Thursday, February 7, 2013

Basketball Diplomacy

China caught on to Dr. James Naismith's game faster than any other
country outside North America.

Naismith is credited with inventing basketball in 1891. Some historians have pointed to 1895 as the year that YMCA proselytizers introduced the sport to rural China. Max Exner, a missionary who learned at the right hand of the good doctor, brought basketball to Beijing in 1908 as the country was in the last throes of the Qing dynasty.

Hoops took hold immediately and has been a part of China's culture ever since. It survived the rise of Communism in 1949 and the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, when the country went insular and the United States cut off contact.

The “ping-pong diplomacy” of 1971 helped thaw the icy Sino-American relationship, clearing the way for Richard Nixon's visit the next year.

With China partially opened to the U.S, there also came some “basketball diplomacy” in 1973: A group of men’s college players became the first Americans to play a team competition in China. An amateur women's team from John F. Kennedy College also joined the trip.

Gene Bartow of Memphis State coached the U.S. men's team, which toured China for three weeks and played three games.

The top players were a wiry and scraggly haired George Karl, fresh off setting the UNC single-season assist record with 192, and Quinn Buckner, a young Indiana marvel who played basketball for Bob Knight and football for Lee Corso.

Other future pros on the U.S. team included Ricky Kelley, Kevin Grevey and Alvan Adams.
The trip included a televised game at the Capital Gymnasium in Beijing on June 16, 1973. It was attended by Jiang Qing, wife of Mao Zedong.

The theme of the event, as noted by TV broadcaster Dick Enberg and later in a Sports Illustrated article, was "friendship first, competition second."

That sentiment was established immediately, with both teams greeting each other effusively and the players marching across the court together with their hands held high.

The early action was ragged with several foul calls. But, in keeping with the spirit of the game, after each whistle a player would raise his hand and acknowledge the foul.

The Chinese team played like it hadn't seen much of the modern game, dutifully running its plays and going through all the passing progressions. Still, China had some solid mid-range shooters like Chang Ta-Wei, who finished with a game-high 17 points.

The U.S. team, which hadn't practiced together much before the trip, took some time to get its bearings. China took leads of 11-10, 13-12 and 15-14.

But Karl began picking apart the Chinese defense as the U.S. went on an 8-0 run to establish control. It's likely that China had never seen a player with Karl's quickness and ball-handling.

The U.S. won in a rout, 88-59, as Karl had 16 points and at least 10 assists.

But China had been thrust into basketball modernity. The country became part of the global game and devoted more resources to the sport as the government loosened the reins on the economy.

The game that had intrigued China in the early 20th century grew at an accelerated rate, with Wang ZhiZhi making it to the NBA in 2001. A year later came the country’s high point in hoops — Yao Ming selected No. 1 overall in the NBA draft.