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Breakers in China: Assembling the Team

For coach Curt Pickering, finding 10 men for the traveling tour was the first task at hand.

[Editor’s Note: The Santa Barbara Breakers, champions of the West Coast Pro Basketball League, were invited by the Chinese government to play 12 games Sept. 19 through Oct. 5. This is one in a series of articles by Breakers coach Curt Pickering as he reflects on the experience.]

It is a 25-day excursion that I will never forget.

It all started on June 19. My friend, Terry Layton of Colorado, was viewing the Santa Barbara Breakers Web site and noticed that we were 16-0 and heading into the West Coast Basketball League Championship later that week. He called me and said, “Do you want to go to China?” My immediate response was, “Sure.”

Layton had taken a team over in March and knew that the basketball sponsors were looking for a team for September/October to play games in China. He made contact via e-mail later that day with them. We proceeded to win the League Championship on June 21. Two days later, I got an e-mail from China stating that they had viewed our Web site and were inviting us on a tour to play games against their professional teams that participate in the China Basketball Association.

From that moment, I began planning our dream trip to China. I had coached in Asia previously, in Kuwait, Bahrain, United Emirates and the Philippines. But China really captured my attention as it has become the New Frontier for basketball since the marriage of Yao Ming and the NBA in 2002.

Many, many e-mails were to follow in the next 12 weeks as I, as owner/coach of the Santa Barbara Breakers, and Han Yulin, promoter for Chinese Basketball, began a relationship that would bring us face to face in the rich and spacious Republic of China.

Initially, I had to build a roster that would impress not only the Chinese media but also the basketball critics, who are always expecting Michael Jordan and Larry Bird to make a comeback and grace their arenas. Not a chance for that, but I felt that I could at least assemble a group of individuals who would demonstrate athleticism, basketball skill and team play.

That would not be an easy task as most star players would either be on NBA rosters in September/October or already playing overseas. Such was the case of Breaker stars Tyler Newton and Adam Zahn in Japan, point guard Shantay Legans in Holland and 7-foot-1-inch center Rashid Byrd in Mexico. Josh Merrill, MVP of the WCBL, was expecting his first child so he, too, was not available for the tour.

Since I did not provide a big bonus or championship ring for my players who had accomplished an unprecedented 18-0 record during our 2008 spring season in the WCBL, I decided the most loyal gesture I could demonstrate was to offer this great trip to China to our remaining five players who were part of the undefeated season. Four of the five quickly accepted when I gave them the official news the last week of June: Mark Peters, Tim Taylor, Justin Johnson and Allan Purnell, while Jeremy Vague declined because of personal reasons.

I then chose to honor our new WCBL league cast of stars. Armand Thomas, 6-foot-9, 265-pounder was the leading rebounder in the league. He previously had played overseas in Cyprus. He was eager to return to employment internationally, so he gave me a quick thumbs-up.

Tree Small, leading scorer in the WCBL for the Ventura Jets, gave an affirmative, as did First Team All-Defensive Mark Dawson of the Carlsbad BeachDawgs. Filling out the remaining three positions was former Los Angeles Clippers center Keith Closs, who now stands at 7-foot-5, just an inch shy of Yao Ming. Also committing were Kareem Abdul Jabbar, son of the Lakers legendary center. The final participant to fill out the 10-man squad was ABA All-Star Lemar Gayle, who had torched the Breakers in 2007 for 47 points when he played for the Seattle Mountaineers.

Coming up: visas and pre-tour practices.

Curt Pickering is coach of the Santa Barbara Breakers.

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