Thursday, August 21, 2014

Chinatown’s Renegade Sport — Nine-Man Street Volleyball

On the eastern edge of Manhattan’s Chinatown on a recent Saturday morning, Mike Fan waited as a group of women with gray-tinged hair maneuvered through their tai chi poses on an asphalt volleyball court with a thick yellow outline. Mr. Fan, 31, kept one eye on the slow-moving choreography over the rough ground as he adjusted his knee-high black socks.

“This is the only court in the United States with nine-man regulation lines painted in,” he said. “But we don’t kick them off until enough folks get here.”

A modicum of patience is necessary, even for a game known for its unrestrained speed and swagger.

Summer in this neighborhood has never been about sand and sun and beach games. Since the late 1930s, Chinese men have been playing nine-man, their own intense and dynamic variation of volleyball, in the streets, alleys and parking lots of Chinatown. What began as a way for restaurant and laundry workers to escape backbreaking work and broader social hostility has turned into a cult sport played by Americans and Canadians of Chinese descent celebrating the grit of their roots.

The game, which features nine players per side, allows for more participation and specialization (players do not rotate) than conventional volleyball. It is spontaneous and chaotic. The court, while proudly permanent in Seward Park, is often a makeshift playing surface littered with divots and debris and outlined in chalk.

On this Saturday, after a quorum of nine-man players had assembled and taken over the court, volleyballs dark with soot were soon tracing arcs in the air between the pairs of men warming up.

As the men began to run drills, Allen Wong, a telecom technician with a high-and-tight fade and carefully matched athletic wear, wrapped his fingers, thumb and a palm with white athletic tape. At 52, he plays the position called suicide, an aptly named defensive specialty that bears the brunt of the opposition’s firepower, using hand passes that resemble either underhand scoops or the Hadouken attack from the Street Fighter video game.

Mr. Wong has been playing the sport since he was 16. “Nine-man was the one thing that kept me out of trouble,” he said as he approached the blacktop with a limping gait borne of attitude, not trauma. “Now I’m trying to fish them out of the ghetto,” he added, gesturing toward the young men on his team, a ragtag group of 19- to 22-year-olds wearing muscle-baring tanks and two or three partially exposed back tattoos.

The intensity on the court picked up as teams began to scrimmage. Mr. Wong moved swiftly, chasing down attacks with the speed of someone significantly younger. He lifted one ball to a robust teammate on the front line who pushed it with one hand into the net and then set it to an attacker who carried the ball and dunked it on the other side for a point. It was the kind of nine-man sequence that would make a six-man volleyball referee blow his whistle. For some, part of the delight of playing the game is a feeling of lawlessness, the jolt of doing things that six-man players can’t.

“Nine-man is a lot faster and anything can happen,” said Bob Lee, 52, who started playing in 1986. “The offense is more explosive and there is a lot more action. It’s more exciting to watch.”
By 11 a.m. they had drawn a small crowd, some of whom shouted their comments in Toisanese, a dialect based in southern China, where nine-man has ancestral roots. Three older men lined a green park bench, their arms crossed, watching. A young Chinese-American boy followed one of the players, echoing his moves as he stretched on the sideline. A few of the girls who had been practicing standard volleyball on a neighboring court were perched on a low fence courtside.

“That last one was a pike, just so you know,” one of the girls on the fence called, spying an illegal move.

“Watch the hook! Watch the two ball!” a player yelled out, warning of an attack from the middle.
The practice was preparation for this weekend’s tournament, the New York Mini, which will pit teams from Chinatowns in Toronto, Montreal, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington and New York against each other. The most competitive of the teams with players in their 20s and 30s will be battling for a trophy, and the more community-oriented clubs, like Mr. Wong’s, will be combining competition with some serious hanging out.

As the light yellowed and the afternoon grew long, Mr. Wong corralled a group near a brass drinking fountain where players were washing dirt off their forearms. He laid out the summer schedule and asked who planned to play in the New York Mini.

“How many millions of dollars am I getting?” Jeff Yuen, 22, asked with a big smile, as he put on a post-practice T-shirt that read Problem Boy. But he shrugged and turned, knowing full well that he would show up. “You know in your heart you want to be there. That’s why I make it out.” — New York Times

No comments:

Post a Comment

"Be as smart as you can, but remember that it is always better to be wise than to be smart."

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...