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FILE - Chicago Bulls' Michael Jordan (AP)
FILE - Chicago Bulls' Michael Jordan (AP)

How a college student brought Michael Jordan to China

He’s a freshman at the University of North Carolina. He’s also one of the Chinese translators for ‘The Last Dance’ documentary.

Aiqi Sun is a freshman at the University of North Carolina who recently found himself working through a highly unusual question of translation: How do you say “the Bulls’ traveling cocaine circus" in Mandarin?

As one of the Chinese translators for “The Last Dance," the documentary extravaganza about Michael Jordan’s final season with the Chicago Bulls, Sun was assigned the first episode and took on the challenge of conveying the team’s extracurricular proclivities in another language. It turned out to be surprisingly universal.

“‘Traveling drug circus’ is easy to understand if you’re translating word by word," he said. “People understand that."

Making people understand was Sun’s job on this documentary about a bit of recent sports history that was over before he was even born. But he wasn’t just a translator for “The Last Dance." He also happens to be the target audience.

He’s a student at Jordan’s alma mater who loves basketball, but he’s young enough at 19 that he never watched those Bulls teams, and he desperately needs a long, absorbing distraction.

“It gives me something to do during this pandemic," Sun said.

Sun used to come home from school in Qingdao, China, and watch NBA highlights before dinner. His favorite player is LeBron James, but he was more familiar with Jordan’s game and the Bulls’ dynasty than most people his age. He’s even seen the clinching games of their six championships on the Chinese equivalent of YouTube.

He nearly came to North Carolina for high school. North Carolina came to him instead. Sun went to an international school in China—and two of his school’s American teachers were huge UNC fans. One of them went to college with none other than Michael Jordan. They raved about the Tar Heels, insulted Duke and generally did everything in their power to encourage him to matriculate halfway around the world.

After he picked UNC and moved to Chapel Hill, Sun went searching for a job. The problem was that his student visa prohibited him from working off campus in his freshman year. He found an improbable solution—and some pocket change—while procrastinating on social media.

Sun was scrolling Weibo one day when he came across a post from Yilun Huang, a graduate student in computer science at Arizona State University, who was looking for NBA fans interested in translation work. He responded to this modern equivalent of a classified and raised his hand when she asked for help on an upcoming sports documentary. Sun had a feeling he knew what that sports documentary would be.

“The Last Dance," the miniseries that was made with Jordan’s approval, airs on ESPN in the U.S. and Netflix in many countries around the world, but the Chinese distribution is controlled by Tencent Holdings Ltd., the social media giant in the NBA’s most lucrative foreign market. The timing couldn’t have been any better in the U.S., where the shutdown of American sports is nearing two months, and the same was true in China for a reason that had nothing to do with infectious diseases.

NBA fans in China were especially desperate to watch 1990s basketball since they’ve had so little basketball to watch this year. After the general manager of the Houston Rockets tweeted his support in October for protesters in Hong Kong, the Chinese government reacted with fury, pulling NBA games from national airwaves as relations between Washington and Beijing deteriorated. The NBA still hasn’t returned to Chinese state TV, and Tencent’s schedule remains limited.

But no player was more instrumental in making the NBA big in China than Jordan. CCTV first started airing Finals games during the reign of the Bulls—or, as the Chinese called them, the “Red Oxen"—and Jordan became nothing less than a deity in sneakers. Now a documentary about him is such a hit that millions of people have been unknowingly reading the work of Aiqi Sun.

Sun translated the first episode, which focused on Jordan’s time at UNC, and the eighth hour that premieres on Sunday. He was uniquely qualified for the job. Some translators unfamiliar with college basketball would struggle with the name of Dean Smith. Sun is not one of them. “Piece of cake," he said.

But he soon learned that not everything would be as simple as “Dean Smith" or “traveling cocaine circus."

The first issue he encountered was American slang. The second was the folksy tongue of Roy Williams.

When he looked at the script for the documentary’s first episode, Sun couldn’t help but stare at one quote from the UNC basketball coach. This is what Williams said: “Michael Jordan is the only player that could ever turn it on and off—and he never frickin’ turned it off." This is how it read in Chinese after Sun was done with his linguistic wrangling: “Michael Jordan is the only player in history who can decide his level of performance solely by himself—and he’s always on fire."

Jordan’s freshman year ended with him sinking the game-winning shot in the 1982 national championship. Sun’s freshman year ended with him taking exams with only four other people in his dorm. He stayed on campus after UNC’s classrooms became Zoom windows, and his plan is to spend a few more weeks in North Carolina before he attempts to return home for the summer—and finally gets to watch his own work.

But over his Thanksgiving break, when he didn’t have time to fly back to China, Sun took a shorter trip instead. He went to his very first NBA game. It was a matchup between the Detroit Pistons and Charlotte Hornets—the team owned by Jordan. Sun couldn’t believe how the whole experience translated.

“A real live NBA game," he said, “is so much different than watching on a tiny TV screen."

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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