30 Years Later, Visit to China Still Resonates
As Wizards Take Anniversary Tour, Those Who Were There for Historic 1979 Trip Look Back

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.

* * *

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.

Roger Phegley: It was bicycle after bicycle after bicycle, bumper to bumper and eight to 10 wide, and every bicycle looked exactly alike. They were black and white and were all made by the same company. I always joked that when you park that baby, then come out of the store, how would you know which one is yours?

Dave Corzine, another 1978 first-round draft pick: Most of the places we went, there'd be large crowds of Chinese all wearing the same thing, coming up to our waist, gathering around us. Obviously, we didn't quite fit in.

Wes Unseld: Throngs of people would stop to see who and what we were. To see a bunch of big, tall and, in a lot of cases, African American guys in China was something different.

Roger Phegley: You'd take a picture of the huge crowd with a Polaroid, and that baby would develop right in front of their faces and the Chinese would just freak out when they saw themselves. I don't think they'd ever seen that before. We also gave away Bic pens that said "Washington Bullets" on them, and it was like we were giving away hundred-dollar bills.

Wes Unseld: At the hotel in Peking, they had American food on one side, and the other side was Chinese food. My wife and I, we had Chinese everything. Why go to China and eat bacon and eggs?

Stephen Markscheid, drafted out of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies to work with the team as an escort-interpreter: Some of the players had difficulty adjusting to the food. Wes Unseld was among the more culturally interested players.

Jerry Sachs: Our trainer, John Lally, packed a whole suitcase of food, including cans of tuna fish. I think one of our young players, Kevin Porter, subsisted on tuna during the trip.

Bob Dandridge: It was not the Chinese food that I had been eating on Connecticut Avenue. [Laughs.] It surely was not that. But most of the dishes -- with the exception of the eyeballs -- were good quality.

Dave Corzine: I was thrilled to get to Hong Kong. Most of us headed straight to McDonald's.

* * *

The group got VIP treatment: the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square. There were also celebratory receptions and banquets -- including one hosted in honor of Mondale by the Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping.

Jerry Sachs: We went through the receiving line and to our delight, Deng Xiaoping was a basketball fan. I have from that event the place cards of Deng Xiaoping and Walter Mondale; I went to their table at the end of the reception and took those, along with the chopsticks and our menu.

Wes Unseld: I was a history major in college and wanted to see everything I could. We took a bus to the Great Wall, and a couple of my teammates didn't get off the bus. I don't know if they were tired or what, but I was embarrassed.

Roger Phegley: I drew a lot of attention taking a picture of Democracy Wall with a flash camera. Two men with guns politely told me not to take flash pictures at night. They gave us the impression we were free to go wherever we wanted to, but every time you looked over your shoulder, there were guys with guns following you.

* * *

There were clinics and, of course, games -- including one against the August 1 Army Team, whose featured attraction was 7-foot-3, 330-pound center Mu Tieju. After the Bullets beat the Chinese Army team, 96-85, General Manager Bob Ferry described Mu as "the biggest pagoda we've seen in China."

Dick Motta, then-head coach: He was so gigantic, he could have joined Barnum and Bailey. He was the biggest human I'd ever seen. He wasn't much of a player and couldn't move very well, but boy, he was big.

Roger Phegley: We went to a banquet afterwards and I shook his hand in the receiving line. My hand's not huge, but it's a fairly good size. When I put my hand in his, my fingertips didn't reach around the other side of his palm. It amazed me so much that I got back in line -- and I still couldn't get my fingertips to wrap around the other side of the guy's palm.

Wes Unseld: The Chinese played a methodical game. They were steeped in the fundamentals and could execute, but there weren't a lot of the nuances that we played with, or the speed and the quickness getting up and down the court.

Stephen Markscheid: It was friendly competition, but our guys were so much more skillful than the Chinese. Basketball wasn't the most popular sport in China in 1979.

David Osnos, the team's general counsel: I was instructed by the NBA that there had to be a contract permitting Chinese broadcasters to televise the game. So I worked out a three-sentence contract pursuant to which they were to pay us a dollar for the rights. They never paid the dollar, by the way. But they told me that something like 500 million people had watched our games.

Dick Motta: I did a clinic with some of the players and there were 19,500 coaches there, from every province. We worked for three hours and there was not one sound from the stands. But you could tell basketball was getting popular. Everywhere you went and there was open space, you saw a basketball hoop. They loved it. It was just a matter of time before they developed it.

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