Bobcats coach, GM Bickerstaff talks about Bullets' visit to China in '79
Coach Recalls China Trip

By Rob Peterson

(This article ran on before the first-ever China Games in 2004)

When the Rockets and Kings head to Shanghai and Beijing this October, they won't be the first NBA teams to play in China. The Washington Bullets made a trip to play the Chinese National team (they won both games) in the summer of 1979. Current Charlotte Bobcats coach and general manager Bernie Bickerstaff was an assistant coach on the '79 Bullets team. As the Rockets and Kings prepare to travel to the Far East, Bickerstaff remembers what his trip to Asia was like.

How was that Bullets' trip to China?
Bernie Bickerstaff: "It was a great experience. It was a great trip. We went over there when they were making the transformations of the names of the cities. You know, Peking to Beijing. While we were there we saw everyone riding the bicycles and we visited the Great Wall. It was amazing to think of all the work that went into [the Great Wall]."

Bickerstaff is seen here (in the lower left corner) helping to coach the 1978 Bullets.
(Walter Iooss Jr./NBAE/Getty Images)
How did the China trip come about? Bickerstaff: "I think we may have been a fill-in, because [1978-79 NBA Champion] Seattle didn't go. We had won the NBA title [in 1977-78] and after that we went to Israel. But because we were runner-up, we were the fill-ins."

What was the level of talent in China at that time?
Bickerstaff: "At the time, it wasn't very good. They had a guy at that time, he was maybe 7-4, 7-5. And by no means did he have the quickness that Yao Ming has. What they thought was their strength was their weakness. The guy was big, but he didn't move very well and he didn't have the lateral quickness.

"They did take us to these academies where they had table tennis, volleyball, basketball and the best players at each. They took us into this room where they had all these table-tennis tables. There must have been 50 to 60 table-tennis tables where they had people playing. You could tell how important sports was becoming."

Did you have any idea then that China would be this much better in basketball now?
Bickerstaff: "When you saw that academy, a lot of the people there didn't have the stature of basketball players. Now, the big guy I talked about earlier, he didn't have the agility. As a matter of fact, he was a freak in terms of size. Now, they have a players who are 7-0, 7-1 who have agility."

What do you think the NBA players can expect in terms of atmosphere this time?
Bickerstaff: "Even back then, it was like we were on stage, out on tour. Whenever we stopped the vans, people would come up and just stare at the guys. When we landed with China Airlines, the workers who picked up our bags came out on those hand carts that they used on the railroads. But a lot has changed in China since then. There's been much more progress."

Did you see anything else that was interesting?
Bickerstaff: "The amazing thing while we were there was we were able to observe an open-chest operation. There was a guy who had tuberculosis and they were taking a spot off his lung. We were in the observatory and they wanted to show us the impact of acupuncture. Someone was just sitting at the bottom by the patient's feet, manipulating the needles. We saw the open chest cavity.

"At the end, they showed the guy taking a bite out of an apple to show that he was conscious while this was going on and that he wasn't in pain. It was one of the most amazing things we had seen."

How did you guys get an invitation to that?
Bickerstaff: "This is one of the things they wanted to show us while we were there."

You wouldn't recommend it though?
Bickerstaff "(Laughs). No. Still, that was the most amazing thing I had ever seen."