Georgetown basketball exhibition in China ends in brawl

August 18, 2011

What began as a goodwill trip to China for the Georgetown men’s basketball team turned violent Thursday night when its exhibition game against a Chinese professional club deteriorated into a benches-clearing melee in which players exchanged blows, chairs were thrown and spectators tossed full water bottles at Hoyas players and coaches as they headed to the locker room.

Georgetown Coach John Thompson III pulled his players off the Olympic Sports Center Stadium court with 9 minutes 32 seconds left in the game and the scored tied at 64 after a chaotic scene in which members of the Georgetown and Bayi Military Rockets teams began swinging wildly and tackling one another.

There were an estimated half-dozen individual altercations on the court, and eventually some Chinese onlookers joined the fracas, including one wielding a stanchion. As the brawl spilled beyond the baseline, an unidentified Bayi player pushed Georgetown’s Aaron Bowen through a partition to the ground before repeatedly punching the sophomore guard while sitting on his chest.

Georgetown senior center Henry Sims had a chair tossed at him by an unidentified person, and freshman forward Moses Ayegba, who was wearing a brace on his right leg, limped onto the court with a chair in his right hand. According to Georgetown officials, Ayegba had been struck, prompting him to grab a chair in self-defense.

The brawl occurred one night after Vice President Biden, who is in Beijing on a four-day visit to discuss U.S.-Chinese economic relations, attended a Georgetown game against another Chinese club at the Olympic Sports Center. That game, which was won by Georgetown, passed without incident.

The turbulent ending to Thursday night’s contest marred what had been billed as the second game of a two-day “China-U.S. Basketball Friendship Match” in Beijing. Georgetown intended for the team’s 10-day trip to China to be an athletic, cultural and educational exchange designed to promote the school internationally.

It was unclear whether the brawl would affect similar ventures in the future. The Georgetown delegation, which included university President John DeGioia, other school officials and prominent alumni and boosters, was scheduled to fly to Shanghai on Friday. Thompson said the team would continue with the remainder of its itinerary.

A State Department official and a Chinese Embassy spokesman in Washington both called the melee “unfortunate.”

“We look to these types of exchanges to promote good sportsmanship and strengthen our people-to-people contact with China,” said the U.S. official, who was not authorized to speak for attribution.

“We believe the organizers of the matches and the two teams will address the issue properly, the sportsmanship and people-to-people friendship the matches are meant to represent will prevail,” said the Chinese spokesman, Wang Baodong, in an e-mail.

Xinhua News Agency, China’s official news service, did not have an immediate account of the game, and although other prominent Chinese Web sites such as 163.com and sina.com posted stories, government censors shortly thereafter took them down.

The game-ending fracas marked the second time that both benches emptied in a rugged contest marred by fouls, an inordinate number of which went against the Hoyas. By halftime, Bayi had 11 fouls while Georgetown had 28. Bayi is a military team in the Chinese Basketball Association whose players serve in the Chinese army.

“The situations we were put in went beyond losing your cool,” Thompson said. “It went to, ‘I need to protect myself.’ That got to a level above and beyond competition and competing, and ‘Oh, this is a rough day. The calls aren’t going my way.’ At the end of the day, you have to protect yourself.”

DeGioia and Athletic Director Lee Reed were not immediately available to comment, according to a school spokesman.

Bayi did not immediately issue a statement, but as word of the brawl spread throughout Chinese social media, many citizens chided Rockets players for crossing the line between physical play and unsportsmanlike conduct.

Some Chinese fans were incredulous. “It seemed that [the referee] was eager for the Chinese team win tonight, so the Georgetown team members were very unhappy about it,” said Zhou Ting, 26, a doctoral candidate in biology at the Chinese Academy of Science who attended both games. “I can tell the Chinese players provoked the conflict. . . . The [Bayi] basketball players have got a bad habit of revenge on every small, unfair thing in the Chinese Basketball Association. It’s a hooligan’s habit.”

Immediately before the fighting began, Bayi forward-center Hu Ke was called for a foul against Georgetown’s Jason Clark. The senior guard took exception to the hard foul and said so to Hu, triggering pushing and shoving between them. At that point, players from the Georgetown and Bayi benches ran onto the court, and bedlam ensued.

A woman sitting in the Georgetown fan section directly behind the bench implored Chinese police to try to calm the situation, yelling about the risk of injuries to bystanders. Chinese authorities made no attempt to break up any of the fights, and the three officials working the game could not be seen as the melee erupted.

At that point Thompson said, “We’re outta here,” and pointed toward the tunnel behind the Hoyas’ bench leading underneath the stands.

No players or coaches on either side were seriously injured.

As Thompson and his staff began escorting their players off the court, the group had to dodge plastic water bottles being hurled from the stands. According to one Georgetown official, several bottles struck fans in the Hoyas section. Once the coaching staff and players reached the locker room, the team immediately gathered all its equipment and headed for the buses outside.

Members of the Hoyas basketball staff tried to find a police escort for the entire Georgetown contingent, including the alumni and supporters who attended the game. But rather than wait, Thompson told everyone to walk to buses together.

Among the most surreal sequences unfolded early in the third quarter, when Rockets forward Xu Zhonghao approached Thompson while he was standing near the Georgetown bench and began yelling at him at close range during the course of play. Thompson stared at Xu in disbelief before officials halted play for several minutes. Moments later, Bayi player Wang Lei was called for a technical foul after vehemently disputing a call, and play had to be stopped again.

“Once it got out of hand, I was in great fear for everyone associated with Georgetown University, because if you look at it in terms of sheer numbers, we were very much outnumbered,” Thompson said. “Once it got to that point, once all the skirmishes had ended, my only thought was to get our fans, our players, our family, our friends out of this building as soon as possible.”

Washington Post staff writer William Wan in Washington and research assistant Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.

Gene Wang is a sports reporter covering multiple beats, including Navy football, the Capitals, Wizards, Nationals, women’s basketball, auto racing, boxing and golf. He also covers Fantasy Football.
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