Alexander returns to birthplace of dreams

Alexander returns to birthplace of dreams
Bucks rookie grew up in Far East
by Truman Reed / special to Bucks.com

Growing up in China Joe Alexander has had a unique journey to the NBA. (NBAE/Getty Images)
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October 15, 2008

MILWAUKEE -- Joe Alexander's rookie season in the National Basketball Association is beginning with an ironic twist.

Before Alexander even plays his first NBA regular-season game, he will celebrate a homecoming -- one that will take him about 6,600 miles away from his new home.

The 21-year-old Milwaukee Bucks forward has returned to the country in which he spent much of his boyhood. He and his teammates are participating in the 2008 NBA China Games this week.

The Bucks' seven-day excursion will include games against the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday, Oct. 15, in Guangzhou (7 a.m. Milwaukee, ESPN2) and Saturday, Oct. 18, in Beijing (10:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 17, Milwaukee, ESPN2).

If the Bucks don't get enough tourist tips from guard Michael Redd and center Andrew Bogut, who visited Beijing just over two months ago while competing in the 2008 Olympiad, Alexander will offer a few of his own -- if he's not too busy carrying their luggage or performing other such rookie initiations.

“They’ve got to see all the main tourist sights, like the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, Tianaman Square," Alexander said. "But also, I hope they get to go out into the city and see some other stuff that a lot of tourists don’t get to see.

“They’re going to eat some crazy local food.”

Alexander was born in Taiwan and lived there briefly before his family moved to Silver Spring, Md., when he was 2 years old.

When Joe was 8 years of age, his family relocated to China when his father was working for Nestle. Joe lived for the next six years in China (in Hong Kong for six months; the rest in Beijing), where he learned the Mandarin language.

Joe attended the Hong Kong International School in Tai Tam. When his family moved to Beijing, the site of the 2008 Olympics, he was a student at the International School of Beijing, Shunyi from 1996 through 2002.

Joe's basketball development could have been stunted in China, where the sport hadn't yet reached the enormous popularity that it enjoys there today.

Fortunately, he had a couple of role models -- and practice partners -- very closeby.

Joe's older brothers, John and Jeremy, became the first foreign players to win the Beijing High School basketball most valuable player award, accomplishing the feat in consecutive seasons.

The older Alexander brothers remember that way back then, Joe was different from the native children and different from them, too, when it came to his basketball passion.

During Joe's college years, his brother Jeremy told a story about a night years ago in which the Alexander brothers were out and about.

One of Jeremy's friends was trying to determine the source of a strange noise coming from nearby. Jeremy laughed and said it was Joe, bouncing his basketball on a nearby playground court -- after midnight.

This was hardly an isolated incident.

The Alexanders gradually understood that Joe's dream of playing in the NBA one day had become an obsession.

Those solitary, late-night hours spent bouncing the ball on the playground courts became the rule rather than the exception. Joe figured he needed to go to extremes if he was going to make the grade.

"It was paranoia," Joe admits today. "Kids in the U.S. play in middle school and high school and can gauge themselves against peers. I didn't know how I compared with other players."

Alexander then returned to the United States to live in Mt. Airy, Md., where he played his junior and senior seasons for Linganore High School.

He played a limited role as a reserve in his junior year, then emerged to average 14.8 points, 7 rebounds and 2.8 assists as a senior. He earned first-team Monocacy Valley Athlete League Chesapeake Conference honors, along with a spot on the Frederick County all-star first team.

He was named Mt. Airy Gazette Player of the Year, 2004 Frederick Gazette Player of the Year, earned first-team honors from the Frederick Gazette and Frederick News Post, and was on The Washington Post’s honorable mention all-Met team. Alexander established school records for blocks in a season (90) and season field-goal percentage (58%).

Recruiters still didn't have Alexander pegged as a prized prospect, and he received only scant attention from Division-III schools (including Washington College, where his brothers were playing) and a few D-II programs.

At age 17, Joe stood 6-6 and weighed only 170 pounds. He opted to spend the following season at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., where he could build his frame and his game.

Playing behind University of Pittsburgh-bound Sam Young and future Villanova player Shane Clark, Alexander saw limited minutes during the 2004-05 season at Hargrave.

Alexander enrolled at West Virginia University in 2005. As a freshman, he played in 10 games while senior starters Kevin Pittsnogle and Mike Gansey led the program back to national prominence.

Joe broke into the Mountaineers' starting lineup during the 2006-07 campaign, during which he broke out for a career-high 23 points in a game against DePaul.

His season was a modest one, though. He averaged 10.3 points and 4.3 rebounds, and scored only 18 total points in WVU's run to the National Invitation Tournament championship.

The West Virginia program -- and Alexander's career -- made a dramatic transition in the months that followed the NIT run.

Coach John Beilein left Morgantown to become head coach at the University of Michigan, and West Virginia alum Bob Huggins left Kansas State University to take over the head-coaching job at WVU.

Huggins installed his renowned strength training program immediately upon his return to his alma mater. Alexander, who had grown to 6-8, soon saw his weight climb to 230 pounds with 20 pounds of additional muscle.

If Alexander didn't celebrate Huggins' arrival, that was understandable.

“When Coach Huggins first arrived, I think he might have said something like he was really excited to see me and get me on the court, and that if I’m no good, I can just leave," Alexander recalled. "That’s his style. And I got used to it.”

He is glad that he did.

Alexander finished his junior season leading the Mountaineers with averages of 16.9 points and 6.4 rebounds per outing. He ranked second on the team with 1.5 blocks per game and third with 2.4 assists and 31.6 minutes per contest.

The finest hour of his WVU career came in the second round of the Big East Conference Tournament when he collected 34 points and seven rebounds in the Mountaineers' 78-72 upset of 15th-ranked Connecticut.

In the NCAA Tournament, Alexander totaled 14 points and eight rebounds in an opening-round win over Arizona, then rang up 22 points and 11 boards in a second-round win over Duke. In the final game of his WVU career, he had 18 points and 10 rebounds as the Mountaineers lost to Xavier in the Sweet 16, 79-75, in overtime.

The Bucks drafted Alexander with the eighth selection in the first round of the 2008 NBA Draft on June 26.

When he met the Milwaukee media for the first time, he talked about realizing that goal he set years earlier.

"This has been a lifelong dream of mine," he said. "Well, obviously, I didn't know much about life at the time; all I knew was my older brothers were really good at basketball and the highest level of ball was the NBA.

"I figured they were going to be there, so I wanted to be better than them. It was simple as that."

As he looks forward to his rookie campaign and looks back on the road that led him toward it, Alexander is grateful that Huggins was there to show him the way -- and provide a forceful push.

"I’m in the league," Alexander siad. "If he hadn't coached me, I wouldn’t be half the player I am. What more can you say?"

Alexander realizes the benefits of playing for a demanding coach pretty astutely for a 21-year-old. And he is seizing his current opportunity to do so as well under the watchful eyes of Scott Skiles.

"I’m welcoming the challenge very much," he said.

And by the end of this week, it will already have taken him full-circle.