Hoyas make cultural trip to basketball-mad China


“How often will we get a chance to take a trip like this to experience something like this?,” said Georgetown Coach John Thompson III, who is taking his team to China on his first foreign trip on the job since he arrived in 2004. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
August 13, 2011

As the elder statesmen on the Georgetown basketball team, Jason Clark and Henry Sims have spent the better part of their college years absorbing Coach John Thompson III’s motion offense. It’s to the point where the frequent shifting and ball movement are no longer confusing but comforting, and Clark and Sims have the trademark backdoor cuts down cold.

That’s partly why the Hoyas’ only two seniors were shaking their heads in playful defeat as they explained their failed attempts at what was supposed to be a far less daunting assignment. How could it be, they wondered, that picking up food with two pencil-length wooden sticks seemed to require more dexterity, physical and mental, than finding an open teammate against Syracuse’s 2-3 zone?

“Horrible, just horrible,” Clark said recently at McDonough Gym. “I can’t use chopsticks to save my life.”

Sims appeared to be only a little better at handling the implements in a YouTube video that promotes the team’s goodwill tour of China, which begins Sunday in Beijing. The Hoyas will spend five days in the capital of the world’s most populous nation and another five days in Shanghai on a trip intended to advance Georgetown’s profile internationally with athletic, educational and cultural exchange.

It’s the first time since Thompson arrived at Georgetown in 2004 that the Hoyas are traveling overseas, though hardly the program’s first foray into such ventures. When Thompson’s father was the coach, Georgetown played internationally in countries such as Israel and Taiwan.

In fact, global outreach by Georgetown basketball began taking shape decades ago, when the Hoyas played an exhibition game against the Chinese national team in 1978 at the D.C. Armory. It was the Chinese national team’s first game on American soil, and it came six years after President Richard Nixon’s groundbreaking visit to China triggered the normalization of relations between the two countries.

“In all honesty, I think most of it may be cultural,” Thompson III said of this trip. “We’re going to play four games while we’re there and a possible fifth scrimmage-game, but how often will we get a chance to take a trip like this to experience something like this? So I think that’s the most important thing.”

It’s also the first time out of the country for just about all the players, most of whom haven’t traveled far from their home towns, much less across the Pacific Ocean. Thompson III will be making his first trip to Asia as well. As part of its orientation process, the team met with officials from the U.S. State Department on Thursday.

In Beijing, Georgetown is scheduled to play exhibition games against the Beijing Ducks, a Chinese professional team, and the Bayi Rockets, whos players are members of the Chinese military. Both games will be at the Olympic Sports Center.

In Shanghai, the Hoyas will conduct a clinic at the Nike Sports Festival, visit the U.S. consulate and perhaps play a couple of more exhibition games in China’s largest city, population 14.5 million.

While in both cities, players will participate in pickup games that figure to be high profile in a country where basketball’s popularity has reached record levels. The NBA averages nearly 30 million Chinese viewers per week, and in 2007, 100 million tuned in to watch Houston Rockets superstar Yao Ming play against Yi Jianlian, at the time a promising rookie with the Milwaukee Bucks.

“It’s going to be a huge, huge cultural change for us, but I think as a team we’re all looking forward to seeing something new,” Clark said. “Everybody wants to go to China because it’s something different. The basketball is going to be fun too, getting to play against different people. Here you play against Americans most of the time. Now you get to go over and see how other people play.”

Of course there will be many hours devoted to sightseeing in a country with some of the world’s most majestic sites and whose history dates back some 5,000 years. The top of Georgetown’s to-do list includes stops at the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven.

As for basketball, Georgetown benefited before even setting foot in China with an additional 10 days of practice leading up to the team’s departure. It’s much needed too, considering all but three players this season are underclassmen. Throw in the graduation of four-year starter Austin Freeman and three-year starter Chris Wright, and it’s clear why Thompson is embracing the extra preparation.

“Obviously the composition of our team is different. It’s new,” Thompson said. “We lost some key pieces. We have key pieces returning, and we have an infusion of freshman talent, and so a lot of it is not necessarily on the court, but just this group coming together and getting its own personality and identity, so I think that is as important as actual games once we’re over there.”

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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