To play like champions, you have to look like champions and eat like champions. That theory is taken to heart by the members of the Chinese national basketball team as they sit down for lunch in Philadelphia's Chinatown.
The players, 12 of them, range in height from 6 feet to 7-2 and in age from 19 to 28. They are attired in clothes only a marketing director could love: "I Love NY" buttons (courtesy of the Knicks), Philadelphia 76ers jerseys, Chicago Bulls pins and Indiana Pacers T-shirts.
Platters upon platters of food are brought out: roast duck, sliced beef, shrimp dumplings, beef tripe, beef tendons, et al. None of these are rejected. One hour 15 minutes and three plates of buffalo fish later, the meal is over. Total cost: almost $300.
NBA Commissioner David Stern envisions the day when his league will become the International Basketball Association, with separate seasons. One of the first steps in making that dream a reality is the month-long visit to this country by the team from China.
Last night's controlled scrimmage against the Washington Bullets at Capital Centre -- where the team came after spending Thursday in Philadelphia -- was the sixth in a series for the Chinese, who also have worked out with New York, New Jersey, Chicago and Indiana. A week from Monday, the team will play an exhibition game in Springfield, Mass., against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The trip was arranged as part of the recent cultural and education agreements reached between China and the United States. But this delegation's learning literally has been of the hard-knocks variety -- the kind distributed by players such as Buck Williams, Darryl Dawkins and Jeff Ruland.
"The way we play isn't exactly the way of the NBA," Qian Chenghai, the team's coach, said through an interpreter. "Our height, our physical build, isn't as nice as theirs. Neither are our skills. But if we were at their level, we would be pros, too, wouldn't we?"
Qian laughs at his rhetorical question. There is a lot of laughter within the group when its members discuss their play against the U.S. pros, the main reason being that any comparison is exactly that -- laughable.
"Some things can be picked up, but other skills just can't be learned," Zhang Xuelei, a 6-6 forward, said earnestly. "We are learning things but, of course, it's frustrating not being as good as No. 6 in Philadelphia (Julius Erving) or Boston's No. 33 (Larry Bird). You have it or you don't."
"They could probably hold their own on a tour against mediocre college teams," said Ed Badger, an assistant coach with the Boston Celtics who has been working with the Chinese team. "They just don't have the skills we do, but even so they're 400 percent better now than when we started."
The team's tallest player, 7-2 Yang Jun, represents the hope of Chinese basketball. He has been on the national squad for only a few months, however, and is still feeling his way. As the team is bused around Philadelphia, he looks out the window. He sits alone in the front of the bus, a cardinal sin with the hip U.S. professionals.
"He still has a long way to go," said Qian. "We hope he will progress faster."
Against the 76ers, Yang seems to be preoccupied, perhaps thinking about the food that awaits him after the game. He moves at a leisurely pace, with little disposition toward mixing it up with the likes of Charles Barkley.
"I'm enjoying myself," he would say later. "It's just that I'm quite young and it's very hard to say what I will become. I would like to be good like the players here; I dream, I hope."
The guards possess the best skills on the Chinese team. Against Philadelphia, Wang Fei steals a pass and does a double-pump slam dunk on the ensuing breakaway, a feat that so moves the 76ers' Clint Richardson that afterward he gives Wang his practice jersey.
The jewel of the squad is Lu Jinqing, a cocky, 6-1 guard whom Badger has christened "Kamikaze." As the team enters the restaurant for lunch, Lu plops into a chair and immediately pulls out a toothpick, swirling it around the corner of his mouth just like the big guys do.
Badger has gone so far as to set up an isolation play for Lu, although he didn't use it against the 76ers because, he said, "I was afraid Barkley would pick him up and break him in half."
That the play wasn't used was fine with the Chinese coach. During the team's time here, Qian's role is more of an observer, with Badger running the show. And talking with Qian, one gets the impression that he doesn't really like what he's observing.
"It's not a matter of if I like it or not, but the NBA is too physical. For us to play this way would mean too many fouls in international play," Qian said.
"I'm watching and I'm willing to accept what I see, but a coach has to play his players the way he sees them because he knows his players best. When we return to China, we will do things more my way. We are not the NBA."
Not yet, anyway.