Right alongside Kentucky Fried Chicken, basketball has proven to be one of the most popular exports from the States. So it comes as no surprise that the first ever NBA team to come to China is an event worthy of celebration.
Marking the thirty year anniversary of the Washington Wizards’ (then called the Bullets) historic trip, members of the 1979 team are returning to the Middle Kingdom for an honorary tour. Wes Unseld, Captain from the ’79 Bullets team, will be joined by current Wizards Caron Butler and Randy Foye, as well as former Bullet Gheorghe Muresan. The group will celebrate their return by hosting basketball clinics while touring through the country.
Much has changed since then: Deng Xiaoping issued the initial invitation as a cultural exchange, centered on a goodwill exhibition game with the Chinese National team. But the Bullets were less than enthused about the trip: the Washington Post has a good article on the progress of basketball in China in the past thirty years, including some pretty funny anecdotes.
From Washington Post:
When Abe Pollin led the NBA’s first venture into China in the summer of 1979, not every member of the Washington Bullets shared the team owner’s enthusiasm. As players and their wives poured off a bus to take in the splendor of the Great Wall, Elvin Hayes and Dave Corzine refused to budge.
Pollin peered back and asked Hayes if he was coming. “I’ve seen a big wall before, Mr. Pollin,” Hayes told him. Wes Unseld tried to persuade Hayes by telling him the wall was the only man-made structure that can be seen from outer space. To which Hayes responded, “I’m never going into outer space.”
Despite the unsportsmanlike attitude of some of their players, that kind of trip at such a critical juncture in the opening of China was commendable. We found a great highlight reel of the historic tour, but you’ll need a way of accessing Youtube from behind the Great Firewall. We’ve been using itshidden.
Now NBA stars make China a regular stop on their world publicity tours, seeking to infiltrate a booming market of avid Chinese fans. Basketball has replaced soccer as the most popular sport for youths, and even the Forbidden City has a court for guards to play during breaks. Unlike the ’79 tour, this upcoming visit is more of a PR stunt than anything groundbreaking.
They come at a good time though – after China’s national basketball team was crushed by Iran in the Asian Championship Final this month. With Yao Ming injured and a young, inexperienced coach at the helm, someone’s got to help the Chinese national team learn the international way of ballin’. We suggest another, flashier basketball exchange for the next round of tours-cum-clinics: the Harlem Globetrotters!
Photos from the Washington Post and China Daily