“The greatest game of basketball ever played”. At least that’s what Henry let slip at The Godfather premiere. It’s taken me more than 40 years to piece it all together. At first I dismissed it as an impossibility. I mean really, a Top-Secret, USA v China basketball game in front of Nixon and Mao, in Beijing, during the historic visit in ‘72. When I pressed Henry on it he went all national security on me. But there was a glint in his eye. I’m a sports writer and basketball nut, so the tantalising possibility of such a game has kept me intrigued for four decades. And when I thought about it, Henry certainly had the connections to pull it off. I’m not just talking about the trips to China, significant though they were. There was no doubt Henry was a world-class diplomat, but he was also a first-class schmoozer with impeccable showbiz connections. If anyone could arrange the Harlem Globetrotters, it was he. Henry’s second slip came in 1985 when he conceded Ron might have some Super 8 footage. I tried for years to get in to see the former Press Secretary, but with Watergate and all, Ron wasn’t returning calls.
The third breakthrough came in 2003 after Ron died and I received a call from his wife Nancy (what are the odds, another Ron and Nancy from the White House?). Anyway, she said she had a small parcel marked to my attention. I could hardly contain myself and drove over to San Diego in a 13-hour cannonball. I opened the manila routing envelope and there they were: four reels of Super 8 marked simply ‘Capital Gymnasium, Peking ‘72’. Of course the film stock is only 8mm wide and there was no chance of telling what was on the reels without a projector. Who has a Super 8 projector these days, I ask? So I waited anxiously outside a shop on Camino del Rio while they were converted to DVD. I sat in my car and loaded the DVD into my laptop with a shaking hand. Boom! Glorious Kodachrome! The colour hit me like chemically-induced nostalgia. For those born post-Kodak, try the ‘Toaster’ filter next time you’re on Instagram (I’m no longer on it by the way, I mean how many cupcakes can a man look at?).
The movie begins with: shots of the crowd, mostly People’s Liberation Army senior officers; Dick and Pat and Henry; the presidential entourage; Chairman Mao standing up announcing something; and then his young female interpreter getting a laugh with the translation. Then two basketball teams take the court; a blue team and a red team. The blue team sure look like the Harlem Globetrotters but it’s impossible to tell from the grainy film and they are without their distinctive uniforms. The Chinese team were mostly very tall men with crew cuts, but there were two bald players of average height who were simply supreme acrobats. There’s a moment early in the first quarter when the Americans realise the Chinese aren’t the usual team of stooges. It was like duelling banjos on the basketball court: punch and counterpunch; ally-oop and, well, counter-oop. Two trick teams trying to play a straight game of basketball and then reverting to their natural style. The two bald Chinese players were dropping 3-pointers by hitting the ball with their palm, kung-fu style. One would set the ball like volleyball forward and the other would punch it into the hoop with nothing but net. Both teams left the back court largely undefended as they tried to out-do each other in getting the ball into the hoop in the most inventive manner. I’ve truly never seen anything like it. At this point I need to tell you I covered the Pistons v Nuggets game in 1983, but here I was looking at 20 minutes of highlights from easily the greatest game of basketball ever played. Perhaps even the greatest game of any sport. I rang Henry and told him I had the film. He said I’d better come over.
“What was the final score?” I asked him urgently, “it must have been a 300 point game?” He gave a short laugh, “yes it was. But the final score wasn’t the most interesting thing about that game.”
Henry gave me nothing on the record; after all he’s a pro. But he suggested some leads. I tracked down Mao’s former translator Mrs Ji, on Hainan Island. With her smokers’ husky voice she spoke impeccable English, offset by some decidedly peccable idioms.
“When your Secretary of State secretly visited the Chairman in July of 1971 he was surprised to find Mao read Life magazine. Of course the Chairman couldn’t read a stick of English so he just looked at the photographs. You know the opposite of Playboy! I remember they discussed an article about the so called ‘unbeatable’ (she did air-quotes) Harlem Globetrotters. Mao asked if it might be possible for a game against a Chinese team when the President visited in February of 1972. I think the Secretary saw an opportunity to hump the Chairman’s leg in the right way.”
I asked Mrs Ji if Mao understood the Harlem Globetrotters weren’t a real basketball team.
“It’s impossible to say. The Chairman’s accent was as thick as a brick and I often struggled to understand him.” Then she added, “it’s also impossible to say whether it came as a surprise to the Chairman that China hadn’t had a national basketball team since the 1948 Olympics! The shit really hit the blanket on that one.”
She doubled over with laughter and coughed like she was kick-starting a motorcycle.
“I’m so sorry,” she said eventually. “I took up smoking after I stopped working for the Chairman. He was a chain-smoker and it wasn’t until he died that I realised I had a 20-a-day habit. As I was saying it was a miracle we were able to get any basketball team on the court in such a short time, let alone a team that did so well. By the way, do you know whatever happened to the coach?”
I was dumbfounded. I’d watched the 20 minutes of Super 8 footage maybe a dozen times and failed to notice the Chinese team coach was European. He is a tall, athletic figure with blonde hair, late 20’s or early 30’s. In the final frames, the players on both sides respond to the final buzzer and collapse to the court in exhaustion, the coach briefly drops his head and allows himself to be escorted from the gymnasium by two PLA soldiers.
As you know, I don’t have a Super 8 projector, but I do have a fax machine. Call me sentimental. Just when I was sure the trail had gone cold again, one afternoon earlier this year two grainy pages curled out of my old Ricoh. They were heavily redacted passenger manifests for Air Force One, sent from the kind of fax machine that doesn’t display its number. The first dated February 21, 1972 and the second February 28 – the dates of Nixon’s trip to China. Both flights list 6 ‘Cultural Advisers’ (names redacted) who I assume are the American basketball players, but the return flight lists ‘Capt. M. McCowper, Chaplain’. I searched the US Air Force archives to no avail. I eventually found him in a Presbyterian retirement village in Coco Beach. He was sprightly and alert, up to date with current affairs and delighted to watch the DVD of the game.
“Thank you,” he said at the end, “I never knew there was any record of that amazing game. Twelve fine exponents of the basketball arts wouldn’t you say? And to think, 6 months before my players had never even seen a basketball!”
I asked him how he came to coach the Chinese team.
“One day in August ’71 some senior Party officials came to visit me in Qincheng Prison. It’s a couple of hours north of Peking. That’s where they sent most of us westerners who inevitably fell afoul of Mao. I think they’re going to send Bo Xilai there shortly. There was a surprising number of Americans living in Peking during the Cultural Revolution you know?”
I asked Fr McCowper what he was doing in China to begin with.
“I was born there. My folks were missionaries. I was in the family business, if you like. In fact I was born in a prison, the Wei Hsien Internment Camp in 1943. Anyway, these Party apparatchiks had a problem. They said the Chairman needed a basketball team for an important demonstration game. They glossed over the fact that sometime during the Cultural Revolution somebody in the Party had declared it a running dog sport or some such and nobody had played it competitively for nearly a decade. You know China actually had some reasonable basketball pedigree. YMCA missionaries introduced the game to China not long after it was invented in 1891. The Red Army even took it on as an official sport. My dad taught me to play. I’d even been in a Chinese newsreel once coaching some boys from our mission. I spoke Putonghua. They figured I was the guy to help them win one for the Gipper. So they made me an offer: coach a team, win whatever game they had in mind and they’d let me out of jail. I turned them down flat.”
I couldn’t believe it. Why didn’t he jump at the chance to play in front of Nixon? Play against the Americans? Get out of prison? His answer was simple.
“At that point I had no idea the game was for Nixon’s visit. Nobody in the world suspected something like Nixon’s visit was even possible. And the other thing, I was being asked to make the guy who’d sent me to prison look good. I know everyone is all warm and fuzzy about Mao these days. But let’s not forget that bastard and the nuts that followed him killed 30 million of their own people. Thirty million.”
But he did end up agreeing to coach the Chinese team. I asked him what changed his mind.
“A day later I was dragged from my cell before dawn and driven south for a couple of hours. This is it, I thought, I’m going to be a martyr. There’s nothing like an impending execution to make you re-think your stubbornness. Maybe I was being too self-righteous? Maybe the chance to coach the team was a sign from God? After all I couldn’t continue His work if I was dead. You don’t want to be like the good Christian who died in the flood waiting for God to save him.”
I asked him what he meant.
“It’s an old joke. There’s a good Christian whose house is getting flooded. On the first day his neighbour offers him a ride out in his SUV. No thanks he says, God will save me. The second day the water is up to his veranda and he turns down a rescue by the Coast Guard. No thanks, God will save me. On the third day he’s sitting on his roof and turns a rescue helicopter away. No thanks, he shouts, God will save me. He drowns of course and when he meets God in heaven he’s indignant. I thought you would save me, he says to God. God replies, well I sent you an SUV, a boat and a helicopter.”
When the truck arrived in Beijing there was a surprise awaiting Fr McCowper.
“They took me from the truck into a small room with a PLA soldier standing guard. Next thing Premier Zhou En Lai walks in and we are served tea. Zhou was a very different creature to Mao. Mao was a philosophical bully. Zhou was a pragmatist, a hard-headed intellectual. He was also a negotiator. As Kissinger said, ‘Mao was eager to accelerate history; Zhou was content to exploit its currents.’ Sipping his tea, Zhou said he needed a result. And he was prepared to sweeten the deal. He asked me what I wanted. I couldn’t believe my luck, but I didn’t want to push it! I said I wanted a full pardon from the Chairman. And a razor. I hadn’t shaved for two years! A week later I was billeted in a PLA gymnasium in Harbin with a coaching staff and fifty, 7-foot PLA soldiers to make up my team. It was classic Chinese overkill. These soldiers were tall enough for sure, they were great at following orders, learnt the rules by rote, but lacked any creativity. It’s the Confucian education mentality that is still China’s major limitation today. We trained for 3 months in Harbin and we weren’t making progress. I needed players who could think on their feet. One of the coaching staff knew of some monks at Shaolin that were famous for their use of a basketball-sized martial arts weapon, called the dà shítou. We sent him over and he came back with two monks. They were the key; disciplined, fit, lightening reflexes, and able to deploy their skills in a dynamic environment.”
One thing was bugging me. Why Harbin? It’s a frozen industrial city in the north east. Surely Beijing had suitable facilities? Fr McCowper said it troubled him initially, and he suspected there were a number of teams practicing across China. Perhaps the best team would get the chance to play for Mao.
“When the team uniforms arrived it became clear. It was a red uniform with ‘Harbin Globetrotters’ across the front. Apparently it was Mao’s idea of a pun. He was famous for his elegant handwriting, but less so for his puns. It got me thinking, could it be a game against an American team? Could it be the Harlem Globetrotters? Nobody has ever confirmed it, but I’m pretty sure it was them.”
Why was the game a secret? Fr McCowper had a theory.
“I suspect the whole thing was a serendipitous misunderstanding. After agreeing to the game, both sides then panicked about losing it. So they agreed to keep the game, and the result a secret. As if it was a treaty negotiation or something. Notice there was only official delegates in the crowd; there were no US reporters, nobody who couldn’t be had by the Internal Security Act.”
I asked him what happened after the game when he was taken away by the soldiers.
“Well the deal with Zhou was for a win. I couldn’t believe my misfortune. For three days I was back in Qincheng Prison, and back to the old routine. Get up in the morning and bathe myself with a bucket of cold water and cheap sandalwood soap. They even took my razor off me. Then off to the classroom for self-criticism. On the third day I was hauled out of my cell again. Another dawn departure and another truck ride down to Peking. Another small room with an armed guard. But this time it was guarded by a US Marine. On the table was a US Air Force uniform for me to put on. Somebody had even made up some chaplain crosses for it! Next thing I’m on the tarmac at Peking International Airport and General Scowcroft is shaking my hand and showing me up the stairs. I look back and see Dick and Pat saying their farewells to Zhou and Yingchao. On the flight home the President came down to meet me and I got the full story. He’d noticed me at the game. He’d negotiated with Zhou to hand me over as a gesture of rapprochement. Not bad for a Quaker.”
So I guess like me you’re wondering about the final score? It was a tie: 188 points each, the highest-scoring international basketball game. What about overtime I hear you say? It was also one of my first questions to Fr McCowper. He is a very wise man. So I’ll tell you his answer.
“Don’t you think a tie was the perfect result for restarting the Sino-American relationship? Two worthy adversaries. None of this triple overtime, wildcard, playoff baloney. There was a game, it was a tie. Deal with it. China exists, deal with it. We must ask ourselves what is behind the American obsession with a result for everything. Wouldn’t it be better if we had a relationship?”