The Washington Bullet basketball team took a collective timeout last month for a tour of China. Bullet center Wes Unseld and his wife Connie took their cameras and Connie took notes. Here is her account of sightseeing -- and being seen -- in the Peoples Republic.
ON OUR first day in Peking we learned two things about the Chinese: They get an early start on their day, and they are as interested and cruious about us as we are about them.
At 5 o'clock that first morning Wes and I set out to get our first look at the ancient art of tai chi or shadow boxing. The moment we stepped into the street, we became the center of attention for hundreds of Chinese.
We didn't know what to do. We said, "Nee haw ma," or how are you. The Chinese smiled in return -- and looked at us with expressions of astonishment.
That was to be the trend throughout our 12-day stay in the Peoples Republic of China. Wes and I and the other members of the Bullet family drew crowds wherever we appeared in China.
The Chinese fascination with our group had mostly to do with the size of the players, of course. The Chinese are not used to seeing people so tall walking their streets.
And they were struck by our individuality -- the fact that we wore different clothes and looked so distinctive from one another. The Chinese men and women tend to dress similarly, in white blouses over blue or gray slacks.
With this in mind, we generally tried to dress modestly -- not wearing much in the way of makeup and jewelry -- so we wouldn't play the part of ostentatious Americans.
I don't think they were particularly taken by the fact that many of us were black. We saw Africans there, so they are somewhat used to blacks. In fact, they were very used to Africans. One of our interpreters asked Wes what tribe he was from.
Drawing large crowds took some getting used to. The gathering at the shadow boxing session in the plaza outside our hotel became a small throng, perhaps in the thousands. They enjoyed watching Wes join in the shadow boxing exercises, but the enormous gathering of people became almost frightening.
We returned all the attention by passing out American flags, and by using our very limited Chinese (hello, how are you?), which they seemed to appreciate. Wes led groups of Chinese in saying hello and goodbye. And we smiled a lot.
The scenic attractions in China were stunning, but they left me with mixed feelings. We walked through the Forbidden City, the summer palace of the dowager empress, the Temple of Heaven and the Ming tombs.
But it bothered me during my visit to these ancient structures that the people held them in such high esteem when history tells us that the people were little more than slaves during the construction of these monstrous buildings and shrines.
I mentioned my feelings to one of our Chinese guides. His response was, I think, typical of Chinese logic.
These ancient structures were considered to be a tribute to all of the Chinese people, he said. Although they were built in the name of some ancient emperor or empress, it was the people who slaved and died to make them a lasting tribute to the history of China.
The colossal physical wonder of the trip was the Great Wall of China. It was an overpowering sight, stretching for miles along the hillside. As we scaled the wall, the question in our minds was, will we conquer it, or will it conquer us?
We visited the Peking zoo, and another of our crowd scenes developed when I tried to take a picture of our entire group. Before I could focus the camera, about 200 people were finding us more interesting than the pandas.
Sometimes the focus of Chinese attention was on our camera. Greg Ballard and Bullet owner Abe Pollin carried Polaroids. Crowds of two to 300 people would crowd around and smile and laugh as a small square piece of paper became a colorful picture.
At one stop in our tour, an empress' palace, Abe Pollin and his wife Irene became camera subjects. For a small fee, you could put on clothes similar to the ones worn by the emperor and empress who had once occupied the palace. We took pictures as they posed on a throne.
An unusual stop on our tour was a hospital outside Shanghai. There, they let us watch an acupuncture operation. The surgery was serious -- a man had his lung operated on while he remained fully conscious with the pain deadened through acupuncture techniques -- but Elvin Hayes made it something of a humorous occasion.
He is normally very quiet, but he really got caught up in the surgery. He started doing a play-by-play commentary ("They're making an incision") on things we could clearly see for ourselves ("They're removing his ribs!")
The Bullets acquitted themselves very well on the basketball court in two games against Chinese teams. But there was at least one athletic humilization that was not publicized. We visited a sports school were children of various ages take part in table tennis, gymnasitcs, basketball and volleyball.
Many members of the Bullet entourage tried to join in the activities and, to our surprise, in some cases it was no contest.
Wes was blitzed so badly in a table tennis match that I couldn't get up the courage to even play.
Just as we drew crowds on our sightseeing tours, we drew large numbers in the two games we played in China. But the Chinese crowds are not like American ones. The Chinese sports fans behave more like Americans would at an opera. There was occasional applause for an impressive play, but there was no cheering or shouting.
There were 19,000 people on hand in Peking, for example, about the number it takes to fill the house at Capital Centre. But there was none of the bedlam of the center. At halftime most of the people stayed in their seats, which was understandable since there were no refreshments being served in the building.
And when the game was over, a series of bells rang, cueing various sections of the audience to leave the building. Within five minutes, the coliseum was empty.
It was in Peking that Wes was overmatched physically for one of the few times in his career. The center on the August 1 Army Team was Mu Tieju, whose height has been estimated at anywhere from 7-foot-3 to 7-8 and whose weight is between 330 and 400 pounds.
I have never seen anyone that big.Roger Phegley ran into him on a pick, and you could hear the collision all over the coliseum.
Mu really turned the tables on Wes. It was the first time anyone ever made him look like Kevin Porter.