After, living in China for over two and a half years, we’re used to unpredictable randomness. So when we found out that our next interview, Antoine Wright, was staying right across the hall from a just interviewed James Singleton in the team hotel in Nanjing, we were a little surprised, but not totally shocked. It was just yet another reason to expect the unexpected in the Middle Kingdom.
Already happy that we wouldn’t have to schlep across the city in the rain to go out and meet Antoine, we were even happier when he allowed us to sit down and interview him immediately after introducing ourselves.
As old NiuBBall readers know already, Wright’s been a big hit in Jiangsu. Coming into the team midseason after several former NBA veterans and China had enough of each other, including Ricky Davis in Jiangsu, the 6-7 guard/forward came into the league and immediately went to work, and his team reeled off five wins in his first five games after getting off to a shaky start to the season.
Battling a big, nagging injury to their big center, Tang Zhengdong, however, the Dragons have slid a bit in the standings recently. And with Tang likely to miss the remainder of the season with the troublesome right knee that has gotten worse and worse as the season has advanced, a team that was already thin up front suddenly lacks a big body to go alongside the team’s other import player, Jerome Moiso.
Shorthanded, Wright and Jiangsu have still been finding ways to win games. Winners of three of their last four, Jiangsu has a one game lead over Zhejiang Guangsha for fourth place with nine games to go in the regular season.
We were able to talk to Antoine about his time so far in Nanjing, living without central heating in Southern China, and a lot more in our conversation on Friday.
NiuBBall: It looks like you guys just lost your big man in the middle, Tang Zhengdong, for a while, maybe for the rest of the season. How is that going to affect the rest of the season going forward?
Antoine Wright: Well, he’s a big part of our offense. We run a lot of plays for him and just his presence alone makes other teams need to scout for him and prepare for him, so with him being out, it’s going to fall on some of the other guys. They’re going to have to pick it up. Some of the guys who haven’t been getting minutes are going to be thrown in there and they have to give us something, because we don’t have a lot of size otherwise.
NiuBBall: I asked [former Dallas Mavericks teammate] James [Singleton] the same thing, although your situation differs from his because you came into the league mid-season and he came before the season in October, so you might have a different answer. You joined Jiangsu to replace another NBA veteran who had some problems adjusting to this country and this league, and I think upon arrival you were able to fit in with the team and help them win games. Why do you think that adjustment was made so smoothly?
AW: It’s a business, and this being my first overseas experience, I wanted it to go well. So I took it seriously. We didn’t really have much time for me to practice with the team or really figure out the plays, but I’m a smart basketball player. I know how to play the game. This is my sixth year as a professional, so a lot of times its just about professionalism and approaching the game with the right attitude and trying to play the game the right way and not underestimating the guys your playing with. [The local players] have been around this league for a while, so they pretty much know what to expect, and you just try to feed of those guys’ energy and the way they play so you can try to find your way through the maze.
NiuBBall: This being your first time playing overseas, were you nervous at all about coming to a new country with a totally different culture and language?
AW: I wasn’t nervous about the game, but about the lifestyle and the distance and the change in expectations. I didn’t really know what to expect from the actual competition standpoint. But, I’m confident in what I can do as a basketball player. Most of my nervousness came from the off-court things, off-court issues, but not from the game itself. I was more anxious to play and see what it was like, as opposed to being nervous about the competition level.
NiuBBall: What were some of your initial expectations when you got to China about the competition level? Did you have some thoughts based on things you’d heard about the league from before? Had you even heard anything about the league before?
AW: To be honest with you, I hadn’t heard much. I really hadn’t. The only person I had really gotten some feedback from was Patrick O’Bryant. And that’s when he was leaving [China], when I talked to him he was in Vegas and he had just left [Fujian SBS]. He and I were training together and I was surprised to see him back, so I asked him about his experience and why he was back and all that stuff. He really didn’t give me much, but the information that I had gotten from him wasn’t how I expected my experience to go. I thought, with Patrick and myself being in different stages in our careers and our lives, I approached coming out here differently. So, I didn’t really get much from him about coming out here.
NiuBBall: Living in China, what are some of the biggest day-to-day lifestyle adjustments you’ve had to make after living in the States for your whole life?
AW: It’s pretty structured around here. Lunch is the same time every day, dinner is the same time every day, breakfast… it’s just a different culture. So you have to make those adjustments on the fly. For me, the biggest adjustments are lifestyle. The travel, being in cold gyms, the officiating, the different rules, not being able to start, having to come off the bench sometimes, playing two quarters some games, three quarters other games… All of those things have been major adjustments. But, I’m competitive. I see those things, if anything, as a handicap, really. They’re things you have to play through. For me, it’s been a challenge. Those things are a challenge every game, because you never know what’s going to happen. You never know if the gym is going to be heated, you never know what the refs are going to be like and if you’re going to get in foul trouble, you never know if you’re going to start or come off the bench, so you just have to adjust.
NiuBBall: I wanted to ask you about that, about the cold here in Nanjing. I know you’ve played in cold areas like New Jersey and Toronto, so you know what cold is. But, I’m not sure everyone out West knows what it’s like over here. Try to explain to people what it’s like to be cold here and what it’s like to be cold out in Canada or the States.
AW: Cold at home is when you’re outside [laughing]. That to me is the difference. When you’re outside. When you’re cold here, it’s everywhere. The hotel’s cold, the gym’s cold, the bus is cold, the plane’s cold, bus to the plane is cold, everything is cold. It’s not a situation where you can run and be out of it, like “Hey, it’s warm here.” It’s just a different level. Canada is cold and at times we would play in the arena and they had just taken the ice up so it would still be kind of cold in there, but once the game gets going and once the fans get in there, it warms up pretty quickly. It’s just an adjustment, man. It’s hard. Right now I’m dealing with a swollen thumb and sometimes it’s tough to get in a rhythm, catch the ball and do those things just because of the temperature in the gym. It’s just completely different, man. It’s nothing like I anticipated. It’s something you have to try and play through each game because I’ve never played in gyms as cold as the ones out here. And it’s every night. Some gyms I’ll think, “Oh, its a little warmer here,” but it’s still cold! So it’s just a major adjustment. It’s been rough, it’s been really rough. Especially playing on the road. During shoot-arounds, you might as well be outside most of the time. I mean, it’s difficult, but once you get over it and just kind of understand that this is something you’re going to have to live with and that it’s not going to change, you just kind of got to fight through it and just remember what you’re here for. Just try to get it done.
NiuBBall: In a cold gym, is it harder to warm up and get loose? Is that something you have to adjust your game for?
AW: They give us enough time to warm up and to shoot before the game. But, it’s not something that you can warm up to I don’t think. It’s just something you have to deal with. Some nights, you have to adjust your game. You can’t shoot a lot of jump shots just because it’s not falling for whatever reason. It might not be the mechanics, it might not be all that stuff. It might just be nature taking its course. You got to start taking it to the basket or make other things happen. So, that’s the adjustment I’ve learned. When I first got here, I was shooting the ball really well and then I ran into some situations where the gym wasn’t as accommodating and I didn’t have a great shooting night or whatever. But, in those times you just got be a basketball player. You got to adjust your game, get to the basket, get to the free-throw line and try to find another rhythm of the game.
NiuBBall: Now that you’ve been here for part of a season, if there was a lockout next season and a NBA guy came up to you said “Hey, I’m thinking about playing in China,” what would you say to him? Would you recommend him to come out here? Is there any advice you’d give him?
AW: I would tell him it’s a good opportunity to play in a good league. I would say it’s completely different than the NBA, so don’t expect to be like that. I wouldn’t have anything really negative to say. I would just say be prepared to make some pretty drastic adjustments as far as your lifestyle to what you’re used to. But, as far as basketball, it’s all business. When you come here, expect to be thrust into a position where a team is counting on you to produce. And if you don’t produce, you know what the outcome will be.
NiuBBall: Are you trying to get back to the NBA?
AW: Absolutely. I’m here because I’m not in the NBA. I signed with a team this summer, and I was expecting to fulfill that commitment for the year and then make plans after that. I wasn’t expecting to be here. My number one goal is to be playing in the NBA again and to take my career to another level hopefully.
NiuBBall: In the event of a lockout, would you consider returning to China or possibly going somewhere else overseas?
AW: I think we’d all have to. Like I said, I think it’s a business. Sometimes it throws you curveballs and you just kinda gotta roll with them. I don’t think there’d be many players opposed to playing overseas with a lockout, and China’s an option. It’s definitely a feasible option for guys to consider with the amount of money that’s being given here and the competition level. Guys are coming out here and its raising the level and it’s something that would have to be considered once those other things are ruled out.
NiuBBall: What’s the food been like for you?
AW: Man, the food’s been really different. I’ve tried the Chinese food and I pick and choose to try to sort through it and see the things that I like, the things I can recognize and the things that I don’t like. For the most part, that’s how it’s been for me. I try to eat some of it. I’ve always liked rice; I’ve always eaten a lot of rice. I’ll eat rice for the most part. Sometimes I’ll find something that I like and I try different things. Other times, you just got to order McDonalds [laughing]. You gotta get some McDonalds or some KFC, man. Because, those are your options [for American food] out here, that’s what you got to live with. The team has tried their hardest to make it better for me eating wise. They get me steaks, they get me pasta. Here [at the hotel Jiangsu was staying at that day], we’re fortunate enough to get steak and pasta, but it’s been an adjustment eating wise. I’ve lost a lot of weight. I’ve lost about eight or nine pounds since I’ve been here. It’s something that if I was better prepared for, I would have made some adjustments. I would have brought some things from home. But, that’s something that the guys who have been here all year have already adjust to. Me, learning on the fly, it’s something I haven’t really been able to get in a rhythm with. I’ve just been doing my best with it.
NiuBBall: Nanjing is not like Shanghai, Beijing or Guangzhou, there’s not as much Western culture here. So what have you been doing to pass the time? What’s your day-to-day routine like? Do you hang out with [teammate] Jerome [Moiso]?
AW: You know, not that much. Jerome’s kind of quiet and he’s more of an adventurer than I am. He’ll go out, walk around, go to find things… I’m not really like that. I stay in my room for the most part. I talk on Skype, on the phone, I watch movies, internet. That’s pretty much what I’m doing, that’s pretty much how my life has been since I’ve been here. I haven’t really been exploring as much. Over the [Spring Festival break] I did get to get out a little, I went to Macao and I had a cool time over the break. But, for the most part, my life consists of hanging out in the room. It’s pretty boring, but what can you do?
NiuBBall: Just another one of those adjustments you were talking about before, huh?
AW: Yeah, you just kinda gotta roll with it. My family’s been really good, I call home a lot. I’m on Skype a lot.
NiuBBall: Picked up any Mandarin?
AW: You know, I’ve learned some words and then forgot them. Every now and again I’ll ask somebody how to say something and that’ll be my word for the day. But, I haven’t really picked up any. From what I’ve heard, Stephon Marbury is learning it pretty good.
NiuBBall: Yeah, I just posted up a video of him speaking Chinese on the site. As a foreigner who has learned the language and can speak it OK, his pronunciation is pretty good, it’s gotten a lot better.
AW: Oh, yeah?
NiuBBall: He studies and everything, he seems pretty into it. He’s picking it up.
AW: Yeah, that’s what I heard. He’s been over here longer than me, he’s been over here for a couple of years right? Who knows? Maybe if I come back next year, I’ll look into it a little bit. It’s not something I’m trying to get down right now, though.
NiuBBall: Antoine, thanks again for the conversation and good luck with the rest of the season.