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.

Growth isn’t for everybody. Some people want to stay the same forever.

2016 May 24

     The day starts with a tinge of excitement. Did we really just beat the CBA Champs? Can we do it again? As we are boarding the bus, I try to think of all the things I would do differently if I were the coach of the Whales. Then I thought about the way to counteract it. I try to play the game in my head over and over, seeing what happens when we play.  I try to anticipate every possible scenario.

     The ride appears to be uneventful, and when we arrive at the promotion three hours later, the guys are met by 100 or so enthusiastic basketball fans. Both teams are there and the Cheer Squad. The podium is tucked away in a downtown shopping district. Balloons. Banners. A blowup arch. Everyone signs a large poster commemorating the event. There is much glee, but it is short glee. We are back on the bus in no time and arrive at the hotel just in time for lunch.

     The weather looks threatening and I am tired from the road and decide a nap is the best way to spend the afternoon.  By the time pregame meal rolls around, I have a good feeling about how things are going to play out tonight. The players straggle to the bus and away we go.


     This arena is nice. The seating capacity is around 7,000. It’s bright and the floor is full size. This will work for us because we like to run, but will work against us as the Whales will have more room on the perimeter for their shooters. The place is packed.

     The national anthems are played tonight. I stood with my hand over my heart and singing while The Star Spangled Banner played. With the words…and the home of the brave…I lower my hand and start to turn. Did you know there was a second verse? I suppose I did, but I have never ever heard it played at the game. The arena DJ most certainly just grabbed the first version of the anthem they found on the internet and used it. At one point during the extended time, I motion to the scorer’s table to cut it. I mean, what if there are 4 or 5 verses? The Chinese Anthem is quite short. A call to arms, trumpet intro, followed by throbbing percussion, some lyrics, a crescendo, and done. I look around the arena and hardly anyone is singing. I mean not even moving their lips. Is it because they don’t know it or don’t like it? Strikes me odd each time. In the USA, I am surprised when the anthem is not followed by at least a couple USA…USA…USA chants. Here, there is polite clapping.

     My goal last night was to win in such a fashion that the Whales would not want to come back tonight. Sounded bold as you read that yesterday, but it is the only way. If they had won, our cloak of invincibility would have been gone. If we won a close game, they would have come back at us with double the effort to beat an American team knowing that only the smallest thing could turn the game. No, we had to destroy their hope.

     It was a good time to get off to a great start; and we did. It was 26-3 when Robert hopped off the bench and whispered into my ear to let them score. Apparently, Mr. Gao had sent him. Imagine selling 7,000 tickets to a show no one wants to watch anymore and there are two hours left. Remember when I said we are part Lakers, part Globetrotters? The Whales make a couple shots, we miss a couple shots and the first quarter ends 34-12. Clearly, the Whales are done. The USA wants to pad their stats, but they too know it garbage time. I ask the point guards to walk the ball up the floor if we get a rebound. They can run on turnovers. It is not exactly a stall offense, but it takes a few extra seconds off most possessions. You would think I stole the team’s fries. The faces, the comments, and then their play was atrocious. There were three straight possessions where 5 USA players did not cross mid-court converting to defense. Even as I typed the word “converting” I felt like I just insulted the word “converting.”

     Time out. I send the players to the bench and tell them to have a seat. I motion to Robert to bring Mr. Gao to the court so we can talk. With Robert as my mouthpiece, I tell Mr. Gao that we cannot play like this. That I cannot coach with one hand tied behind my back. We need to be allowed to play. I am pretty sure Robert was nervous delivering this message. I am hoping he has grasped the “tiger and stripes” concept. I am also pretty sure he has never been summoned to the court for a chat with the coach. He takes a moment, nods his head, and gives the thumb up, literally as he speaks no English. The second quarter comes to a fast paced close. The guys are hyped because of the on-court summit and finish the half strong. At the half the score is 60-33.

      In the locker room at halftime, I tell the guys how disappointed I am in them. That I did not tell them to stop playing. That I did not tell the quit. That quitting is the least attractive quality in an athlete. I would rather be called a non-talented guy that hustles on every play than a talented guy who quits. They put up some initial resistance, but they knew I was right.

     Remember, this game is over. It is halftime and it’s over. Back to the court. There is a dunk contest every game. Two Americans and two Chinese players. The USA wins every time. Not that the Chinese can’t dunk, they just don’t do it with the same flair.

     The game resumes and there is no buzz. The fans are not into it. The teams are not into it. An interesting side note: I didn’t realize the Jumbotron at our end of the court converted to a huge TV during game action. The one I had been watching just shows the game stats. I look up and there I am. Maybe 10 feet tall. In living color. It was surreal. I then became very conscious of what I was doing. The third quarter ends 98-63. I wanted to go the locker room. I wanted there to be a mercy rule. There was not.

     The fourth quarter was loathsome. Lazy defense. Cherry picking fast breaks. Uncontested baskets at both ends. The kind of action Las Vegas hates as basketball gives away points that impact the over/under and the spread. In the immortal words of Ricky Watters, “for who, for what?” As the final minute wound down the USA finds itself with the ball and a 3 on 1. This will be a lay-up, we just don’t know by whom or by what means: off the glass, alley oop dunk, jumping over the lone defender and jamming it with two hands followed by an extended rim hang to accentuate the action? Nope, a missed pull up jumper mid-lane. I don’t think too much of it as we are up by so much, but apparently that was the straw that broke the camels back.

     I am finishing off the handshake line. I always go last. By the time I get to the bench, there is a commotion. My first thought is a security breach. But it is worse than that, two USA players are going at it. Yelling, swearing, a punch flies, our guys are grabbing the combatants in an effort to separate them. These are big guys with big egos. Do not allow the perception of disrespect to enter the picture. Especially when it comes to basketball and especially in front of thousands of fans. Apparently, player 1 barked at player 2 about not passing the ball on the final possession. Player 2 apparently didn’t like that. Additionally, there had been bad feeling between these two all day going back to a situation on the bus about seating arrangements (of which, we have none) and about where in cabin luggage should be place (also a policy we do not have). Now we have a full scale debacle. It continues down the tunnel, into the locker room. Player 2 is rushed out into the hallway, player 1 is breathing fire in the locker room, a caged bull ready to explode. It is ugly. The police are all around now. Spectators milling about, trying to watch the most exciting thing to happen tonight. It’s a public relations nightmare on full display.

     It takes over an hour to get things to the point where we can leave. Player 2 has been whisked through the bowels of the building and put onto the Cheer Squad bus. The rest of the team has waited enough time to allow for that bus to have a head start enough for player 2 to be escorted to his room and sequestered. In the meantime, I am with player 1. Soothing, comforting, and suspending him until further notice. He doesn’t understand why he suspended for defending himself. I assure him that his actions were embarrassing enough to warrant a suspension and that while he was not the one who threw a punch, his actions and threats were serious violations of any teams’ protocol. He is calming down. He understands that the suspension involves being sequestered in his room until the morning and that food will be brought to him. No leaving for any reason.

     While all of this is happening, Robert and I are on the phone with the travel coordinators in the USA. I know how these things end and it’s not pretty. There is no way these two guys can ever get passed this exchange. Several players express their concern for the safety of players 1 and 2. We all know there is only one solution. I make the call to send player 2 home, to the USA. Arrangements are made and by the time the team bus arrives at the hotel, the deal is done. Player 1 is escorted to his room, reminded of the rules of his sequestration and the assurance that things will be worked out. He does not know player 2 is on the way out.

     I stop in to see player 2. He is upset at his actions, at being suspended, and certainly about being sent home. He knows this is going to impact his chance of hooking on with a Chinese team. While I am in there, Robert and Mr. Gao visit. Mr. Gao gives him all the details of his departure, and travel schedule back the USA. Player 2 is a decent guy who has not made professional decisions on this trip. Hopefully, he is able to get on track and find a team down the line.

     I get to my room and there are many bags of laundry waiting for me. I separated, sort, categorize and display it such a way then when the players swoop through, they can grab and go quickly. Funny thing, I also get the bag of clean uniforms for the Whales. Imagine their surprise when all of their home uniforms are missing.

     It is about 2 am when I crawl into bed. The Cheer Squad and player 2 are leaving at 5. I tell myself that I will be in the lobby when it happens, but I don’t. When I get up at 5:30 I feel badly that I did not say goodbye. I should have been there for him.

OBTW, final score 121-96. 10 games, 10 wins. This was a costly win.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Quest Quote

2016 May 21

     The phone rings about 5:30 am. I was completely, totally, deeply asleep. I pick up the phone and try to fake that I am wide awake. The voice is Joan’s. She knows she woke me and asked if I was asleep. I tell her it’s cool, I had to answer the phone anyway. We chat briefly and the day is underway. Hotels in China have either great Wi-Fi, or poor. One of them only had it in the lobby, but it was really good there.

     Today is the rare day where we play, but do not have a morning shoot around. We check out of the hotel, bus a couple hours to the next city, and check into a new hotel. We arrive at the Wangjiang Hotel in Jinhua around 10:30. Stumble out of the bus, check in and head to lunch. The hotel is older and is showing its age. There was peeling wallpaper, some dinge to the carpets, and the ever present smell of stale smoke.   Darren and Byron’s room is pretty bad on all counts and they need to switch right away. Laundry out. Downstairs to eat. Free afternoon.

     The city is bustling and there appears to be much to see. I decide to go for a walk with the Cheer Squad coach and her mom. We get a couple blocks and see a beautiful arch. We decide to check things out and find a great arboretum and walking park. We meander through there for an hour or so and find ourselves at the foot of hotel when we pop back onto the street. From there we go to Starbucks, thanks smartphone apps, and find ourselves at a mall. When we first walk in, it doesn’t appear too impressive, but it turns out to be cool. Six floors of Western shopping bliss. Another hour or more and it’s back to the hotel. My pregame ritual starts at 3. Ironing my game clothes, reading all the game notes I had for this team, and setting our line-up and strategy and points of emphasis.


     We have played this team before. The ZJJN Bulls. They are not nearly as talented as we are, but they are scrappy, borderline dirty. They know how to stay in a game, and maybe more importantly take us out of ours.

     Tonight there are many pregame activities we have not done before: pretend games with little kids, a soccer style introduction where each player escorts a kid out onto the court, the kids stay out there during the ceremonial team handshake. All of this is nice, but it cuts into the routine. We don’t warm up well in general, which I believe is a direct cause of many of our slow starts.

        The tip goes our way, we score and score often and have total control. And then, the chipping begins. Hard fouls, dirty plays, calls that make me scratch my head. The usual. At one point Byron is trying to come off a screen and his defender slows him down by grabbing his jersey. Not unusual, but this time it was a handful and he tugged the neck down to his waist. Byron reacted and it was called a double foul. In China, the ref believes it evens thing off and is totally fair if each team gets a foul. It was typical of our night.

      Our lead rose and fell, but we never trailed in the first half. I forgot to write the score down, but I know the spread was 7 points. My big concern was fouls. We were racking them up, and when the Bulls got a player in trouble we couldn’t get him out. Their two main guys had 3 fouls at the half and I wanted them to pick up quick ones and sit for a while. Not to be. Those two guys played with 3 fouls each until the 4th quarter. It was lack of focused aggression on our part. The players didn’t target them in our haste to just get some stats. We were up 13 at the close of the 3rd. The lead would dwindle to 5, then 3 and you could feel the crowd begin to really root up a storm. Their coach was pretty animated at this point and they were subbing guys every dead ball in an effort to stay fresh. They were not going to wilt down the stretch.

     Fortunately, the stretch worked out for us. Key rebounding by Kyle, good decisions by Tyler, and key baskets by Byron helped us cement the ugly win. The final score is 86-78. Eight games, eight wins.

     Tomorrow will come early. The bus leaves at 7:00 am. I am hoping everyone acts like a pro tonight and we don’t have to chase people to be on time.

Friday, May 20, 2016

To sleep, perchance to dream

2016 May 20

    The day started about as early as day can start. I fell asleep about 11:30 after my late night balcony session. Again, I slept with the sliding door open for fresh air and the anticipation of the morning sounds. Bang. I thought it was a gunshot. Bang. I sat up in bed. BANGbangBANGbangBANG…

     The hotel next door decided 12:08 was a good time to celebrate something. The fireworks last only 5 minutes and lit up the Riverwalk. A sigh of relieve that my imagination had gotten carried away, and back to dreamland. I was fast asleep when the phone rang. It was 2:35. It was Robert. There were guests in the lobby complaining about the noise from the players’ rooms. The hotel isn’t happy, Robert isn’t happy, and now I am not happy. I walk down there and it’s clear what room is the problem. I stand in the hallway for just a moment trying to decipher the voices but there are many, players and Cheer Squad alike. I knock on the door authoritatively. The hysterical sound of people shhhh-ing others and then a lone player opens the door as if he had just been awoken. It takes all I have to maintain my stern face and deliver the message that there have been complaints about the room being loud and it has to stop. He assures me that he understands and it will. I go back to my room, set an alarm for 10 minutes and head back there. As I approach the room, I see a Cheer Squad member scamper back to her room in what I believe are her pajamas. While it is slightly better, it is not acceptable. A different player opens the door when I knock the second time. I tell them to clear the room now. He agrees. I go back to my room and set my alarm for 30 minutes. For the third time I walk the length of the hallway. Halfway, I pass a room of Cheer Squad voices, I pause listening for the typical baritone voice of someone over 5’5” inches tall. I don’t hear any. I move down to the original noisy room and it’s quiet. I am relieved and head back to bed for the 4th time tonight.

     There is a speed bump in front of the hotel. As speed bumps go it is not that impressive. When a car drives over it there is no sound. But at 6:23, a rattling old vehicle full of unsecured cargo rolled over it. The noise was multifaceted. Shaking vehicle, clanging cargo, and the ever present beep. Welcome to sunrise. There is a heavy fog covering the area. This city is situated in the valley of some mountains so the fog is not lifting any time soon. No “once in a lifetime’ morning view today either. Well, I am up. I check my social media, text Joan, and start to pack. When all of that is taken care of, I go downstairs for breakfast, then I walk a few blocks to a coffee shop. I place my order in Chinese and actually get what I want. Yes! Then I almost balk at the cost, $12 RMB. I put it into my currency converter and see that $1.83 USD is a very fair price for a steaming cup of black coffee. Back to the hotel, up to my perch, and the comings and goings along the river, which included a 20 minute exercise session for hotel employees that looked like line dancing class.

   Today we have a short ride to Quzhou City. I am thinking I can get some reading done, maybe even catch 20 winks on the bus. Nope. I am sitting next to Kyle, who is a very interesting guy. Deep. Inquisitive. Smart. He is always working on something: writing music, writing a book, trying to line up his next basketball contract. He has lots of energy. When we arrive it’s time for the routine. Lobby. Room assignments. Laundry out. Go to eat. Some of the players are having roommate drama. Not everyone wants to room with everyone else. I get it, but it’s tiring after a while. I have decided for the next few hotels we will just pick randomly, and if they get a bad pairing we will just blame it on my hat.

    I hand out the keys, work through the drama and the players are off. Only to return very quickly because housekeeping has not prepared the rooms yet. Some are just messy, some are gross. Ladies are working frantically under the watchful eye of the manager and everyone is situated within 30 minutes. Sitting at lunch was the most peaceful thing I have done so far. Robert and I just chit chat about the American mentality and how it differs from China. I told him that what he admires about American athletes (big, strong, aggressive) is not what they do, rather it’s who they are. A tiger cannot change its stripes. It’s rare for an athlete to completely turn it off when they are not competing. He seemed to understand, and he seemed to like the nature reference. The afternoon is free and I tell all the players to use it to rest. Hopefully they do.


     The rain is coming down pretty hard as drive to the arena. The police car lights in front of and behind us make cool reflections through the bus windows. The ride is short and we hustle through the elements. Inside the place is pretty small. I would guess the seating capacity to be less than 3,000. The game is delayed because fans cannot get inside efficiently. The place is packed by tip time. The game is also being televised locally. I would imagine with the density of population, that there are several million people able to watch this game at home. Imagine that. My pregame talk is about why people watch sports on TV. One is escapism from their day to day life. Another is to have the chance to see something they have never seen before. My final point, you never know when you are going to see the greatest game you ever saw. Sports is the ultimate reality show. I tell the team to be the best show on TV tonight.

     We get off to a decent start and that was almost enough to salt things away.  Their coach implored them, played different line-ups, utilized several defenses, but we had the answers and controlled the game. At the half we were up 9. The excitement came as the second half got underway. The Chinese knew this was their last chance. They didn’t just trim the lead, they took it. But this group of guys has grown, and we stayed the course. It wasn’t long before we were back ahead. And then the floodgates opened. By the middle of the 4th quarter, we were up 20 and on cruise control. The final minute and a half we lolly-gagged, gave away a couple nothing 3’s and avoided any of the pleasantries that marred the previous few games. The final was 97-85. Seven games, seven wins.

People are capable, at any time in their lives, of doing what they dream of.

2016 May 19

     I awoke to the gentle sound of beeping from the street 8 stories below. I left the sliding door to the balcony open to get fresh air and for the street to act as my alarm clock. It is very quiet in the overnight hours, but slowly comes to life around 5:30. I rolled over and looked out over the river. It was hazy and my once in a lifetime view will have to wait until tomorrow.

     After breakfast, the team walked to practice. I am not sure I have ever walked to practice as a coach, and it may have been high school the last time I did it altogether. It made complete sense. The building is just on the other side of the river and there is a bridge a block away that leads right to the arena parking lot. When we arrive, the Cheer Squad is already there and practicing. They wind things up and we ramp things up. I don’t want to go too hard, but we didn’t do anything yesterday and I want to put in some new wrinkles. We will be playing the same team from last game, the Lions. It is hard to beat a team back to back, especially when they have some material from which to scout. Our sneaky ace in the hole is Marshall. They have not seen how well he shoots the ball. We start with the passing drill and shooting and some full court press break style running, but we spend most of our walk through time on zone offense. We had a basic set in, and I wanted to tweak that one a little and put in a new one. Zone offenses are designed to take advantage of space by creating deception. It’s important for the player with the ball to either attack the basket or be patient and wait for the next pass to develop. With all that stressed, we put in two more in-bounds plays to highlight certain shots for certain players. We run full court for 15 minutes practicing our new zone stuff, shoot some fouls and call it an hour. We walk back to the hotel.

     Sitting at the lunch table with Robert, our Chinese scouts come and sit with us for a minute. They tell me, through Robert, that the Lions will be playing mostly zone tonight. I smile. I knew that was the only way to protect their very tall, but very slow center. When the Lions arrived at the arena for practice, they insisted that everyone leave. I suppose that everyone meant only Americans as the scouts clearly we able to see what the Lions did at practice.

     After lunch, the laundry arrived at my room. Fold it. Sort it. Have the guys come down to my room to claim it. When the last player left, I ironed my tonight clothes and left for a walk to the other side of the river. I can see the shopping from my balcony and it looked hopping last night. The walk lasts 2 hours. The stores are about 20 minutes away and I stroll the avenue looking in lots of windows. I only go into a few. One was a music store where a nice looking guitar could be had for $880 RMB, and another was an alcohol and tobacco store where I thought I would be able to find a cigar. No luck. I am hoping to end my night tonight with a beer and cigar on the balcony. Did I mention I have a balcony with a kick ass view? Two hours later I am steps from the hotel when I think a bird or an air conditioner has dripped on me. The temperature is upper 70’s, but it is humid. Then another drip. It starts to rain and I count my lucky stars that I am right at the hotel and not across the river. Perfect timing.

Game time

      We walk to the game in uniforms. I think we look silly, but no one complains and it’s a short walk. The gym is already hot and there is hardly anyone inside. By the time tip-off happens, the air is thick. More from the high humidity than smoking. I start Tyler and Aly as they have yet to start a game. Tyler is a game manager, and Aly hustles. I am nervous that Aly may not be able to handle the 7’2” center. We begin the game with three very good shot opportunities and come away with zero points. It should be 6-2, but it’s not. And then, the Lions go on a run and before you know it, it is 24-1. One point in five minutes. I feel like I could get one point in 5 minutes, but we just couldn’t buy a bucket. Wholesale substitutions. The next group of guys chips away and starts to get us back. It was just a matter of getting a couple stops and believing the ball would go in. As we start to close the gap, they go zone. Our eyes goes wide as we know we will kill their zone.

     By the half, we are up 43-38. That’s a 42-13 run to end the half. Damn. Unlike a couple games ago when we got down, tonight the players were pretty calm about it. Lesson learned. However, they are still overreacting to official’s calls. The animated American athlete you see on Sports Center is great for TV ratings and selling tickets, but completely unaccepted here in the land of respect based culture. Think about the Asian kids at the Little League World Series as they bow to umpire before each at bat. The refs are not use to such antics and are quick to call fouls, assess technical fouls, and generally whine to Robert about how I need to change my player’s attitudes. The ref’s are not wrong, it is just not going to happen.

     The second half the Lions came out swinging, but they didn’t have enough to go the distance. They fell farther and farther behind and our players got more and more energized as solid defense turned to exciting fast break chances at the other end. Marshall breaks their spirit with back to back to back three’s. We were sailing right along. Up 20 with a couple minutes to play. An elbow here. A grab of the shirt there. The Chinese team was tired and frustrated and didn’t want to lose again. With 4.8 second on the clock, a loose ball going out under the basket becomes a projectile. A Chinese player jumps out of bounds, grabs it, turns and fires it back in play. The problem is Marshall’s face was right there. So in a moment that mean nothing, we are about to have an international incident.

     There was much cursing and some shoving. There were threats of great ill doing. But, it didn’t get all the way to a fight as it had before. Then came the dreaded handshake line. I know it’s a great tradition in hockey after a series, I just don’t think we need it after every game as a rule. If some guys want to meet at half court and exchange pleasantries, that’s cool. Everyone else should be free to go to the locker room. So the finals seconds of a good win were obscured by drama. Nonetheless, the final score was 96-77. (95-53 after the first 5 minutes) (wow).

     As I write this I am sitting on the balcony. There was no chair out here so I dragged an over-sized upholstered arm chair into the night air. I am smoking and imaginary cigar because I could not find one when I was shopping today. I am drinking an imaginary beer because I was too lazy after dinner to walk the two blocks to the market to get one. On the plus side, my feet are up, the night is beautiful, and both the beer and cigar are perfect. 

Life is either a daring adventure or nothing

2016 May 18

     Today’s the kind of day I could easily forget when I get home and talk about my trip. It was mainly a long bus ride on an interstate type highway. We drove through mountain tunnels, we passed open areas, we saw squalor and we saw progress. For me, it was a constant battle between reading, looking out the window, and taking a nap. Each won their segment of time, but I felt I would be missing something every time I stopped looking out the window.

     The rest stop was not unlike the New Jersey Turnpike. Busses, trucks, individual cars lined up and the inhabitants rushing in for what people rush in for. They rush until team walks off the bus. I am not the shortest, but I am pretty close to it. Even in the United States we would draw looks, but the fact we are Americans and also very tall makes people stop in their tracks. And just like the United States, several of the guys take the chance to get ice cream or snacks to enjoy while we ride. I miss the days of unbridled consumption, but these guys can really consume.

     We know we are getting close when the high rise buildings don’t stop. The bus driver skillfully slinks through the city streets. At one point, I swear we are going the wrong way on a one-way street, but neither he nor the drivers coming at us seem too worried about it. We pull into the hotel and it is located right in the heart of downtown. There is a river flowing past it with shopping on both sides of the river and the hotel stands watch over the whole thing.

     Checking in is a process. We are a block of 15 rooms. The front desk rarely looks prepared for our arrival, and the chatter between the promoter or Robert and the hotel staff always seems tense. My key is handed to me first. Then I am given 5 room keys for the players. Each new hotel requires us to surrender our passports. I am carrying those. I am not sure this is the most secure way to do it, but the first couple check-ins were delayed due to players’ inability to locate theirs. Also, the president and the vice-president don’t fly in the same plane; what if something happened to my bag? The whole squad would be SOL. While it is easy, it may not be best. I create a log of who is in each room, hand the payers the keys and hand a copy of the log to the promoter (yes, I am sure he has a name which I have not been told, he prefers bossman. I understand the concept as I am comfortable with being called coach, but I just haven’t warmed to the name). At this point, everyone scatters.

     Before I leave the front desk area, Byron Wesley (Gonzaga Univ.) is already back from his room with a situation. There is a Russian man in his room. Not just in there, this guy in entrenched. Clearly the hotel double booked that room and we were second to arrive. I make the room list carefully as to have good neighbors. Byron and Derrek White (Campbell Univ.) have been great neighbors: no loud music, no late night slamming doors, zero shenanigans. I like that. Now they would be moving down the hallway and my trust circle is gone. Am I happy about that? Nyet.

     Dinner has the same offerings, but with a gourmet presentation.  There are several stations with chefs in long white hats preparing individual servings. It is a far cry from the last place where the best they had to offer for breakfast was toast with jelly, not even butter. And no coffee. But I digress. I am looking forward to eating here for two days to say the least.

     My room here has an incredible view looking down the river and all its activities on display. The mountains at the end create a visual backdrop that makes me want to walk out onto the private balcony and sit for hours. It would be a great spot for a sunset happy hour. I am looking forward to watching the sun rise.

     Tonight, I walked a few blocks to a mall. I am not much of a mall person, but it wasn’t that big a mall, and it was nice to get some exercise. There was a super market, lots of clothing stores, jewelry, food places, the usual list of retail places. Not being a shopper, I am not sure what a bargain is. The jewelry looked shiny and nice, but who knows about quality. The clothing looked like hipster paradise with sizes designed to look tight. The sales people were all very nice and patient as I tried to ask questions in Chinese. The best part of a smart phone is the ability to translate language and convert money. What a blessing.

     The night ended sitting in the lobby chit chatting with Robert and Aly along with Ana (the Cheer Squad coach) and Carmen (Ana’s mom). We split a bottle of red wine and enjoyed stories from China, Egypt, Bolivia (Carmen is Bolivian) and of course, the USA.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Act without expectation

2016 May 17

     This morning’s shoot around was a lazy affair: some shooting, walking through the plays and discussing when and why and what to do when it breaks down. Much more of a mental exercise than physical. Marshall twisted his foot in the final minute of the last game, and was trying to decide if he could go tonight. We decided not to decide. He will wait until pregame. Which means he will feel fine because he is wearing a uniform and feeling the vibe of the crowd. The risk is having him at say 80% for the rest of the tour, or resting him tonight and getting him all the way to 100%.

     As we are walking off the floor, I am handed a paper. Seems Robert and the promoter are quite concerned about tonight’s game. There are three national team players, a guy referred to as the “Michael Jordan of the Taiwan”, and the coach has won the Chinese Basketball Association title 7 times. The paper contains a personnel scout of the team. Their top 7 players listed with abilities and physical attributes. The center will be 7’2”, and the other guard is apparently a deadly three point shooter. My level of concern for our winning streak has risen. It is difficult for a group of guys to beat a team. I have been the benefactor of great team play during my career and have beaten some pretty talented groups of guys. I am hoping our guys play together tonight.

     On the way back to the hotel, we stop at an elementary school. It has a college type campus with a guard house at the main gate. We are given a tour of the school: 5 floors, multiple buildings, kids look to be 8 to 13. During the tour, we learn the area is proud of its heritage and it is a major producer of yellow peaches. How ‘bout that? The tour ends at the gym. There is game in progress when we arrive, but it doesn’t stay live very long. Soon, the place is mobbed with kids. At one point, the players who were sitting were completely swamped and I heard Calvin calling for them to back up. Of course, none of them did as they don’t speak English and were too excited to comply. A few of the guys played around with the student players. Tricking them with moves used on playgrounds all around the USA. They were delighted.

     As we were leaving, Aly asked if he could visit a classroom. I tagged along and off we went. This was Classroom 101: desks in neat rows, teacher desk at the front, presumably motivational posters on the wall. The teacher asked Aly to teach them something in English, which Aly himself is still mastering. He quickly made it a lesson in counting. Using his fingers and a big smile, he was soon leading a chorus of 1,2,3,4,5… It was great to see him interact and how they received him.
The afternoon is free, so I walked around for about 90 minutes, took a nap, ironed my tonight outfit and read, read, and reread the scouting report.

Game time:

     I am feeling a certain pressure tonight to play well. I know the promoter takes great pride in the team he is hosting from the United States and there is prestige for him if we win. I also know that losing by a big number is unacceptable. It is alright if we lose and play competitively, but getting blown out is unacceptable. The promoter, for the first time, comes into the locker room pregame and asks the guys to play with a noble spirit. To play hard and fair, and to play the best we can. I am sure some of that is from the situation at the end of the last game, and some from his anxiety about the team we are about to play.   I decide that Marshall will dress, but he will not play. That’s officially called a DNP-CD, did not play-coaches decision. Marshall seems fine with it, but Robert and the promoter do not.

     My points of emphasis are team play. We started in game 3, played well in game 4, and tonight we need to play better than that. I have told the guys all the information in the scouting report and they look ready. We win the tip, run down and score. Then we get a stop and go down and score, and then we steal the ball and score. 6-0 to start the game. We play great defensively, and well enough offensively to build a 23-9 lead at the end of the first quarter. We give most of it back in the second quarter and go into halftime up a couple points.

     The Chinese team actually takes the lead early in the third, but we wear them down. They actually went to a 2-3 zone which we completely trashed and took the lead back for good. By the fourth quarter, they were out of gas and we pulled away, building the lead to 19. Some sloppy possessions in the closing minutes and allowing a three at the buzzer made the final score 103-93. The promoter was happy, most of the players were happy (the unhappy ones were concerned with distribution of playing time, or style of play by teammates). Robert was happy. Life is good. Five games, five wins.

     Just as a side note: this area will host President Obama, President Putin, and the Prime Minister Abe (of Japan) soon and security at the arena was heavy. I hope they all have as good a time as I did.

I’ve heard that hard work never killed anyone, but I say why take a chance?

2016 May 16

     Today was a welcome reprieve from out hectic schedule of the last few days. The only thing on the agenda is a bus ride to Jianshan City. Waking up early does not seem to be a problem here and today is no exception. If I am awake and in my room, I keep the door open. I never know when one of the players, or Robert will need me for something. I packed last night, so I was just reading when I decided to go to breakfast well before our scheduled time. There was only one person in there and it was a Cheer Squad girl. More of our group trickled in slowly and by the time I was done eating pretty much everyone who was going to eat breakfast had arrived.

     I decided to walk across the street to see the awesome hotel next door. It is the Sheridan Huzhou. Google it. It’s an amazing oval building overlooking a marina. Steve Weingarten, LaSalle Univ., joined me and we had a great time walking around. We just strolled in like we owned the place, took an elevator to the 25th floor, walked out onto a balcony and enjoyed the amazing views. On the apron of the property was some shopping, but it was too early for the places to be open. We took some pictures and ventured back to the hotel. By 9:15, we were all on the bus and on the road.

     The ride seemed quick, about 2 hours, and our new hotel seemed like a palace. It has an elevator inside…oOoOo. After checking in, getting the laundry out into the hallway, and eating lunch, the guys were free to spend the day as they pleased. I stayed in and relaxed. I thought I was going to watch some sports or a movie, but napping turned out to be the winner. Dinner was the usual offerings and several of us decided we would walk around afterward to see what was close by.   But before the walk, PEAK Athletics had delivered a box of goodies for us: sneakers, wrist bands, socks, etc. When free merchandise is involved it always looks like a feeding frenzy. I carefully organized it into piles easily consumed by the players. This went pretty smoothly and I think each player got what they wanted. Unfortunately, PEAK underestimated how many large size (15 and up) shoes we needed. The guys didn’t seem to mind as they took a smaller size pair in anticipation of using them as gifts. It was good to see a positive spin on what may have turned into a problem.

     There were 5 of us all together on the walk. Tyler, Kyle, Jordan, and Aly Ahmed (CSU-Bakersfield). We just walked about a half mile down one side of the street and back up the other. It’s nice to spend time with the players casually. No expectations, no pressure. We drew some attention as not only Americans, but tall Americans. Most people just watched, a few were brave enough to come over and ask for pictures. We went into a clothing store that sold Galvin Kline, yup Galvin, and Chanel, yup just one “n”. We couldn’t stop laughing. Toward the end we slipped into a market and picked up some fruit. I almost had my first successful haggling purchase for a suitcase. I am going to need one soon to carry the freebies I have been getting on the trip. But alas, we could not find a happy medium, so it will have to wait.

     As we were checking out, we saw a cooler with beer, Budweiser beer at that. Aly told me that he would buy the beer he owed me from an ill-advised bet he made me earlier. He bragged about a patented move he likes and I said I didn’t think it would work. When we got back to the hotel, Aly and I spent the next couple hours talking. He was drinking beer and eating fruit and I was drinking beer and enjoying the cigar I brought from home. It was a very relaxing end to the day

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Into every life, a little rain must fall.

2016 May 15

     It’s been a drizzling dreary day. The good part was sleeping in was the first agenda item. Breakfast wasn’t until 8:30 am. The bad part was the bus ride in the rain, couldn’t see much out the window. I have been passing time reading several things: magazines, a couple books, and things I have stored on my phone. All those things I say I will get to if I ever have some free time. One book is a Tami Hoag mystery about a potential serial killer in Minnesota. I read one of her books the last time I came to China and thought it fitting to do so again.

     The afternoon was unscheduled, but with the rain I didn’t feel motivated to go out. Time seemed to pass slowly. Three players and the Cheer Squad went to a sponsor photo shoot at 5:45. Robert traveled with them. I had the rest of the players and the promoter with me 30 minutes later. We all arrive at the arena about the same time and I think we are in good shape. Think, thank, thunk. Turns out, one of the three players brought his white uniform, instead of his green. Yes, they gave us green uniforms. Not the color I would have picked for the USA, but they are decent quality: imagine Boston Celtic green.  We sent the bus driver back to the hotel to get the uniform and he returns with moments to spare.


     This is the third game in three nights in three different towns. My pregame speech is about just doing your job. We need to just take care of the basics. The one complication is water leaks. Because of the daylong rain, the roof has been leaking and there are puddles on the court. The players don’t want to play and I do not blame them. There is considerable conversation and anxiety about it. The thought of playing cross-court is considered. The arena would put baskets opposing themselves at center court to take advantage of the driest part of the wood. Really? Yes, indeed really. I was thinking how mad I would be if I bought center court lower level tickets and they turned out to be behind the basket seating. The good news is the rain stopped, the leaks slowed to almost none, and the game was played on time and in the right direction.

     As for the game, we were in control, but took a while to command. A three point lead became five. Which in time stretched to seven. The action was tense. The play was physical. As our lead increased, the Chinese team became more frustrated. American players tend to wear their hearts on the sleeves and tonight was no exception. I am not quite sure why our players talk to the refs, other than out of habit. All the ref sees is this giant of man yelling at him, waving his arms, and acting wild. The refs warned the benches that the calls would be tighter to avoid further incidents. Remember, this is a culture based on respect. By halftime we were up a dozen.

     I was pleased with the way our second group was playing and decided to start the second half with them. There was no complaining. A far cry from where we have been and a true sign of growth. That unit plays well and withstands the urgent effort of the Chinese team to get within striking distance before the game was out of hand. When it was time to sub, we were up 13. The next group takes the court and things change. Sometimes it harder to play with a lead than it is to chase. With a lead, you can take a chance with a pass, take a shot that may be ill advised. The thinking being it’s just one possession. We have a lead, why not. The problem isn’t just one. The problem is a snowball rolling down the hill. If everyone is out for themselves, the why shouldn’t I be? One selfish decision becomes two, three, four. And at the end of the 3rd quarter, we are only up 6. I sub in the second half starters and it is back to basics. They build the lead back to a dozen by the time we usually make the subs. I turn to the guys on the bench and tell them I am enjoying watching this group play and I am leaving them in. again, no one complained as they clearly saw the same thing I was seeing. With about 4 minutes left in the quarter, I sub. We are up 19 points and the game is in hand. But the game is not over. The next few minutes are physical and intense. Culminating with one of their players throwing an elbow into the jaw of Marshall Henderson, Ole Miss. Marshall attacks the guy and the benches erupt. In the USA, there would be ejections and fines. There were neither here officially, but I walked Marshall to the locker room and told him to stay there. We finished out the final minute incident free, got through the handshake line, and got out of there. Four games, four wins.

      The promoter takes us to Pizza Hut after the game, when we arrive everything was waiting, 10 single sized pizzas, 10 drinks, 10 chicken wing apps. We sat and ate and left. I was thankful not to have a repeat of the last restaurant fiasco. The rain has returned and the ride back to the hotel is quiet. We do not play tomorrow, but will be on the road again in the morning.