Thursday, May 12, 2016

Perception is reality

2016 May 11

     Waking up in a bed felt wonderful.  It was the first night I had slept flat since Los Angeles. I purposefully left the window open to awake to the sound of this city. We are a block from the main street, so the sounds were like morning birds singing a new day into existence. Today’s schedule is pretty mundane. Breakfast. Practice. Promotional appearance. Lunch. Free time. Light pregame. Game. Post-game meal.
     Moving these guys is difficult. It’s not always the same slow pokes. It is disappointing to watch as I have told them the opportunity exists here to make money. The tour promoters are looking at them on and off the court. China is willing to pay top dollar for talent, but they do not want to buy problems. I don’t blame them.
     The mundane wears off when we drive toward City Hall for our promo appearance. There are gigantic blow-up arches across the street leading to the plaza. The plaza is filled with people and the music is pumping. Security parts the crowd so our bus can pull up to the red carpet leading to a podium. There is a narrow path being opened by two officers in front of me as I lead the team from the bus to the podium. It was thrilling. It looked just like every championship ceremony you have ever seen on ESPN, except we have not played one minute of basketball. The Americans were here, and Hunan City is excited about it.

     The players really had no idea something like this was going to happen. BJ Young, a point guard from Univ. of Arkansas, had been here before and was trying to tell the others, but they weren’t buying what he was selling. When the fireworks display began, they all knew this was something they would never forget. The Cheer Squad arrived shortly after us, and they too were greeted warmly. They performed on the podium, and then the entire US Basketball traveling party went into City Hall. I had been in here the last time and it was still impressive. Several group photos, pictures with dignitaries, and thousands of selfies with fans, and yes some people even asked for one with the coach. Now we have been treated like big time players, tonight we have to live up to the hype.

Game Time

     It’s fun to watch an arena fill. The early birds trying to get some up close time before the ushers shoo them away. The slowly building rumble of feet and a thousand conversations. The oohs and aahs as the players get some shots up during the free shooting. And in this case, the swell of cigarette smoke. In China you can smoke just about anywhere and the arena is no exception.  It’s interesting to me how it seems so out of place, but this was the case in the USA not that long ago. Red Auerbach would light up a cigar on the bench when he knew his beloved Celtics had the game in hand.
Underestimating the Chinese players is easy. They don’t look like players. Even the tall guys. When the game gets underway however, they are skilled fundamentally and very good at shooting from the perimeter. We take an early lead, and have to fight them off to hold onto a 1-point lead at the half. The second half was back and forth and the crowd was really pulling for the home team. They would explode every time the US dunked or made a fancy pass, but the longer the Chinese team hung around the more they wanted the upset.
     We are up 9 with two minutes remaing. The tour promoter and the translator are sitting on the bench. The promoter calls time out for me and tells Robert, the translator, to make sure I tell the team not to lose focus and protect the ball. While that is true, it was strange to have someone other than me call a time out. We do what we need to do and win the game 97-88. One game. One win.
     To celebrate, the promoter decided to take everyone out for “a good American meal.” That was a great idea. Except, we didn’t get back to the hotel until 10:30, the guys were not down in the lobby until 11:15 (which at 2 players per room and only one shower was pretty good), and the restaurant was a 5 minute walk through downtown (which was surprisingly quiet at that hour). Robert had gone ahead and made the reservation and placed an order, when I arrived with the players he sent everyone upstairs and asked me to stay with him. We went to a mini-market and got lots of pastries and juice for our early morning ride. He knew we wouldn’t be getting breakfast. A quick clear out of everything that looked breakfasty, and we joined the team. By the time we got there it was already a little crazy, none of the preorder food was ready, some of the guys didn’t know there was a preorder and had ordered from the menu. The Cheer Squad had elected to go right from the arena so they were already there. The slow delivery of food lead to the inevitable: cocktails. The Cheer Squad had a dignified glass of wine with their meal, but when the guys arrived it quickly turned to shots of Fireball with laughing and celebrating and basically young adults doing what young adults do. Apparently, the promoter (by the way, I have not been told his name, he prefers to be called Bossman which to him seems distinguished, but I am not feeling it) doesn’t hang out with the young adults and mid-party shuts the whole thing down claiming everyone was drunk and disorderly. The food trickles out of the kitchen and by the time I leave to walk back to the hotel it is 1:00 am.

In and of itself, that late night isn’t too bad, but the morning bus is at 5:30 am. Ouch.

Side notes:  I have never had a side note section, but there were a couple of tidbits I thought deserved mention.

*during the game, Kyle Casey (Harvard Univ)  was so overwhelmed by the smoking in the arena that walked off the floor to our bench while play was live, bent over and threw up into a cardboard box formerly full of bottled water. As he came to the bench, I inserted Calvin Godfry (Memphis Univ)...the guys joke how they look alike, and the refs didn’t notice the hockey like exchange at our bench. As soon as we got possession, I called time out, and we officially inserted Calvin into the line-up.

*one of the players forgot his uniform top at the hotel and we had to send the bus driver to fetch it from the hotel.

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