Thursday, June 2, 2016

There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home

2016 May 31

     While I felt slightly more relaxed than I have in days, I am still not completely at ease. Robert has brought us this far, but he informs me his plane home is at 5:30am. This means he will not be escorting us to the airport, walking us through the check in, and patting us on the butt as we head to the USA. He has arranged with the front desk for the shuttle to ready at 9am. Everyone has a breakfast coupon for the hotel buffet.  Theoretically, I got this. I have traveled with teams many times, but the whole foreign language thing is troublesome. All my hours of listening to Learn Chinese While You Drive, has made me very good at counting and initial greetings. I can hear the pattern of speech, but it carries no meaning. I am disappointed with myself and determined to find an actual class I can audit and at least improve to being conversational.

     The Black Market was a hit. The guys who went had a good time and were impressed with the selection and prices. Turns out the market closed at 9, not 6. When they finally got back to the hotel around 10, I was glad they didn’t have a tale of missed trains, wayward taxis, or other shenanigans. They were so excited about it they tried to recruit me to go in the morning before the shuttle. I was completely against the idea of adding any anxiety, so I declined. Calvin also declined as I watched the guys go the lobby for their last night of camaraderie. I went to bed.

     Was that a knock? I opened my eyes, the room was lit from the outside and I reached for my glasses, then my phone. 5:23am. Was it a knock? Reluctantly, I got out of bed and looked through the peep hole. I saw a tall figure lurking in the hall. Damn, it was a knock. I open the door and there is Kyle, smiling. Apparently, Cal had been convinced to go shopping. We wake him up, and off they go. I am not sure how many players go, but I know I am no longer sweating the details. If they make the shuttle, if they make the plane, it is on them. Grown men, making decisions. Learning.

     I shower and dress, trying to decide what I can wear to look nice for Joan when I get home after a month away, but also be comfortable for what will be a long day. If you remember, I pretty much lost May 9th. Today, I will have an extended stay in May 31st. With all the decisions made, I go down to the lobby for breakfast. The last real meal I ate was breakfast the day before. On the plane from Tianjin to Shanghai, we were given a snack and an entree, but neither could be described as a meal. It simply filled a void and kept the tummy grumbles away. “Dinner” was a larger than average bottle of beer with a packet of salted peanuts sitting on the hotel veranda with Cal and Marshall talking about our ABC and immediate plans when we got home.

     I was fresh and fluffy when I walked into the buffet. I grabbed a large plate with intentions of making a pile to get me through the long flight ahead. I cruised slowly around the buffet. Reading the translations is hysterical; items like “beked” beans and “breakfast intestines” called out. But, I was not answering. After completing a full lap, I put the plate back into the pile and looked for the coffee. Another disappointment. All that was left for me was to wait for the shuttle and worry about the players I told myself I wasn’t going to worry about. Tick. Tick. Tick.

     I walk the hotel hallway knocking on the players doors at 8:30. I don’t know if anyone is in there, but I want them to have at least 30 minutes of lead time to be downstairs. I get a few groggy responses. The funniest was Marshall. His door was propped open by the deadbolt, and his grunt led me to believe that he was dead asleep. I walk in and he is face-planted on the bed. I identify myself and tell him his timeline. He is looking right at me and I am not sure he sees me. I head back down to the lobby and still don’t see anyone. Then, Aly walks into the buffet and reemerges quickly. Then, Darren enters the buffet and reemerges quickly. Clearly, my impression of the culinary offerings was not unique. Aly sits with me, Darren heads upstairs. At 8:55, I am ready, really ready. I see the little shuttle arrive and think it is time to go. I stand and move to the revolving door, and who do I see? A bunch of players. Thank you Jesus. The driver of the little shuttle switches into a full size bus and soon all 9 players are there with luggage and smiling faces.

     The bus starts to leave and I figure this is the last time I will have all these guys trapped in the same place. I stand at my seat and thank them for a great month. I thank them for making the trip a wonderful experience for me, and I hope they too had gained from it. I told them if I could do anything for them I would and that I look forward to hearing from them in the coming months about how their ABC came true. They were receptive to the message and thank me back, but when I looked at Tyler he looked very concerned. I looked out the window. In an effort to make good time, the driver was speeding down the road. Particularly, on the wrong side of the road. The bus was zooming toward opposing traffic looking for a spot to dive back onto the correct side of the yellow line. I was so caught up in my farewell comments I had not noticed our lives were in peril, again. (I am writing this update so clearly things worked out.)

     We arrive at Shanghai-Pudong. Things move quickly for the most part. With Robert, we go to the ticketing agent, give them all the passports and check in as a group. I try the same stunt and I am told we need to get into the line and check in separately. When we snake through the line, the agent motions for us to come up as a group. Thanks. We are checked in, through customs and security and sitting at the gate by 9:35. With a cup of Starbucks coffee in hand, I begin the journey home.
The ticketing agent took that team concept to heart. We are booked into two rows. Imagine the humanity sitting side by side in four seats across. I am mercifully across the aisle, on the aisle. My preference is the window, so I don’t have to get up. Ever. I will gladly stay in that seat all 12 hours, I just don’t want to get up for someone else. I am sitting with a couple, I offer my seat for the window. They are Chinese and maybe they don’t do the whole English thing, but I waved my arms and spoke slowly. I felt like I conveyed my idea. Worse than getting up, they got up three times. Two of those times they actually woke me up to get out. My intention was to turn around my time zones on this flight. Sleep at least 8 hours, arrive in LA and stay awake to Philadelphia, via Houston. My flight would arrive at midnight in Philly and it would be time for bed. Perfect.

     Mr. and Mrs. Tinybladder killed me. TV monitors, reading lights. Chit chatting. Wake up calls. It was what I thought to be the worst. Silly me. I had been involved with May 31 for about 19 hours now and it was just 11:30am. Back through Customs and security and onto my flight from LA to Houston. I was right about my timing for the goodbye speech. When we got to LAX everyone had separate connections to their points of interest. As we walked away from the baggage claim, there was hugging and dabbing and thanks and promises to keep in touch. The group had been through so much, the bond was strong. Every gate we passed, someone dropped out of the group until it was just Kyle and I going to Houston. Both had connections to the East Coast, me to Philly and Kyle to Charlotte.

     The plane was full and we were anxious to go. The thing was the weather. Not in LA, it is always nice in LA. Houston was experiencing something. The pilot had been advised to fly around it, and doing so would add an hour to the trip. That hour meant we didn’t have enough fuel. Loading the extra fuel took at least 30 minutes. My easy to make connection was now caput. We were told we would arrive at 7:45, the same time the flight was leaving for Philly. Well-seasoned travelers were already on the phone making arrangements to redirect and reconnect. I was not.

     Mr. and Mrs. Tinybladder we nothing compared to my ride to Houston. The late arriving seat partner ate smelly food, coughed and sneezed without covering his mouth, cursed without actually speaking to anyone, and kept overextending his elbows and feet into the 16 inch seating area I was assigned. I could feel the disease attaching itself to my skin and heard it giggling as entered my system. Add to that a baby that cried for 4 hours and parents who appeared to have no plan to soothe: no bottle, no pacifier, no nothing. Cruel.

     When we landed, the pilot asks politely that passengers who are at the end of their line please remain seated and allow passengers with connections to hustle out first. Just one problem. There was no jetway available. Image how I was feeling when the pilot announced we had taken the airport by surprise with our delayed arrival and they could not find a jetway driver. The polite order of operations was abandoned the moment the door opened. It was 8 before I got inside the airport itself. I went immediately to United Customer Service. The line was maybe 20 people long, but only two agents were working. The line quickly snaked backward down the long hallway. At least 100 people. Probably more. Two agents. It took about two hours to get to the front of the line. The line looked like it would take until sunrise to eliminate, but four other agents arrived when I was third in line.

No flights tonight. No hotel allowance because it wasn’t mechanical problems, United does not compensate for weather. Most of the customers are simply getting flights to other cities to wait there to get flights to their destination. I told the lady I was not going to Chicago to wait 6 hours to fly to Philly. I sweet talked her into a meal coupon ($10), an exit row seat on the second direct flight in the morning, and a standby for the first. She was pleasant enough in an unpleasant situation. Her last advice was to go to another terminal to eat. I trudged over there on the monorail and walked a long way to the eating area only to find it all closed except a coffee and snack stand. Back I go. I decide to just find a quiet bench and call it a night. It was 11:30pm. May 31st was a very long day.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Like a band of gypsies we go down the highway

2016 May 30

     Compared to the last two days, nothing happened. And that is exactly what we needed. Most of the guys had their bags packed and preliminary weighed last night. There was some laundry yet to distribute holding things up. (Side note: Laundry here has been, at best, average. I was always led to believe Chinese laundry service was exceptional. Some of the hotels, I believe, actually had an employee just load our stuff into their car and take it home, wash it as quickly as they could and bring it back. I was really disappointed when things were wet, poorly folded, and my dress shirts were not starched and creased).

     By 9 am we were fed, loaded, and on the road again. The bus ride to the airport took us right by the bullet train depot. I started to wonder why we didn’t just fly here in the first place, but apple pie flashed in my mind I knew it was time to stop questioning things. By 11:30, we were in the airline terminal. The boarding began about 12:40. We go out a door, into a bus, and are driven to the plane. We load up and wait to taxi. And wait. And wait.

     I should mention, that today on our original itinerary was an early morning flight with a day of shopping in Shanghai. I am not much of a shopper, but Shanghai is a cool place to walk around. I have only one thing to buy, a very specific box of tea for my sister. At this point you are asking yourself, “Doesn’t he want to get his wife something?” I do. And I have. All of you who have been enjoying this blog have also been enjoying her present. I have written to my wife every day since I left for this trip. She, and you, has been along for every up and down, every win and loss, every meal, bus ride, heart ache, and triumphant moment. What present can I buy the woman I love better than sharing my life?

     So about the plane. Apparently, the bus can’t drive on the highway early in the morning. Therefore, we cannot be on time for an early flight. Schedule changes to the only other flight to Shanghai which is 1:30. Which brings us back to the waiting on the tarmac to taxi. We waited so long, they served food while we waited. We finally land in Shanghai at 4:30. The itinerary had us shopping at a place mysteriously called, the Black Market. But it closes at 6, and it is a few train stops away from the airport. Marshall, Cal, and I decide it isn’t worth the hassle and potential frustration to maybe get 45 minutes of shopping. Everyone else sees it as a challenge and off they go. The “stayers” agree to take all the luggage to the hotel.

     The first shuttle that shows up is completely full. The four of us could not have fit, and now we have 20 suitcases and book bags. We decide to wait for the next shuttle. Twenty minutes later, same situation. Clearly, we are at the exit end of the airport and the shuttle is picking people up all through the loop. Robert calls the hotel and explains our situation. They send a special van for us. Meanwhile, a few other hotel guest are waiting at our spot now. When the van gets there, the guys does a great job getting everything in. He must be very good at Tetris, because he got 10 people and a ton of luggage into that thing.

      At the hotel, we unload everything onto three bellman carts and drag it upstairs. My room, strike that…our room, looks like the lost and found near the baggage carousel. I say we because I no longer have a private room. I am bunking with Calvin tonight as the hotel mysteriously didn’t have enough rooms for the team. Could this be passive retaliation for a game poorly played? Apple Pie.

What should you say when it’s over

2016 May 29

     The day is full of meetings about the situation.  Conversations about who did this, what should be done about that, and the ever popular, how can we fix this? All of these are above my pay-grade. All I know, somehow, miraculously, we escaped that arena without a serious injury. The guys would be pretty happy just going to the airport and sitting there for two days waiting for the plane back to the USA. Unfortunately, the show must go on. Police are involved. The Chinese Sports Administration is involved. FIBA is involved. Mr. Gao is in full blown crisis control mode. He gets assurances that arena will have extra security and the refs who worked last night will be replaced with FIBA officials. I tell Robert and Mr. Gao that our first choice is not to play to play the game. It is unsafe. However, if we have to put on uniforms and go out there, it will be strictly procedural. We will look like a team, but we won’t play with anywhere near the tenacity and athleticism they are accustomed to. We will play a compact zone, we will advance the ball to the other end of the floor, and we will shoot. We will lose mightily.

     Honestly, I don’t think they heard anything after, “We will play.” So when it came time to set the schedule Robert was surprised to hear I wanted the bus at 6:30. “How will you warm up enough,” he asks. “We don’t need to warm up for what we are going through tonight, in fact we are not coming out of the locker room until it’s time for introductions and anthems,” I tell him. Again, a funny face. He tells me because of the bad publicity from last night’s riot, we need to have a ceremonial handshake with the Chinese team on the court before the game starts. It will show that there are no hard feelings. I take great pride in not looking as crazy as I feel. This was one of those moments. I was pretty sure no player would want to see, let alone shake hands with, the Shandong team. “You can do it Beebe,” he says, “just use your American way of dealing with them.” So clearly, there is supposed to be some magic in that old green clipboard still. I ask a couple players and they are not as good at concealing their immediate reaction. I move to the next room, more rejection. I change my strategy knowing I am at the last room where any possibility exists.

    Jordan and Tyler have become best friends on this trip. They are the tall and short of our squad and they seem to be really enjoying everything as much as they can. I walk in with one bullet in my gun. Before I ask the real question, I ask if they are able to be bribed. Curious faces indeed, and they ask for what. I explain to them that Chickie and Pete’s is the best sports bar in Philly and one is opening up right near my house by the end of the summer. The next time they swing through Philadelphia, I will buy them dinner. They get excited about the free food, and assure me that they can get to Philadelphia, and then they remind me that I haven’t told them what they need to do.  When I tell them they will be shaking hands with the Shandong players for a photo op to assure China that our actions were simply a misunderstanding, not a threat to national security, I got the face. “Tell us more about the restaurant.” Thank God. Behold the power of crab fries.


     The arena is quiet. Spooky quiet. I assumed even before last night situation, that tonight’s attendance would be down. Without a Chinese team to watch, how many basketball junkies would come out? I also wondered how many people had seen the video on the internet, yes there is video on the internet, and would come out to see if would happen again or just to heckle the Americans. We get to the same locker room, albeit quite tidy now, and I go to look at our bench area. I have been assured there will be 10 uniforms right behind the bench the whole time. What I see is both impressive and scary. There are 10 SWAT member with helmets, face shields and large arm shields, the kind with the rectangle peep hole to see who they are running over. Ok, check off better security. I go back inside the locker room and wait with the guys. This is when I ask who is interested in playing time tonight. Usually, this question evokes childlike enthusiasm with hand waving and shouts for attention. Not tonight. It’s quiet. I wait it out. Letting a question breathe is a teacher’s friend. Getting the answer first doesn’t make it right, getting the answer right makes it right. There is a pregnant pause. There is a pregnant with twins pause. And then, Jordan is in. quickly followed by Tyler, and Byron, and Aly, and Cal, and Marshall. You can imagine my relief that the number was over 4. Steve, Kyle and Darren took the stand that we shouldn’t be here and their playing would only signify a change of position. I respect that.

    Our strategy was to play zone, advance the ball, and get a shot. Not to think about the score, or the other team, the National Team of Tunisia.  I decided to bring Marshall off the bench, his left eye still bruised from yesterday. The crazy part was, we were winning 8-4 in the early moments. I know every coach will tell you his team had a chance, and this may have been the best team we played the whole month, but I sincerely believe we would have beaten this team too. It became clear to Tunisia what our strategy, or lack thereof, was and they forced the ball inside and converted basket after basket. We fell behind and slowly fell off the pace as Team USA jacked up three pointer after three pointer. On a plus side, I got to see Byron play extended minutes. His game is smooth: quality shooter, quick, good defender. By the end of the night he had 30 and didn’t look like he pressed to get it.

     By halftime, we were down 25. There was a brief flirtation by the players to turn on the jets and beat these guys. We had done that once before already, but Tunisia was a better team, and this was no time to try to prove a point. Besides, we were already proving a point by being there and participating. I reminded them our plan was to get this game behind us and go home. Stick to the plan.

     The second half was more of the same. We fell farther and farther behind. For the players, it was the perfect game. Shoot any shot you want, play soft defensively, and the coach isn’t barking and stomping his feet at them. I smile at this, because what if they had won? Imagine if this little Lord of the Flies moment created a victory. Well, fortunately for all coaches everywhere, we kept losing ground. But, midway through the 3rd quarter, Darren asks to go in. I was surprised, but I told him to go in right away.

    I am from Philadelphia and we have been known to boo. We take pride in knowing who and when to boo. We are good at it. So imagine my surprise, when after watching this horrible game the fans start to boo each time we touch the ball. I almost kicked myself for not thinking of it. If I had spent money for a ticket to this, I would be booing too. The first time during the boo-fest, we come down and miss a shot. Tunisia converts at the other end. We inbound and the booing begins anew. Marshall has the ball and as he crosses mid-court he launches a rainbow that hits nothing but the bottom of the net. The place goes wild with applause. I am sure our field goal percentage was in the 30’s, so there wasn’t much to cheer about, but at least the fans knew something might be coming along any second. Didn’t matter. Final score 137-58. (Side note: 20 three’s in forty minutes would have generated 60 points. We shot poorly)

    So now, there is a hubbub because we lost. When we were rolling teams, there was quickly someone in my ear telling me to hold back, don’t embarrass them, put in some subs, or call a timeout. I did not see anyone slipping a note or speaking quietly to the Tunisians. Why were they unchecked?  The after game hallway meeting with Mr. Gao, Robert, the arena, and the Chinese Sports Administration was spirited. I didn’t want to throw our sponsor and translator under the bus, so told everyone who would listen: “Tonight was a show of respect. Our team was there to fulfill its commitment, but the conditions and treatment we received last night were unacceptable and dangerous. If you had any respect for us you would not have put us in this position in the first place. Furthermore, that while there was ample security, two of the referees were the same as last night. Our players don’t do this as a hobby, this is their livelihood. This is how they feed their family. They are too big, too strong, and too fast to let these referees ruin their future.  You lied to us to get us here, and we played. We are leaving.” I had practiced most of that all afternoon knowing someone would ask why we were not competitive. The part about the referees was a bonus. Two referees were, in fact, at last night’s game. I am good with faces and spotted them right away. The fact that I could slip in the part about being lied to was great.

We got back to the hotel, ate, packed, and dreamed about apple pie.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Into every life, a little rain must fall, again

2016 May 28

     I woke up with an anxious feeling. Not sure if it was the late night beer and peanuts, or the notion that we are close to doing something special. I know I want to win every game and make a statement. As I told the players in Los Angeles, this is as simple as A.B.C., Aspirations Beyond China. I want basketball people to look at our team and say, “I want that guy for my team.”

     I spent my day working lineups. After sending home a player, we are now a group of 9. Any time you add or subtract from a group, it is not a bigger or smaller group. It is a new group. This new group has not played a game together. This new group does not have balance, or familiarity with rotations, or a single minute of time playing together. This group is on game #1. I work the lineup with the group I feel will get us off to a good start no matter what the Chinese team has in mind. If they go big we will be able to match, if the go small we will be able to guard it, if they press we will be able to handle it. Instead of two five-minute segments per quarter, I decide to go with three 3:30 minute segments. That’s nine different clusters. I am hoping that by moving players in and out they will not pick up fouls, they will not get too heated with the refs, and they will feel compelled to get to work quickly once they enter the game.


     While the arena is not full, the game has drawn a spirited crowd. There are people with big drums banging happily. There are people with big flags waving proudly. There are groups chanting in unison proudly. I love playing in front of an active crowd even if they are rooting for the other team.
When we arrived on the floor for shoot around, there were no basketballs at our end of the court. The Chinese team was already into the well-choreographed stretching and shooting performance. They had 10 balls. When we asked for 3, they declined. WTF? Is that how it’s going to be? I had bumped into the coaches at lunchtime today. They were not Chinese, I thought they were Americans and I said hello, they did not respond. I thought it peculiar, and decided it was ok, because later I was going to say hello to them all night long.

     Pregame festivities take a long time. With our regular Cheer Squad long gone, they brought in some local troupe to entertain. Plus a dance group in Michael Jordan jerseys. Plus speeches from three local dignitaries (the time doubled as each was interpreted into English). By the time the player introductions happened, it was 30 minutes after the layup line. Both teams were chomping at the bit to get underway.

     As the ball is tossed up, Calvin taps it back to Tyler. Whistle. Illegal touching. WTF? And so it begins. The referees for this game were not of the highest quality. In fact, I question their integrity more than their knowledge of the game and ability to facilitate the game. It is quite clear the challenge we faced.

      There were a number of non-calls, especially on moving screens. This is a dangerous play which can result in a serious injury. Every 50/50 ball was decided to be Shandong ball (the actual name of the Chinese team). There was a traveling call while we dribbled. The score table didn’t credit us with consecutive baskets, a 2 and a 3. At one point the team fouls were USA 9, Shandong 1. Clearly, everyone is on this except us. Shandong has even dressed 13, instead of 10, players for the game so they will A) have 15 extra fouls to give during the game and B) their main players will not be worn down by the end of the game. Seems the Serbian born coaches have spoken with their CBA peers about the USA Team. Yes, Serbian. So maybe they didn’t know how to say hello in English earlier, but his perfect use of the language during a pregame court side chat let me know the lunch snub was intentional. That’s cool.

     The game is a farce and we are pulling away, up 18 with less than two minutes in the first half. The lineups have been working perfectly and I have been pulling every player who barked at the ref for longer than I cared to watch. The Chinese hit a three and start yapping at our guys. There had been talking all game, but for some reason they chose that moment to declare the comeback had begun. We come down and miss a quick three. Shandong runs the other way and drops in another three. The crowd erupts, the Chinese players get pumped, and then the fit hits the shan.

     In basketball, a screen is a perfectly legal and effective way to help your teammate get open. A moving screen violates the rule when a player extends his shoulder, or hip, or leg, or butt into the player being screened. Some big guys are so smooth at this. Others are not. This time is was flagrant. The Shandong player bowled over Marshall as if they were playing football. No call. Marsh is on the ground looking up, and this guy is yacking down at him. Unacceptable. Marshall hops up into his face.

     From my vantage point on the bench it looked like a simple push, shove, and curse situation. But the Shandong bench ran onto the court. Which means we have to run onto the court. The referees were no match for this. I have been around some basketball fights, mostly it consists of punches that don’t land because guys don’t want to land them. They are usually short affairs with twice as many peacekeepers as there are combatants. Unfortunately, tonight is not a typical basketball fight. It is chaos. They players, and the coaches from Shandong are all looking for someone to hit. Then the fans get involved. It was as serious as it can get. The fans who couldn’t flood the court started throwing whatever they had. It was raining water bottles, chairs, trash cans, everything and anything. At one point a fan with large chunk or railing was heading our way. The Americans had to fight our way off the court, down the tunnel, and find the sanctuary of the locker room.

     My role as calming influence was completely lost in this situation. I tried to guide our guys down the tunnel as quickly as I could. The last player found himself in a bit of a situation as three Shandong players had him at the locker room end of the tunnel. I had one shot at this. I ran toward our guy, pushed him as hard as I could, while body slamming into the door the guys who were holding our players jersey. The jersey tore and our player slipped out of it and got the locker room. I got through the door and moved to the hallway entrance to the locker room. I turned and stood my ground. I was actually thinking of the movie 300. This narrow doorway is where I would make my stand thinking only one person at a time could try to get past. So there I was, standing nose to chest with a panting, sweating, adrenaline rushing player from Shandong. He made his move and in my best dad voice I yelled, “NO”. I raised my finger to his face and yelled it again. He actually stopped. Maybe he was trying to decide which way to kill me, but it was just long enough for the SWAT team to arrive and start pulling guys away from the doorway.

     I went into the locker, nine players accounted for. I told them to lock the door and not anyone in. I have been knocking on hotel doors the whole trip and the guys say I have a distinctive and loud knock. I told them unless it’s me, do not open the door. I go out into the hallway and it’s a mob scene of cops, dignitaries and Robert and Mr. Gao. They are under the impression as some time passed, we would all be of cooler mind and we would continue the game. I assured all who would listen, the USA team was done for tonight and may, in fact, be done for tomorrow also. I could see in Robert’s face that he didn’t want to translate that.  There was a lengthy discussion, none of which I understood. Ten minutes. Twenty minutes. Thirty minutes. I decide to go back into the locker room and see if we were ok. The arena had sent a medical person, more EMT than Doctor, to assist anyone needing attention. Both Marshall and Jordan were attended to. When I looked around, there were several pieces of aluminum tubing in the player’s hands. I asked what that was about and they said spectators tried to come in the windows. The aluminum was a towel hanging rack they destroyed to make some weapons in case the window invasion was successful. WTF?

     Back I go to the hallway. Mr. Gao is now accepting of the fact that tonight’s game is over. He is working with the police to ensure our safe passage back to the hotel. It is over an hour before we are escorted through the bowels of the now dark arena. Uniforms in front of us and behind us. A tunnel of uniforms lead from the arena doorway to the bus door. We drive off the property and onto the quiet street. The bus is quiet, very quiet. As we arrive at the hotel, there is a platoon of uniforms in formation at the front door. Mr. Gao speaks to the team before we unload. He urges the players to control their minds, to act appropriately in the hotel (which, obtw, we share with China), and that he cannot help anyone who does not take this seriously. I think walking past the uniforms cemented how serious China was about this situation.

     Inside the hotel, Mr. Gao, Robert and I are up most of the night making arrangements. The guys just want to load up and sleep at the airport and get out of here right now. The town, the sponsors, the Athletic Administration of China need the game to happen. We are all in touch with the coordinators back in the US, and are informed that while skipping the game may seem the right thing now, in the long run playing will be less problematic. It will be a tough sell in the morning when I talk with the players. I am wired and sleep isn’t going to happen any time soon.

Stars can’t shine without the darkness

2016 May 27

     The Actbang Hotel in Huangshi is a nice place. The display of Ping Pong trophies in the lobby is quite impressive. There is shopping nearby and a park just steps from the hotel where kids play all day. We have been here longer than any place we will stay in China, and we are only half way into our stay. Today we had a walk through at the arena. It is just as impressive as the hotel. Seating is at least 10,000. If the game is a sellout, it will be quite a raucous environment.

     The walk through started off slowly. A day off for an athlete is like Thanksgiving Dinner. It tastes good at the time, but a little later you are laying on the sofa like a zombie. We haven’t done anything for two days (the college visit yesterday doesn’t count as a practice as they hardly broke a sweat).  The guys looked like zombies lacing up their sneakers and venturing out onto the empty court. I let them just BS for about 15 minutes and then got underway.

     Nine players, no managers or assistant coaches to fill the void. My time at Camden County College is paying off. We had many practices with less than a full complement of players. Passing, shooting, running, walking through the old plays, introducing new plays, and a foul shot competition that ended spiritedly. I was pleased.

     Back at the hotel, lunch was ready. Then, the time abyss. There was nothing on the schedule until dinner, and then nothing on the schedule until breakfast.  I read, took a nap, but certainly nothing happened blog worthy. When I went to dinner, I walked in and picked up a plate. It was the same old fare. I made a complete loop of the buffet, put the plate back into the pile, and walked out.

     Aly came past my room and asked if I was going out to walk and if he could join me. I jumped at the chance to get out of the hotel. We set off in search of an ATM as Aly needed a little RMB. The first one we found seemed fine, but we couldn’t navigate the screens on the computer and decided it was certainly the computer’s fault. We walked a couple more blocks and found another machine.
There was a lady there who Aly recruited to help him with the screens. I am assuming that Aly thought I could do it as easily as I read the name tags yesterday at the promotion. The lady was quite nice, but the machine wasn’t. Still no cash. She could speak a little English and asked him how much he was trying to get. Aly said $200 RMB. The lady digs into her pocketbook and tries to give it to him. I look at Aly and ask him what that says about his current attire.  

     As it turns out, this lady works for the Sports Exhibition Center. Seriously? Of all the passers-bye, this lady is from the arena where we play two games. Crazy. While we are trying to turn her down, she calls a friend. The friend tells us about the employment coincidence and that the lady really wants to help us. I suggest we trade USD for the RMB and the offer is accepted. Everyone wins.

     Aly and I continue on our merry way, followed occasionally by the curious group of kids and always by the looks of people who have never seen someone duck through a doorway (Aly, not me). We peek into a few shops, Aly has some souvenirs he still needs, and I buy a beer and some peanuts to fill the void of dinner.  I am back in Room 701 by 9:00pm. There is an English speaking movie channel so I half watched POINT BREAK. (No thumbs for this one, lots of special effects, but the plot line is predictable and the acting is pedestrian.)

     Tomorrow cannot arrive soon enough.

Sometimes painful things can teach us lessons that we didn’t think we needed to know.

2016 May 26 

     I should have known something was up when I was the only American at breakfast at 7:30 am. After an hour, a couple players strolled in. We have nothing on the schedule this morning and I suppose some extra sleep was chosen by many over breakfast. I understand and appreciate that as I would probably have made the same decision in my early 20s. 

    I exit the elevator and start toward my room. Robert calls me into his room and tells me some players had a situation last night. My heart sinks. He gives me the details of a fun night gone wrong. It’s the same story throughout time. Tourists go to a drinking establishment. Feel like they have been deceived. Gets angry. Makes bad decisions. Enter cops. I live in a college town and know how rowdy things can get, but the added element here is the strict code of discipline of China.  Robert and Mr. Gao have done masterful job of keeping our people out of jail apparently. Things are still not completely settled as of our conversation, and Robert and Mr. Gao are pissed. Rightly so. They tell me I must control the players when they are out. That I must yell at them. Not just talk to them. Yell. American players don’t respond to kindness, I am told. It is sad that this is their impression of American players. If you know anything about me, I am not really the yelling type. Even my kids will tell, I need to be pretty worked up about something before I yell. And,as for controlling players on their free time, well that would quite difficult as I am a force of one as they scatter into the night.

     I go to lunch early and wait. Mad. Disappointed. Frustrated. This is a conversation we have had numerous times. I keep the players at the table until all 9 are assembled. I tell them the concept of free time has change. Our once mature approach has been changed to restrictive policy which does not allow for any alcohol or evenings out of the hotel. As you can imagine, this was not received well. I did not throw the offending players under the bus. The other players looked shocked at why this conversation was even happening. I told them we need to act like professionals. We need to be accountable for each other. To which, some balked at the idea of a change for all because of some. They wanted to know the 5 W’s. I told them to ask their teammates. I knew the embarrassment the players would feel detailing their story was better than anything I could have said. (Not to leave you hanging, but it boils down losing face and about $50 USD) Caveat Emptor.

     We have an appearance at 2:30 at a local college. The Hu Bei Normal Institution. It’s a teachers college with about 20,000 students. I am first told, we will be holding a clinic there. I plan for 6 drill stations, personalized shooting instruction from yours truly, a version of full court basketball that involves 15 players at once, and my favorite camp game “The Dash for Cash.” I don’t know how many attendees there will be, or what the ages are, or if they are both guys and girls. There is a lot I don’t know, but I know I will be ready for anything.

     It has been raining all day. We slog through the parking lot full of puddles to enter a lobby with beautiful marble flooring. No mat to wipe our feet, no caution sign to indicate danger. I think back to the sign I saw earlier in the trip: BEWARE OF SLIPPERY. I smile and move carefully. We are lead upstairs to aboard room. As I enter the room, Robert tells me to tell all the players to just smile when they are greeted. Apparently, the same bogus list of player names was sent here. Each seat has a name card in front of it. Without hesitation, I turn and direct players to very specific seats. Each of them is quite impressed with my ability to read Chinese and I am pretty sure the college people were also. Robert knew I was totally bluffing and smiled more than I have seen him do so all trip. We are greeted by the Chancellor, and several Deans. Each gives a welcome to our school speech (interpreted by students who speak English) and we are off on a tour of the facility. We go back down a staircase, past a hallway with dancing dragons at parade rest awaiting their charges and go into a large room. We are about to see a display of martial arts and several large swords and weapons are going to be involved. The display of athleticism is impressive. Quick running, high jumping, twisting and turning in the air, and the swoosh of metal through the air. However, the whole time I was thinking, “Someone really needs to vacuum that carpet.”

     Then it was our turn. We are escorted up several stories of fine marble stairs to the gymnasium. It is nothing special as gyms go: floor needs to be sanded and varnished, backboards need to be cleaned, and there are puddles dotting the floor. A roofer could make big, big, money in this country. The guys are not happy with life in general right now and they attack this promotion with the enthusiasm of a 7th grader doing homework. But there they are: four line passing, three line shooting, and then the fan favorite layup line dunk-a-thon. Three guys volunteer to play three college guys for a couple minutes and the crowd cheer evenly for every basket. A few minutes later, it is all over but the pictures. Lots and lots of pictures. I am pulled to do interviews with the school paper and the TV station. The guys are pulled in million directions as every student has a cell phone and a desire to get a selfie with an American. We aren't back on the bus in just over an hour. I put the well scripted clinic itinerary into my back pocket and breathe a sigh of relief.

     We get back to the hotel and Robert and I have a long conversation about American culture and the attitudes of youthin our society. Sounds like a doctoral thesis if I ever heard one. I am also quite careful not to paint in such broad strokes that every tall, athletic, 20 something is a poor decision maker. His experiences running tours tells him it’s true. I assure him those experiences with some, overshadow the positive interactions he has had because of the stress they cause. If he counted them, the good would far outweigh the bad.

     Dinner and Chill. That is our agenda for the night. At 5:30pm, there was nothing left to do but wait for breakfast. Our new reality. There is a Wal-mart down the street and a few of the guys talk Robert into allowing them to run down there and grab some snacks and movies for the night. I am shocked when he agrees. He sets a one hour limit for the trip and tells them don’t be late. Another player asks if he can go to the indoor basketball court right across from the hotel. Robert agrees to that for one hour. (In my mind, I am thinking apparently nothing bad can happen in less than 60 minutes) Everyone makes the deadline and we settle in for quiet night. I hope.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The journey is as important as the destination

2016 May 25

     My morning starts later than I had hoped, I am still kicking myself for not being in the lobby when the bus left at 5 am. Breakfast. Pack. Load up. We are on the way to Huangshi. Rain and gloom welcome us as we hit the road. There isn’t much to see out the windows and the bus is significantly quieter than it has been. We are currently a shuttle service for the referees and their wives. The guys half-jokingly mumble about not getting calls last night for the price of shuttle service. We pull into a huge railroad station a little more than 4 hours later.

     Our train is scheduled for 2:15 pm. There is plenty of time to get something at McDonald’s (America’s favorite restaurant, lol) and hit the head. All luggage is carried on. Our seats are together, unlike an airplane, and off we go on China’s bullet train. It looks fast parked. Sleek and long, with a pointed nose. My first thought was the movie, Snow Piercer. There is plenty of legroom and I get a window seat. That is good for me because I do not like moving every time someone wants to gets up. The train goes from zero to wow quickly. There is a digital display of the current time and date and temperature and speed. 304 kg/h. That is Indy 500 fast. I take some vids looking out the window, but the weather isn’t cooperating. Things close to the train are just a blur, things far are obstructed by fog. Occasionally, a train passes us going the opposite direction. I can feel the woosh. It’s like a wind crossing a bridge or passing a semi-truck. There are two stops and we cover over 500 kg in less than an hour and a half. We arrive at our destination station, Wuhan. We meander through the station and find our bus and drive to the hotel. Ninety minutes later we arrive.

     The town is sprawling, clearly a working town, and my expectations for this hotel dwindle with each passing block. On our travels, we have seen houses of all types: huge, homey, humble, and hovel. There are clearly delineated sections, with little occasion of exception. Nice is nice. Bad is really bad. Visually speaking. It’s possible that people who live the simplest lifestyle are the happiest. All I know is, traveling makes me appreciate my status as an American and all the privileges it provides. By 6 pm, we are all booked into the rooms and on our way to the dining hall. The hotel is nice. Nicer than the drive up would imply. It is brand new, the elevator buttons shine like they just peeled off the thin protective plastic cover.

     We are greeted at the restaurant by employees wearing cowboy hats and brown vests with fringe. They look like Woody from Toy Story costumes. I walk in and say, “Howdy.” To which, I get zero reply. I quickly drop the Chinese version of what’s up, it sounds like KNEE-HOW, and they smile and wave me toward the buffet. And what a buffet it is. They are going all out to impress us. There is quite an assortment from fish to octopus, to breads and steamers full of entrees. A guy in a tall chef’s hat is hand preparing pan seared steak, chicken, and fish. Plenty of desserts and soda. Even hand dipped ice cream. The guys are chowing down and saying how the next team we play has no chance now that we are eating like kings. I didn’t bring up that we were undefeated on less than diverse foods for fear of creating an agitated attitude. I really don’t care why they feel invincible, I like it.
In the cooler with the soda is beer. Just one kind, but it is cold and included with the meal. This is both good and bad. Good, that while we have the night off everyone can relax. Bad, that not everyone drinks beer with dinner like I do. One meal, one beer. I catch a lot of flak from my family for that, but it works for me. Mr. Gao is quite concerned that players and beer is a bad mix. Initially he tries to prohibit it, but ultimately allows it. I do not take a beer.  I tell the players to act professionally. This is not the first time I have told them, and not the last time they need to hear it. Everything here is a job interview.

     Because of the rain, I don’t think anyone is going to walk around tonight. I go to my room to read and blog and watch soccer. Yes, soccer. One channel on each hotel cable system plays sports. I recently kinda watched a few hours of badminton as I worked through my afternoon pregame routine. (Don’t judge. Badminton is more compelling than you may imagine.) It wasn’t long before I was nodding off, so I laid down and tried to sleep. A phone call, a text message in a group, replies to that group message: every time I got close to asleep something brought me back to reality. The bed feels like something the Flintstones would have. Every hotel has had very firm beds. When I say very firm, I mean a sheet on just a box spring at home would be about the same. Tossing, turning, interruptions made REM impossible. Somewhere in the night, I found an oasis of comfort and drifted to sleep.