Life in the sports factories, however, wasn't so different from life on the assembly lines. Both occupations provided workers with (or condemned them to) lifetime employment within the same danwei, or work unit. The best athletes usually lived five or six to a room, but they received a steadier diet of milk and meat than the rest of the population, a significant perk in a land where food was still severely rationed. But like a factory job, athletic training was physically punishing and subject to the danwei's dictatorial rule. The danwei's minipotentates made, or at least enforced, nearly all of the key decisions in people's lives: where to live, where to work, what to eat, whom to marry and--most insidiously--what to think.
Da Fang's generation, born in the flush of the revolution, was the first to be indoctrinated from childhood in the rigid certainties of Mao Zedong Thought. By the mid-1960s the ideological training at No. 651 Nanjing Road had become almost as intense and monotonous as the athletic training. Every week there were obligatory sessions called, without irony, Democratic Life Meetings. Party leaders extolled the Great Helmsman and exhorted the faithful to show ever more revolutionary spirit. Then the athletes engaged in a self-flagellating round of confession and repentance.
In Da Fang's day the high priest presiding over many of the Democratic Life Meetings at No. 651 was a handsome but imperious party cadre named Zhu Yong. Zhu (pronounced Joo) was technically the official in charge of women's basketball, even though he didn't know the rule book nearly as well as he knew Mao's Little Red Book. His real authority, however, came from his position as deputy Communist Party secretary, which gave him the power to shape the minds of the young athletes. Several times a week Zhu summoned the basketball players to the institute's first-floor lecture hall for "political thought" meetings, at which he chastised them for sacrificing too little for the revolution, succumbing to the evils of individualism and even engaging in romantic relationships, which were not allowed.
Young and impressionable, Da Fang was putty in the hands of such propagandists. Molding her basketball game proved more difficult. The teenager may have been the tallest female player in Shanghai, but "she was terrible at first," says one of her early coaches. "She ran very slowly, she couldn't catch the ball, and she got so tired she could run up and down the court only a couple of times before she had to stop."
The young athletes trained eight to 10 hours a day, year-round, on outdoor courts that were bitterly cold in winter and blisteringly hot in summer. Coaches routinely beat players and forced them to play while sick or injured, pressing them to display revolutionary spirit. Some players became too exhausted to eat, and others cried tears of pain throughout practice. Still others vomited at the sight of a basketball court. But they kept going. Lin Meizheng, an agile forward on the Shanghai women's team, suffered for years from a painful kidney infection but never missed a practice. "We always felt that showing spirit was the top priority," she says. "You may not be able to improve your technique, but you can always improve your spirit."
Da Fang developed that spirit, too, and it began to show on court. After more than a year of training, the 16-year-old was still an awkward player, but she fought more aggressively for rebounds, and she sometimes hurled her now 6'2" body to the ground in pursuit of loose balls. Her former coaches and teammates say her stiffening resolve had to do with a growing conviction in the purity of her "red" roots as the descendant of a long line of poor workers. For the time being, playing basketball was her only way to carry out the revolution. But that, like everything else, would soon change.
The girl with the red armband pushed the prisoner through the frenzied crowd into a familiar space at No. 651 Nanjing Road, a basketball court that now, in early 1967, was being used as a "people's tribunal" for the dispensation of mob justice. "Enemy of the people!" screamed the young athletes, shoving and punching the prisoner as he stumbled past. "Spy! Traitor! Counterrevolutionary!"
The prisoner's head was crudely shaved. His hands were tied behind his back. And his dark eyes seemed so filled with fear that several of the young athletes in attendance had a hard time believing he was Zhu Yong. Could this hunched figure really be the powerful party secretary who, just months before, had ruled over the sports institute with an iron fist?
Zhu, who had been locked up in solitary confinement for several months, knew there was no escape from the ritualistic humiliation of these "struggle sessions." All the middle-aged party leader could hope for was to survive. "Enemy of the people, confess your crimes!" The voices came from all around him, and one of the loudest belonged to the girl in the armband, a voice he had heard many times--thin and high, but now chillingly hard. It was the voice of Fang Fengdi.
Da Fang was barely 17, but she seemed transformed. Her lively banter was gone, supplanted by fervent recitations from Mao's Little Red Book. Her hair had been cut very short in a display of revolutionary ardor. Her usual sports garb had been replaced by a baggy dark Mao suit and black cloth shoes. The only splash of color on her was the red armband, which bore three characters that struck fear in millions of Chinese: Hongweibing. Red Guard.