The Washington Bullets are the first professional U.S. basketball team ever to visit China, and their widely covered presence here has aroused curosity and questions.
Since the Communist Party is experimenting with material incentives, one Chinese coach wanted to know how much is a single Bullet paid?
Stephen Markscheid, a Johns Hopkins graduate student serving as the Bullet interpreter, dutifully translated "$300,000 a year" into Chinese currency. "The Chinese coach looked puzzled. "He told me I must have interpreted wrong, I must have made a mistake," Markscheid said.
Norman Deng, a Peking University professor, although American-born, has become used to the Chinese custom of respect and higher pay for senior officials. He looked shocked when Bullet Coach Dick Motta confided that his salary was less than that of any of his players.
Motta said he made a little more money at his summer camp, where the weekly tuition was about $175 per camper. "That much for just a week?" Deng said. "Wow!" The amount turned out to be about half a year's salary for one of the Chinese Army players, who stayed close to the Bullets for 20 minutes Friday night before losing, 96-85.
The Chinese media, despite exhaustive coverage of the Bullets, has studiously refrained from the subject of salaries, perhaps mindful of the adverse political reaction to the rosy picture of American wealth Chinese viewers received during Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping's visit to Washington.
Still, in just five days in Peking, the Bullets have been shown on national television, been the subject of a detailed radio commentary on the history of basketball and the National Basketball Association and seen Elvin Hayes interviewed at length in China's new sports magazine, circulation 500,000.
Wes Unseld tried out his budding linguistic talents at today's training clinic a Peking's Capital Stadium, an arena that Motta calls the "Capital Centre. It seats about the same -- 19,000."
Unseld led a rebounding drill, with the Chinese told to go and stop on his command. "Zou!" Unseld said, and the Chinese dashed for the basket. "Ting!" he said, glaring malevolently, and everybody quickly stopped.
Unseld had gotten into early foul trouble the night before, trying to guard the Chinese behemoth, Mu Tieju who is 7-foot-6 and 330 pounds. Memories of the encounter remained with the 3,000 Chinese coaches and friends who gathered at the clinic and had certainly watched the game on television the night before.
Unseld demonstrated how to deftly push an opponent off balance before going in for a rebound. "Don't you get into foul trouble with that move?" Deng asked, acting as interpreter for the clinic. "They didn't call it last night," Unseld said. General Manager Bob Ferry chimed in: "Mr. Mu knows how to do that." Deng quickly translated and the crowd tittered.
"We're happy that we won," Motta told the clinic audience. "If we had lost last night, you might not listen as closely."
When the Chinese Army team jumped out to an early lead Friday night and a few calls by the Chinese officials seemed to go against the visitors, the Bullets wondered if this was Israel all over again. Last year, the Bullets played the top Israeli team and narrowly lost. "Our guys decided not to let that happen again," owner Abe Pollin said. The Bullets began to move better, the Chinese officials seemed to calm down and the Bullets pulled ahead to stay.
The rough-and-tumble play has done little to dampen the Bullets' interest in the Chinese. "I picked up the image, I don't know how, that it was stiff and regimented here," Unseld said. "But it's not. People are relaxed, laughing, out walking with their babies. John Lally (Bullet trainer) was saying he was surprised to see so many cars. He expected rickshaws."
Some of the Bullets were left skeptical by their visit to an "average" commune outside Peking. It seemed a bit too polished. "It was really putting your best foot forward, like I used to do when I was recruiting players for Weber State," said Motta, remember ing the college coach's secrets of putting on a good show for young high school players.
The Bullets with their wives, attempted to put their best feet forward at the National Minorities Hall next to their hotel, where there is a dance three times a week. The live band played only polkas, but the taped music "was pretty good, we could disco," Unseld said. The Chinese, for whom the fox trot is avant garde, looked on in wonderment as giants gyrated on their dance floor.
"One guy came up to me and said 'You sure know how to have a good time,' " Unseld said.
The team also enjoyed a visit to a sports camp for children. Discipline broke down in the excitement of seeing the American stars, and the Bullets and young Chinese organized pickup basketball games that delighted both sides.
"It is different here," said Lally, recalling the three training clinics that drew a total of about 14,000 Chinese. He recalled watching Motta throw several American-made basketballs into the stands at one clinic, so the audience could see how they differed from Chinese-made balls. "When you throw up six basketballs in the stands in D.C., they're all out the back door," Lally said. All the balls here were returned.
The Bullets did not like the Chinese balls, which are somewhat smaller and lacking the feel they are used to. They also did not like having to play against the Chinese zone defense. The zone is outlawed in the NBA.
The Americans tried to negotiate a few concessions from the Chinese, with no luck. The ball stayed, as did the zone. David Osnos, the team's attorney, did manage to negotiate a contract for the rights to sell the videotape of the game outside China. "The Chinese don't like long contracts. It was very tough for me to get it down to 1 1/2 pages," Osnos said.
Seeing thousands of Chinese streaming in to learn from the famed American coach, Motta, the object of their attention bemoaned the lack of "a copyright law in China." If there was one, he said he could put his best ideas on successful defense on paper and "make a little money."
The Chinese were keen eough students of the Bullets' style to convince assistant coach Bernie Bickerstaff that "they'll get the game down in three or four years; they'll get it down scientifically," Bickerstaff said, "They're aiming for the Olympics. I've seen some people say they are now in the top 10 internationally. But their greatest strength (Mu) is also their greatest weakness. International basketball is a fast-paced game. The idea is to get the ball down fast, but because of the big guy they cannot utilize that. He doesn't go down fast. A few times, he didn't get out of his own court."
Deng, who has interpreted for all the clinics, was born in San Francisco, where he "learned basketball at the YMCA and the playgrounds and developed my legs by chasing cable cars." He served in World War II, attended Stanford for a year in the late 1940s on the G.I. Bill, then went to China and stayed.
The Chinese magazine interview with Hayes struck a chord with the Chinese, Deng explained, with its reference to what is here the all-important family.
"We discovered the phenomenal determination that the Big E showed to get to where he is, that he learned much from his father and the rest of his family," one of the Chinese reporters said after the interview. "We are from two different societies, but the feelings of our people are very similar."