As Wizards Prepare to Visit China, Team Remembers Its Historic 1979 Visit

From left, Abe Pollin, Roger Phegley, Wes Unseld and Jerry Sachs were part of Washington's 1979 visit to China.
From left, Abe Pollin, Roger Phegley, Wes Unseld and Jerry Sachs were part of Washington's 1979 visit to China. (1979 Photo By Associated Press)
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By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 13, 2009

Thirty years ago, when the Washington Bullets were invited to become the first U.S. professional sports team to visit China, owner Abe Pollin jumped at the opportunity, tipping off a new era of sports diplomacy.

Coming just months after President Jimmy Carter normalized relations with China, the historic 1979 trip helped infect the land of Yao Ming with hoops fever. Last week, the franchise, now named the Wizards, sent a delegation back to China for an anniversary tour that includes stops in Shanghai, Chengdu and Guangzhou and concludes on Tuesday. The traveling party includes former Bullets star Wes Unseld and his wife, Connie, both of whom were on the first trip, as well as current Wizards star Caron Butler, who wasn't yet alive when the Bullets brought the NBA to the newly opened nation.

Some of the old Washington globetrotters tell the story of that 1979 trip in their own words:

Jerry Sachs, then-Bullets president: We won the NBA championship in 1978, and Abe Pollin took the team and wives to Israel. He decided it would be a great thrill to go to China the following year. He talked to his friends at the State Department, who talked to the Chinese, and they sent us an invitation.

John Thomson, then-counselor for cultural affairs at the U.S. Embassy in China: We had just normalized relations with China. It was a big deal that the team was coming. It was part of the opening up of China.

Jan Berris, then-program director for the nonprofit National Committee on U.S.-China Relations: We'd spent much of the '70s sending every amateur sports team you can imagine to China: diving, basketball, soccer, volleyball and, of course, ping-pong in 1971. The Bullets were the first professional team; it was significant.

Roger Phegley, a 1978 first-round draft pick: There were a lot of guidelines. They didn't want the women wearing makeup or jewelry. They wanted us to dress pretty casual.

Wes Unseld, Washington's star center: They just told us not to do anything stupid -- which as members of a professional team we were apt to do sometimes. I learned some Chinese, too: hello, goodbye, I'm sorry -- things like that.

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The traveling party included players, coaches and executives, along with their wives. They flew from Washington to San Francisco to Tokyo to China, landing in the city then known as Peking. Shanghai and Canton were also on the 13-day itinerary.

Jerry Sachs: When we landed in Peking, everybody had to get their own bags, which the players were not used to. They had two buses waiting for us. One was a school bus, the other was a more elegant minibus. The players started to board the minibus, but the Chinese said, no, no -- that's reserved for the team executives. The finest hotel in Beijing wasn't available to us because Vice President Walter Mondale was there at the same time. We were relegated to one of the No. 2 hotels. The conditions were a bit rustic. We went to our rooms, and the beds didn't fit our players; they had to put mattresses on the floor. And there was no air conditioning.

Bob Dandridge, the starting small forward: I don't know what time we got in that first night, but at 5 in the morning, I was still up at the hotel. Somebody suggested we look out the window. It was just awesome -- a couple thousand people passing by on bicycles. And everything was so orderly.

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