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Breakers in China: Visiting Beijing and Climbing the Great Wall

After sightseeing and snapping up bargains at a downtown shopping center, it was time to get down to the business of basketball.

[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.]

Twelve days before departing for China, Mr. Han, our basketball sponsor, had e-mailed me and asked if we wanted to spend three days in Beijing to see all of the landmark sights. The players immediately said yes.

So, our next trip from Fuxin was beautiful Beijing, where the 2008 Olympics had just occurred. The country was proud of hosting such an honorable event and in late September was continuing to show highlights of the Games and pageantry.

During the next three days, we spent a half day at the Great Wall of China, walking up the vast steps for a two hours and returning to the parking lot in cable cars. Later that afternoon, we visited the Summer Palace, along with a boat ride on a large lake that adjoined the great museum.

It was raining the following day, so we declared this “Black Market Day.” There was every item imaginable at rock-bottom prices at the downtown shopping center. But, like a Tijuana swap meet, you had to negotiate, and in most cases the clerks would triple-team you, trying to persuade you to pay a much higher price than you intended. Players made off like bandits, purchasing DVDs, iPods, cameras, video cameras, Tommy Bahama clothes, purses, watches and luggage. I had told them to travel light on the flight to China. There were so many great items to select not only for themselves but for friends and families back home.

There were several American restaurants to choose from in the area. Several players went to Outback, Hooters, Chili’s, McDonald’s, Subway and KFC. Another option was players ordering room service and watching HBO or going on their laptops to communicate back home.

On day three, we visited Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. The players thought they had the day off from basketball conditioning. They were wrong. From noon to 5 p.m., we walked through these two majestic land treasures. We were all fatigued as we reached the bus to go to dinner.

Was that the end of the day? No. After dining at an authentic Chinese restaurant, which again offered some very peculiar meat dishes, and taking turns calling home on the restaurant phone, the players voted to give the “Black Market Extravaganza” one more shot. God only knows how much more the players spent and if they would be able to squeeze all those items into their two allotted luggage bags on the flight home to Los Angeles. But, hey, that was still two weeks away.

» Sept. 25: After breakfast, which offered a personal chef dishing up omelets and loaded scrambled eggs, we boarded the bus for our next “Rock Star” tour of duty. The bus dropped us off at the Beijing train station, where we began the rigorous task of dragging our luggage up and down long flights of stairs to the train. We made our way to the “High-speed Train,” as our translator, Mr. Lee called it. A four-hour journey in the full-capacity capsule led us to Chaoyang, another 4 million-plus populated city. It is here, at the Yuhan International Hotel, that we settled in for a four-night stay, a record at this point, for longest duration of time in one city. No complaints, just keeping score.

At Friday morning’s breakfast, I reminded the players that, “Oh, by the way, we’re playing basketball for the next three days.” They were eager to get back on the floor and display their skills. So, we conducted a 90-minute practice, which provided great conditioning, sharpening the shooting touch and a refresher course on our offense and defensive plays.

When we drove to the arena to play our game at 7:30 p.m., we were impressed. Coined “The Spaceship” or “The UFO” by the local media, we were met by a mob of 800 to 900 fans in the parking lot, which forced the bus driver to pull up close to the front doors.

When we walked inside the arena, we were even more impressed. It had the makings of an NBA arena, and this city, too, had requested that the Santa Barbara Breakers play the first game ever in its new facility. We were honored. Little did we know that the Chaoyang Pep Band also had been savoring up a special tune or two. They struck a chord over and over, and I repeat over and over, with the theme song to Bonanza. I felt like Ben, Hoss, Adam and Little Joe were right there with us as they played that song eight to 10 times before the initial jump ball went up.

The Jilin Tigers jumped out to a quick 13-3 lead and was flushing jumpshots from three-point land. We cut the lead to 37-29 at halftime, and then the trio of Jabbar, Johnson and Dawson turned the game around at both ends of the floor and the Breakers squeaked out a 91-89 victory. We were 2-0 in christening new arenas in China.

» Sept. 27: It was the usual breakfast, relax, lunch, massage, relax and ride the bus to the “Spaceship/UFO” routine. Only this time, we were facing the Liaoning Dragons, considered one of the top two professional teams in the CBA-China Basketball Association.

I knew I forgot something before I left Santa Barbara. Oh, yeah: three honest, capable, competent referees. We sure could have used them on this night. From the beginning, it was clear that the men wearing the zebra shirts were not doing us any favorsg. At the end of the first quarter, we were whistled for 10 fouls. How many did the Dragons commit? One.

It didn’t get any better as we trailed by 18 points in the second quarter. We started getting physical. If we were going to foul out, we might as well earn it. More importantly, as a team we gained greater focus on the task, and with 4:30 left in the game, we had ourselves a 63-60 lead. Just when we dug ourselves out of a deep hole, the sand caved in; the Dragons finished the game on a 13-3 run and we lost another heartbreaker, 73-67. We all learned a lot that night.

» Sept. 28: In our final game at the Spaceship/UFO, the Korean SkyHawks jumped out on us early, similar to the previous evening. Down by 20 points, the Breakers made another courageous comeback and closed the gap to 92-91 with 51 seconds to play. Korean teams, internationally known for being small, quick and phenomenal three-point shooters, did not disappoint their reputation. They buried two more threes in the final seconds to secure a 99-95 win.

Coming up: Sharing the history of the inventive Dr. Naismith.

Curt Pickering is coach of the Santa Barbara Breakers.

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