REFLECTING ON CHINA: A BOND NOT SOON BROKEN
It was a golden evening outside of Beijing, a breeze ridding the air of the hazy gray-brown that sometimes suffocates the valleys around China’s capital city. The Clippers were more than 1,700 feet above sea level at the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall and the sun had reached that position in the sky where the horizon seems to glow.
Wearing matching navy blue hooded sweatsuits, the team meandered along the mountain crest, atop stone blocks that dated back nearly 700 years. They were moving towards a watchtower about 500 yards from where they ascended the mountainside via a track of six-person gondolas.
For many of the players on the trip, China was a first-time venture, some like Jamal Crawford or DeAndre Jordan never imagined they would travel there. But basketball, as it’s emerged over the last decade as the world’s second most popular sport to soccer, has a way of opening doors to unexpected things. And while the Clippers gathered beneath an ancient watchtower for a group photograph, the sun slowly washing away the final remnants of dusk, their weeklong basketball and cultural journey was only beginning.
During their seven days in China, the Clippers rode buses everywhere, ate in the hotel, shopped, practiced, played, walked the city, read to children at a migrant school, and rapped lyrics to Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac tracks, and they did it all together. According to superstar Chris Paul, one of eight holdovers from last season, it was a necessary bonding experience for a team adding at least seven new faces, but at the same time it was incredibly special.
“The bus rides,” Paul said following the Clippers’ 99-89 win over the Heat in Shanghai. “We had a lot of fun on the bus rides, everybody just talking about everything. When you have a new team like this and everybody is new to each other, you need those experiences. Like Lamar [Odom], we’ve been together for a week and a half, but I feel like I’ve known the man for the last 10 years, so I think that’s good for us.”
Odom, who was among those championing 2Pac and Biggie on his iPod, shared Paul’s sentiment. “To be able to come here and do what we love on the other side of the world is a big deal,” Odom said. “Camaraderie is important in this game and the time that we spent here was time well spent.”
While the trip was essentially designed as a weeklong segment of training camp, albeit more than 4,000 miles from home with two exhibition games squeezed in, the itinerary was far more demanding. Aside from their trip to the Great Wall, the team was introduced as VIP guests at receptions in Beijing and Shanghai; donated, with NBA Cares, a reading and learning center and hosted a basketball skills clinic at Huangzhoung school; participated in two wildly popular media days; and practiced for an hour in front of thousands of fans as part of the first-ever NBA China Fan Appreciation Day.
“It’s just amazing how huge of basketball fans they are here,” Jordan said. “I’m glad we could be a part of something like this.”
The fans showed up in droves for both games; a 94-80 loss to Miami in Beijing on Thursday and the aforementioned win in Shanghai three days later. They adored superstar Blake Griffin, who earned player of the game honors for his 13-point, 10-rebound performance in Shanghai. They were awed by Jordan’s highlight reel blocks and dunks and Jamal Crawford’s ability to lull Ray Allen into a crossover for a mid-range jumper. They chanted “C-P-3” in Beijing while Paul was out of the lineup. All-in-all, they were an enthusiastic NBA crowd with an uncanny ability to put together spirited renditions of the “wave.”
“The fans are smart,” Griffin said. “They know about the game and they know what’s going on. They know the history of the game. When Bill Russell came out on the floor in the second half [of the game in Beijing] and they gave him a big ovation, I thought that was really cool that fans all the way across the world know that much about the game and know who the greats are.”
After the afternoon game in Shanghai, a place Odom called “incredible,” the team took one last bus ride, 45 minutes from Mercedes-Benz Arena to the airport. There were definitely positives etched into their on-court performance: Jordan’s 8-for-8 shooting, Crawford’s third straight double-digit scoring effort, the bench’s second-quarter output, and Paul’s return.
However, much like six days prior when the group stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the fading light, atop one of the world’s most astonishing wonders, they were once again glowing. Not because they were leaving, but more so because they knew what lay ahead of them.
“It was perfect for us and all of us got to know each other a lot lot better,” Paul said. “The things that are priceless are the conversations that you have with your teammates.”