike, team owners stood behind Li, a former point guard who helped lead China to a silver medal at the Barcelona Olympics.

Li says she enjoys coaching because it makes her feel powerful. Even when she is all smiles for an American film crew, her compliments (via a translator) sound like propaganda. "BG is like a child," the coach says, meaning the well-behaved kind. "This is why I like America; the U.S. is a free country and people are very expressive, but they also follow rules."

Within a few practices, Demopoulos realized that Griner's coaches had no idea how to work an offense3 through a dominant center. Everything was focused on the wings. "I was angry when they questioned my ability," Griner says. "They told Dean, 'You need to work on her post moves.' If the losses were my fault, I would take that on. But these weren't my fault."

They're a classic odd couple, Griner and Demopoulos, the laid-back Texan and the straight shooter from Philadelphia. Griner tries her best to fit in, even when it's obvious to everyone else that Li's micromanaging is hampering the offense. Set a screen exactly at this spot, exactly at this angle, the coach will say, and Griner does it. But the other players wish she would assert herself more.4 "BG blends in with us really well," says forward Chen Xiaoli, speaking through a translator. "But I hope she can be more expressive on the court and really own the game."

During one January practice, the team runs successive offensive sets without filling the corner. After the third possession, Demopoulos points dramatically at the empty space, then walks onto the court and stands in the corner, putting both hands on his head as if pulling out his hair. It's a universal gesture, but no one is paying attention. "I've never been so frustrated in my life," he says later. "Li will call the team into the huddle and hold out her whistle, letting it dangle, as if to say, 'See, I'm the coach.' She pushes your spirit. And that's challenging for Britt."

The Golden Bulls practice twice a day, for several hours at a time, often past the point when anything useful might be achieved. But Griner, like Moore and most foreign stars, has a clause in her contract requiring her to practice only once a day. (She also flies first class, a nice upgrade from coach in the WNBA.) Quality over quantity can be an alien concept for Chinese coaches, and WNBA players must guard against burnout. "Foreigners get different treatment, but it's still hard," Moore says. "You get close to your teammates and want what's best for them."

Griner loves her teammates, and they love her. Basketball is their only common language, but Griner shines at nonverbal communication, often putting an arm around another player's shoulder or talking with her hands. Sometimes during practice, when Li is in the middle of a rant directed elsewhere, Griner makes goofy faces at her teammates as they struggle to look serious. When gestures aren't enough, she calls on her translator, Shirley Huang, who follows Griner around the court, quickly relaying everything Li tells the players.

Such intense dependency is difficult for a player who spent much of her final year in college yearning for more freedom. "She has to f -- ing order my food for me," says Griner, who limits herself to a rotation of American fast-food joints. "She stands on the court with me. And if I get yelled at, she has to translate it for me. It makes me nervous, at the end of a game, when Shirley is trying to get me info quickly. What if I don't understand it all? That's my worst fear, that I'll mess up and cost us the game. Sometimes I'll point at the board -- Show me -- because I can understand that."

Griner doesn't always follow the rules. Li has a no-candy policy, but Griner has persuaded Huang to carry a pack of Mentos at all times. When Li brings the team together at center court during practice, Griner and Huang stand shoulder to shoulder, arms crossed behind their backs, as Huang deftly passes the candy to Griner, like prisoners exchanging contraband at roll call. Once the coach looks away, Griner pops the candy into her mouth and discreetly chews -- an act of disobedience that seems less about the Mentos and more about keeping a piece of her identity.

AS THE GOLDEN BULLS wait to board a flight, Griner slumps in her seat. She has been in China for two months, and the pressure is getting to her. She wants to go home. "I have to bring it every day, every game," she says. "If I don't, they'll replace me with another American." After a few minutes, Griner stands and disappears into a shop, returning with a pint of vanilla Häagen-Dazs. It's 10 a.m. "Breakfast of champions," Demopoulos says, shaking his head.

Griner rolls her eyes at him, then tries digging the tiny plastic spoon into the ice cream, which is as hard as cement. She taps the spoon against it a few times, then sighs and slouches farther into her seat. She knows she needs to eat better, but her habits are hard to break in China, for reasons Moore knows all too well. "My first year here, I would get french fries and fried chicken because it was like a little taste of home," Moore says. "You're tired, you're lonely, you want to see your friends and family. Eating for comfort -- I think we've all done that."

A few times a week, Griner hops a taxi to Angelo's, an American-style restaurant in trendy West Lake, about 45 minutes from the team hotel. She orders the same thing every visit: steak and fries. During her first couple of months in China, she was rarely alone. She flew over with two of her best friends from Baylor. And in early January, she was joined by her girlfriend, Cherelle Watson, a prelaw student at Baylor, who stayed for two weeks.

Watson sat in the stands during practices, a coat draped over her lap because the arena temperature is about 50 degrees. Griner's teammates would nod hello, but only later, back at the hotel, did they acknowledge Watson as more than just a friend. Sometimes Griner hosts a few of them inside her suite. They play video games and talk, with Huang translating. The players ask Griner what it's like being gay in America. Mostly they are curious about life in the WNBA. "Our life is quite boring," Chen says. "We are ordered to spend our time at the arena and hotel."

Griner feels their confinement as her own. "BG hasn't experienced any of this before," Chen says. "We see how hard she is trying, even if she's not perfect. She is adapting, but she is not losing herself."

When teammates talk about Griner, they smile often, quickly bringing a hand to cover their mouths, because in China it is poor etiquette for women to show their teeth. "She never eats vegetables," Chen says, almost giggling. "She plays video games like she is a kid."

"She is always happy," adds Shen Binbin, a starting guard. "I never see her get angry. When the season is over, I'd like to go back to America with her."

"Me too," Chen says.

They both smile, keeping their heads down.

THE GOLDEN BULLS finish the regular season 15-7 and advance to the semifinals of the WCBA playoffs before losing to Moore's Shanxi Flame. Griner steadily improves as the season progresses, and her teammates get better at feeding the post. She averages 24.1 points, 10.3 rebounds and 3.7 blocks per game in her first winter overseas and is named MVP of the league's All-Star Game.

When she left for China, Griner was focused on specific improvement: strengthening her core muscles, fine-tuning her court skills, eating healthier -- enhancements that would be evidence of personal growth in the eyes of her Mercury bosses and teammates. But some things can't be measured so easily, as Demopoulos notes one afternoon while walking back to the hotel after practice. He came to China intent on training a young basketball player, never imagining that the challenge would morph into something bigger for both of them: finding a way to thrive, or at least survive, in a place where so much of what they knew beforehand meant so little once they arrived.

"Oh, BG is learning and growing," Demopoulos says. "Maybe just not in the ways we initially anticipated."

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