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Craig Smith Interview

June 24, 2013

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If you’ve watched Craig Smith play basketball for a bit, you’ve probably heard this phrase thrown around.

Craig Smith is a beast.

We were some of the early ones to figure that out.

In November 2002, perched on the familiar confines of our Section I, Row 13 seats inside Conte Forum, we watched on excitedly as Smith out-worked, out-muscled and out-played the mighty BABC All-Stars in his Boston College Eagles pre-season exhibition debut. After witnessing Al Skinner’s latest diamond-in-the-rough reveal himself as a ready-out-the-box Big East forward, we quickly arrived at another thought. You know, besides the whole beast bit.

Hope this guy stays four years.

Luckily for the Pastuszek family, who watched almost every home game as Boston College season ticket holders in the same Section I, Row 13 seats from 2000 to 2011 — and for every other Eagles basketball supporter, for that matter — Craig Smith did end up staying through his senior season. As part of a long line of similarly under-the-radar players that Skinner and his staff roamed the country to find and recruit to The Heights, the 6-7 250 pound power forward played alongside Troy Bell, Uka Agbai, Louis Hinnant, Jared Dudley and Tyrese Rice among several other key players from that era to spearhead a golden age in the program’s history. By the time senior night came in March 2006, Smith had personally amassed 2,349 points and 1,114 rebounds and had led the Eagles to a record-setting 96 wins, including a school record 28 in 2005-06, alongside three NCAA tournament appearances.

For those who weren’t as lucky as we were to catch Smith beast the competition in college, they certainly had their chance to see it at the game’s highest level. After Smith graduated Boston College, he went on to be drafted 36th overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the 2006 NBA Draft. He would go onto stay in the NBA for six seasons, playing for the Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers as well.

Now, playing in his first pro season overseas, he’s taking the beast thing global. After spending time in Israel with Hapoel Jerusalem, Smith is now in China, playing for the Hong Kong Xinda Bulls of the National Basketball League. A middle of the pack squad last year, the Bulls are off to a 9-4 start with Smith leading the way. Through the weekend, he’s averaging 32.5 points and 13.8 rebounds per game on 63% shooting, according to Asia-Basket. With promotion into China’s top league, the Chinese Basketball Association, potentially on the line, this season means more than ever for NBL teams this season; a fact not lost on Smith, whose dominance has garnered the attention of Asia-Basket, awarding him as the league’s mid-season MVP.

Last week, we jumped on the phone with the Los Angeles native to talk about the season, living in China, his days at Boston College and playing for a Hong Kong team that plays everywhere but Hong Kong.

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Is There a Second Chance at NBA Stardom for Yi Jianlian?

April 9, 2013

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A week has passed since the Guangdong Southern Tigers captured their eighth Chinese Basketball Association title with a 4-0 series win over the upstart Shandong Gold Lions to place themselves alongside the Bayi Rockets with the most titles in the CBA’s short history.

After a stunning loss to the Beijing Ducks in the 2011/12 CBA Finals, the Tigers made sure that their next trip would assure them of victory. And one of the reasons behind this season’s success was because of Yi Jianlian.

Following another unsuccessful stint in the National Basketball Association with the Dallas Mavericks, the former sixth overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft made a return to the CBA and picked up where left off the last time he was in the league. After averaging 24.6 points and 10.5 rebounds over the season, it can be said that the seven-footer provided a great impact to his team’s pursuit in regaining the CBA crown.

With the season now over and respective provincial and regional teams preparing for the upcoming National Games in Liaoning province as well as the country’s various national teams gearing up for their summer schedules, one question that will consume many basketball enthusiasts’ minds in the coming months is whether Yi’s performance this season could secure him a contract with an NBA team next season.

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Pooh Jeter and Zaid Abbas Interview

February 9, 2013

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For almost eight months in 2006-07 while I was studying abroad at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, I would wake up an extra 15 minutes early to walk in the complete opposite direction from my 8:00am morning class to buy the crown jewel of Chinese street food: Jianbing, a snack that has since been frequently immortalized on these very blog pages.

At night, I would come back to UIBE’s west gate to enjoy another, yet quite different staple of my China-college existence: Niu Da Wan, a 24-hour noodle spot that served beer, chuanr (lamb skewers), chicken wings and a whole bunch of other tasty stuff. On a steamy Beijing summer night, there was in my opinion no place better for this nearly broke language student to hang out, talk with friends and watch China slowly pass me by.

Memories of jianbing and chuanr stayed with me throughout my final year at the University of San Francisco, and I looked forward to the day when I would head back to two of my favorite spots and relive my tasty days of yore. But when I came back over a year later, not only were both places torn down and under construction; the entire west gate block had essentially been subjected to 2008 Olympics demolition, rendering my former stomping ground largely unrecognizable.

People who’ve watched the Shandong Gold Lions this season can relate.

Since their last playoff appearance in 2008-09, the Gold Lions have finished either tantalizingly close to a post-season spot or agonizingly deep down in the standings. Last season, despite a roster full of promising young talent, the team hit a low point, finishing among the last four teams while playing a rhythmless brand of basketball  and generally looking like a franchise without much in the way of short-term optimism.

Oh, how things can change in this country.

On the last day of the Year of the Dragon, the Gold Lions head into the new year on a red hot 15-game win streak and most importantly, having locked up the league’s No. 2 seed after defeating DongGuan on Wednesday at home. At 23-7 with two games remaining in the regular season, Shandong will head into the playoffs with a better record than defending champion Beijing and perennial contender Xinjiang, both of whom were among the list of teams expected to finish towards the top of the league.

The difference between last year and this year for the Gold Lions has been like night and day; or like 2007 and 2008 UIBE west gate. But whereas the Olympics spurred massive change over in NiuBBall.com’s old hood, it’s been a trio of foreign players, Pooh Jeter, Zaid Abbas and Jackson Vroman, who have helped lead the change this year in Jinan.

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Maya Moore Interview

December 4, 2012

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Playing in China this season for the Shanxi Flame, Maya Moore has been largely unstoppable in her first nine games, all of which have been wins.

The best basketball player in China right now isn’t on the Beijing Ducks, Qingdao Eagles, Shanghai Sharks or the Guangdong Southern Tigers. Or any other CBA team for that matter.

No, the best basketball player in China right now plays for the Shanxi Flame. And her name is Maya Moore.

In case you missed it, Moore, an Olympic gold medalist, two-time NCAA champion, a WNBA champion and a European champion as well,  is playing in the Women’s China Basketball Association this season. Part by choice, part by necessity, Moore, like Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi before her, is using the WNBA off-season to play abroad. Whereas male superstars in the NBA can take the summer off to rest and recovery, playing almost year-round is a reality that even top players like Moore have to live with. The average salary in the WNBA is $72,000, and max deals are capped at $105,000 annually. Compared to other professions, that’s hardly chump change. But compared to the salaries that are paid by professional teams overseas, some of which come in the high six figures for top players, playing ball in the off-season comes as a huge chunk of a player’s annual income.

With Europe still feeling the effects of a financial downturn, China and its very considerable money has recently emerged as a top destination for the world’s elite women basketball players. Besides Moore, Tamika Catchings (Guangdong), Jayne Appel (Henan), Liz Cambridge (Zhejiang) and Sophia Young (Beijing) are all playing on different teams in the Middle Kingdom.

As a foreigner playing professional ball in a completely different language and culture inside China, everyone’s experience is unique. Moore is certainly no exception. With a Spanish head coach who speaks minimal English, a Korean teammate who speaks a few words of English and zero Chinese and Chinese teammates who speak no Spanish, no Korean and basic-at-best English there are four languages being spoken in the huddle, all of which are being communicated by three separate translators.

On the court, the experience is quite different as well. Unlike the CBA, where teams can have two and sometimes up to three foreigners, teams in the WCBA are only allowed one non-Asian import. The increased pressure placed on each Westerner to perform at a high level every game is another aspect that separates the on-court dynamics from those in the States.

Yet Moore, who has clearly been the best player in the league so far this season, hasn’t lived down to any of those challenges thus far. Still playing in the WNBA with the Minnesota Lynx when the Chinese season started last month, Moore joined the Flame mid-season for their third game — a mere eight days after playing her last WNBA game against the Indiana Fever in the league’s finals. Starting the 2012-13 campaign 0-2 without her, the Flame are now 9-2 since her debut and Moore is averaging an outrageous 43.9 points, 12.9 rebounds, 4.4 steals and 1.9 blocks per game according to Asia-Basket.com.

Besides helping out in the box score, Moore is also helping out in other areas as well, the most visible of which is team outfitting. Unlike in the CBA, where new league sponsor Li-Ning supplies a huge box of gear to every player free of charge, the women in the WCBA have to pay for their shoes and sweats out of pocket — a considerable expense for the vast majority of Chinese players who earn fractions of what their male counterparts make. So Moore, who became the first woman to sign an endorsement deal with Brand Jordan last year, is supplying her teammates with free Jumpman gear, including a sweet pair of Flame-colored yellow and red shoes that most of her teammates have been wearing in-game.

Presented with the chance to see Moore in person last weekend against NiuBBall’s home city squad, the defending champion Beijing Great Wall, we did what any Beijing-based basketball fan would do in that situation; we quickly jumped onto Line 1 and made the long trek out to Shijingshan.

We’re quite glad we did, too. The 6-0 guard was simply dominant in Shanxi’s 83-75 win. Displaying her full arsenal of offensive weapons, Moore finished with 45 points, 16 rebounds and four assists while playing all 48 minutes. Defensively, Moore roamed everywhere along the baseline, clogging up cutters, helping to stop dribble penetration and coming over quickly from the weak side to body-up opponents from in close. The performance further entrenched our belief that Moore is a transcendent athlete and that her journey is story that simply requires attention.

NiuBBall caught up with Moore this weekend in Beijing to discuss the experience of playing in Shanxi, her experience this summer in London, and her trouble finding a good slice of cake in China.

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Brian Goorjian Interview (Part 2)

September 25, 2012

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In Part 2 of NiuBBall.com’s interview with DongGuan New Century head coach, Brian Goorjian, we discuss philosophies on player development, the progression of basketball in Australia and the direction of Chinese basketball among other topics.

If you missed it, click here to read Part 1.

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Brian Goorjian Interview (Part 1)

September 24, 2012

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With a clearly evident passion for the game of basketball, DongGuan New Century head coach, Brian Goorjian, has ushered in a new and exciting era in Southern China. (Photo: Osports)

Dwelling on what’s wrong with Chinese basketball is a pastime enjoyed by many, both within China’s borders and outside – one that’s accumulated more participants since the National Team’s summer 0-5 debacle at the 2012 London Olympics. It’s a problem with education system… It’s too political… Chinese bodies aren’t suited for a power sport like basketball… If you’ve got some time to burn, ask somebody what’s wrong with basketball in China and listen.

But what’s right with Chinese hoops? That’s a conversation rarely had, at least in the circles that NiuBBall runs with in Beijing. Which is really too bad. Because constantly dwelling on the wrong  – something we have been guilty of ourselves — is pretty unfair when there’s so much right going on with Brian Goorjian down in DongGuan, Guangdong province.

Stressing comprehensive, long-term Chinese player development, Goorjian and the DongGuan New Century Leopard youth movement have become arguably the best story in Chinese basketball over the last three years; a story that can be better appreciated when you understand some of its background.

Starting with their inception in 2003 and entrance into the Chinese Basketball Association in 2005, the Leopards were mostly known throughout the 2000s as the middling neighbor that happened to share the same town as Chinese Basketball Association powerhouse, the Guangdong Hongyuan Southern Tigers. By no means a bad team, the Leopards went through an average first five years in the league, finishing with back-to-back fourth place finishes in 2007-08 and 2008-09 sandwiched in between three seasons of no playoffs.

Like most CBA teams, DongGuan’s wins and losses generally correlated in part to the success in the selection of their foreign players; hit your mark, like they did with Mike Harris in 07-08 and 08-09, and its a winning season. Miss, and you’re out of the playoffs.

Apparently fed up of that model, DongGuan ownership made a change in philosophy when they hired Goorjian as a consultant in 2009. Known as the most successful coach in Australian professional basketball history (six NBL championships, over 400 wins and .700+ winning percentage), Goorjian has built himself an unquestioned reputation in winning and developing players, the latter of which appealed greatly to a forward-thinking club that is focused on structuring a team that will rely not on its foreigners, but rather on its Chinese players.

Goorjian, who also served as the Australian Men’s National Team head coach from 2001-08, a time in which he oversaw two trips to the Olympics and one to the FIBA World Championship, has not disappointed in spearheading that change. Coming in first as a consultant in 2009 while he was serving as an assistant on the China National Team bench under then-head coach, Guo Shiqiang, the Pepperdine alumni ended up leading DongGuan’s youth team to a championship at the end of the summer. Impressed with the work he was doing with their young players, management elected to hire him as head coach of the senior team in 2010-11. In his debut year, the Leopards — relying on heavy contributions from a mix of veteran and young Chinese players in addition to solid play from their two foreign players – finished in third place at 25-7 before going down to Guangdong in the CBA semi-finals. Using the same formula this past year, they  went 19-13, eventually losing to Xinjiang in the first round of the playoffs.

But heading into his third season at the reigns, Goorjian and his Leopards are looking to make a big leap due largely in part because his vision of building a Chinese-centric roster is coming to fruition. Backed by an owner who is committed to the concept of player development, investing large amounts of money in coaching, youth teams and infrastructure — including a state-of-the-art training facility that is partnered with the NBA, the only one of its kind in the world — the 59 year-old has been able to carry his success from Down Under to southern China, getting wins, improving players and building a club capable of sustaining long-term success. And with an average team age of around 24 years-old, the sky seems to be the limit — so much so that Goorjian has on record as saying the team’s goal is to win a championship in three years.

Which brings us back to that whole post-Olympics, how-to-fix-Chinese-basketball-debate. Sure, there’s no simple solution and opinions differ. But, one thing remains certain — if every team was being run the same as DongGuan, we likely wouldn’t be having that conversation as much, or at all.

Thankfully, Goorjian agreed to have a conversation with NiuBBall.com late last week, one that was so thorough and detailed that we had to split it up into two parts. With palpable excitement, the DongGuan head man talked about his thoughts on the upcoming season while also shedding light on his own philosophy on player development, the latter of which will come in Part 2 on Tuesday.

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Marcus Williams Interview

March 10, 2012

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Thanks to slicing drives like this, Marcus Williams has been putting lots of numbers and wins in his first season for Shanxi. (Photo: Osports)

Sometimes, you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.

After learning that lesson midway through last season, the Zhejiang Golden Bulls are having to re-learn it from the comfort of their home living rooms as they watch their former star, Marcus Williams, carry one of their rivals deep into the post-season. For Williams though, who is starring for the Shanxi Zhongyu Brave Dragons this season, the success in his new digs is just the continuation of the pattern he’s set for himself over the last three years: winning games, putting up huge numbers and establishing himself as one of the CBA’s best import players.

At 25 years of age, Williams has had a unique road to CBA stardom. A high school star in Seattle, Williams chose to attend the University of Arizona, where he spent two years before being drafted in the second round by the San Antonio Spurs in 2007. After spending most of 2007-08 season in the D-League with the the Spurs’ affiliate, the Austin Toros, Williams was signed by the Los Angeles Clippers for the rest of the season in March 2008. Unable to secure a deal in the NBA, he spent the next season back with the Toros and earned himself All-NBDL First Team honors and an NBDL All-Star selection.

But feeling the need for a change, Williams went in a totally different direction with his career — he went across the Pacific Ocean to China where signed a contract with Zhejiang in the fall of 2010. Younger and less experienced than most of the league’s older import players, the then 23 year-old Williams bucked the trend and averaged 26 points, eight rebounds and four assists while nearly pushing the Golden Bulls into the playoffs.

That apparently wasn’t good enough in the eyes of Zhejiang management, however, and the team opted to bring in longtime NBA veteran Mike James to replace Williams. Like many NBA-to-CBAers last season, James didn’t last long and Williams was brought back a mere nine games into the season. With Williams in the lineup, Zhejiang erased their 2-7 start to finish the year 17-6. By year’s end, the Golden Bulls were back in the playoffs and Williams had amassed averages 29.6 points, 8.2 rebounds and 5.4 assists.

After the mess that Williams cleaned up, you’d think the team would have learned their lesson by signing him in the off-season. They didn’t.

Despite two great seasons, Zhejiang felt once again that the grass was greener over by the NBA fence and elected to sign a locked-out J.R. Smith over Williams. No longer wanted in Yiwu, he skipped to Taiyuan to sign with the Brave Dragons. By the time the smoke cleared on the 2011-12 season, J.R. and the Golden Bulls went 15-17 and missed the post-season. Williams and the Brave Dragons went 20-12, made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, and are now playing for a trip to the CBA Finals.

Not surprisingly, Williams has been a huge part of Shanxi’s historical season. Improving on what was already an extremely refined and versatile offensive game, Williams has become even more dominant than before to become arguably the best player in the entire league. A 6-7 walking triple-double, he averaged a CBA career high 31.9 points per game this season in addition to 4.9 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.5 steals. What he shoots from the field is somewhat of a mystery as different websites have listed his three point percentage anywhere from 50 to 90 percent. So while we don’t know the exact number, we do know this: Boasting excellent balance and shot selection, he doesn’t miss too much and his field goal percentage is definitely over 50 percent.

And in the post-season, he’s been missing even less. In Shanxi’s seven playoff games, he’s hit for 35 points in four of them. In the semi-finals alone, he’s averaging 38 points on over 60 percent from the field and 95 percent from the free-throw line. Down 2-1 against Beijing, Shanxi will need a win and some more of the same from Williams on Sunday night to force a deciding Wednesday Game 5 in Beijing.

Yet, his biggest bucket came off the court when the two-time NiuBBall All-CBA First Teamer sat down with NiuBBall to discuss the playoffs, his development as a player in the CBA, life in Taiyuan and more.

NiuBBall: Let’s talk first about your series with Beijing. In some leagues, the pace of the game really slows down in the playoffs in comparison to the regular season. But with you and Beijing, especially the last two games, it seems like the pace has actually gotten faster. What are some of the differences you’re noticing in this series versus the regular season or even your first round series against Shanghai?

Marcus Williams: Our first playoff series was against Shanghai, and they totally slowed the pace down. Once we were able to advance and get to Beijing, we were so anxious to speed the game up and play at a fast pace. I think everyone is being really aggressive, we’re shooting more free-throws. I just think that’s our style of play. But at the end of the day, we need to get stops, especially at the end of games, and I think that’s what hurt us in Game 2 and Game 3. We just weren’t able to focus on the defensive end and they had two big nights.

NiuBBall: You mentioned the defense already, what were some other differences between Game 1 and the last two games in Beijing?

MW: Well, in Game 2 Stephon [Marbury] got going really early and I think that gave the rest of their team a lot of confidence. He got into the paint, he was able to kick to shooters and those guys were making shots. It makes it a lot harder because now instead of worrying about one player, you’re worrying about three or four players. Number #20 [Zhai Xiaochuan] had a good game. Stephon obviously had 25 in the first quarter and I think in our first game it was something like 12. So, that’s something that hurt us. He’s the leader of their team and when he goes, they go.

Game 3 was a tough game we fought back from down 15 points in the second quarter and it was a close game all the way until the fourth. I think we ran out of gas a little bit. Having to come back from 15 took a lot out of us. There is definitely some things we can improve for next game. We need to rotate on matter to their shooters and do a better job keep Stephon out of the paint. But, Game 4 is in Taiyuan and obviously it’s a win or go home for us, so I think we can bring it next game and send it back to Beijing. And in Game 5 anything can happen.

NiuBBall: Obviously he’s put two huge nights back-to-back on you guys. When you’re game planning for him, are you trying to limit him or limit his teammates? Or is it a combination of the two?

MW: It’s going to be more of keeping him out of the paint so that he has to do it more himself. He wants to get in there, draw the help and kick out. That’s what he prefers. I think he’d rather be a facilitator than go out and score 40 a night, so we definitely want to close out on their shooters. But if he’s being aggressive, then you have to focus on him because he can have big nights.

NiuBBall: A lot of your team’s offense is geared towards getting you and Charles [Gaines] the ball. It’s certainly worked, you guys scored the most points in the league this year, but do you ever see it as a challenge to get your teammates involved on that end of the floor?

MW: With me and Chuck playing together for a while, obviously we played all of this year and then we played some D-League together [in Austin], I’m real familiar with him. But, no I don’t really see it as hard to get our teammates involved. We have Lu Xiaoming at the point, he can run the show. I think it was hard at the beginning of the season. I think they hadn’t really gotten used to having us both there. But, as the season progressed and once the second-half of the season began, they got a lot more comfortable and started to trust us and I think that really helped our team, it allowed us finish up the regular season really strong.

NiuBBall: You first played with Chuck in the D-League with the Austin Toros, now you’re teammates again in Shanxi. What’s it been like reuniting with  him in China this year?

MW: It’s been great. Me and him both live in Houston back in the States, and I was talking with him this summer to figure out what he was going to do this season. It’s a big key to have an American on your team who’s game you’re at least a little bit familiar with. And he’s a good friend of mine, so it’s made it really easy just coming to Shanxi and having the quick transition, to be able to build a relationship with him and build an on-court chemistry with him. I know he’s the type of player who goes after it every night, so that makes my job a lot easier. If I have an off night, he can fill in for me and vice versa.

NiuBBall: Playing in China, how important do you feel that foreigner-foreigner relationship is?

MW: I think it’s really important, at least on the court. Obviously, you can’t control the other things, but on the court you have to have a foreigner who you can feed off of or at least you can play decently with because it’s just you two out there. You’re going to be spending a lot of time with him, he’s probably the only other guys on the team who can speak English, so you just need kind of a comfort level. Then, there’s going to be a lot of pressure on both of you to perform, so to be able to help each other is key.

NiuBBall: The last two years, you were with Zhejiang, now you’re almost done with your first year in Shanxi. Talk about both teams and how they differ from one another.

MW: In Zhejiang, we definitely played a slower game. As far as the basketball, it was all good. Obviously my first year, we weren’t able to get into the playoffs, but my second year we got better and advanced to the playoffs and we played really well. Shanxi is really fast paced. Both teams are really young, both had good players. In Zhejiang we had Ding [Jinhui] and Cao Fei, in Shanxi we have Lu Xiaoming, Duan [Jiangpeng], Zhang Xuewen and the kid from Guangdong [Ren Junhui]. So both teams are kind of similar as far as their makeup. That’s why I think it was a pretty easy adjustment.

NiuBBall: Shanxi is a little unique in the fact that the team hired a Chinese head coach at the beginning of the year and then brought in an American assistant, Beau Archibald. How has that dynamic worked and what’s it been like to have Coach Archibald around?

MW: It’s been great, Beau has really helped on the defense as far as picking up on the schemes and adjusting to what teams are doing. Also, it’s been good to talk to a coach who has his eyes out there on the floor, who can see something and come directly to talk to you and say “Hey, this is what I’m seeing out there.” And he’s familiar with the U.S. style of basketball, so the things I’m comfortable with he can help to put into the offense. It’s just been really good.

NiuBBall: You came to the CBA when you were pretty young. For various reasons, I think it’s tough for younger players to adjust to this league. How were you able to come in as 23 year-old and not only adjust, but play at a high level?

MW: I’m not going to lie, my first time here was hard. That first year I think is the one that’s going to tell you if you can make it here or not. My first year, I got really sick out here, I got some kind of virus. I think I missed two or three games. Then there’s the food. I just tried to tough it out because I think the basketball was good for me. I was able to come out and get a lot of minutes. Coming from the NBA and the D-League, in the D-League I was able to get a lot of minutes, but the money’s not there. In the NBA, I wasn’t really playing a lot. But to come here, you’re able to play your game freely and you can take that leadership role. For me, as long as the basketball is good, I’m good. That’s how I roll.

NiuBBall: This year, obviously the big story was all of the NBA guys coming to China during the lockout. What kind of impact do you think it had on the CBA this year, and how do you see it affecting the league’s development in the long-term?

MW: I think it was great. I think a lot of attention was brought to the CBA. Having guys like Aaron Brooks, Wilson Chandler, J.R. Smith, these aren’t small-time NBA players, these are legitimate NBA guys who have logged years and have had success. The talent level really went up this year. And I think it just brought a lot of eyes from really everywhere. I think some big time players in Europe might start coming over, like [Will] McDonald. I think a lot of players are really going to start wanting to come out here and play. There’s a lot of freedom out here. The CBA tries to mimic the NBA a little bit, so the basketball is not bad. So I think for guys who are similar to me, as long as the basketball is good they’ll be good. In Europe, it’s a slower game, you don’t get as many minutes and you don’t really get to shoot the ball as much. So, I think the CBA is only going to keep going up.

NiuBBall: You just mentioned the freedom and the minutes as some of the positives about playing in the CBA — your numbers have gotten better every year, do you think this league is a good place to come and improve? Do you feel like you’ve improved over the last three years?

MW: I do. I think the only way you get better is by playing. If you’re sitting on the bench and you’re not getting a lot of playing time, sure you can work on your game away from the court, but eventually it’s going to have to translate to game situations. Obviously, the competition level in the CBA is lower than the NBA, but if you’re a guy that wasn’t getting a lot of playing time, I think you can come here and play and you go on and play somewhere else, like the NBA, I think you’ll be more confident in your game and I guess just more tricks up your sleeve just because you’re able to show all of that in this league.

NiuBBall: One thing that you’ve improved on, at least on paper, is your three-point shooting. Every website has a different percentage, on the CBA official stat tracker you were shooting a perfect 100% for a while. So let me ask: Do you know what you’re shooting from the three point line this year?

MW: [Laughing] No, I really don’t. I know the last two years I was between 45 and 50 percent, so I would guess around there. I remember when they had me shooting 90 percent [earlier in the year] and people were calling me saying they couldn’t believe it. I missed two threes in 10 games. It was too unrealistic, but it gave us some good laughs though.

NiuBBall: Mike Harris said in a recent interview that he felt you are the best import in the league and that you have NBA talent. I know in talking with other players and coaches around the league, he’s not the only person who feels that way. Is the NBA on your radar at all, getting back a goal for you?

MW: I don’t really think about the NBA too much. I had times where I was in the NBA and tried it. But, I love playing basketball. I like to be out there and play, that’s what I’ve loved to do ever since I was a kid. I would obviously love, best case scenario, to be in the NBA playing minutes. But if that doesn’t happen I’d rather be playing somewhere else and getting minutes. That’s just who I am. Now if an opportunity came along, if I couldn’t pass it up, I have a son and a family and I’d love to be home, I’d take it. But until that happens, I’m happy in the CBA.

NiuBBall: You’re a China vet, what’s your favorite city in China?

MW: I like Hangzhou. While I’m in China, I definitely want to feel like I’m in China. In Shanghai or Beijing, you kind of get lost in the ambiance, it’s still kind of like the States. But Hangzhou, they have some pretty nice restaurants, the lake is real nice… It’s kind of between Beijing and a more traditional Chinese city.

NiuBBall: So you like to go out and go see the different cities.

MW: Yeah, I like to go out and see a city and explore a little bit. I don’t really go out, but while I’m out here I might as well.

NiuBBall: What do you do in Taiyuan?

MW: Well, we’ve been really busy during the season, but there’s a couple of restaurants I go to. Pizza Lovers and 1950 are two good restaurants. But as far as sight-seeing in Taiyuan, I haven’t really had the chance to go out and do that. I’ve heard of a couple of places, I think they have a real famous temple out there about an hour away, but we’ve been really busy once the season kicked off so I haven’t really had the time.

NiuBBall: Marcus, thanks for the chat and good luck with the rest of the playoffs.

MW: Thanks.

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Curtis Donald Interview

February 22, 2012

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In his first season as the Xinjiang Flying Tiger’s strength and conditioning coach, Curtis Donald has had the opportunity to work with a variety of different athletes, including three-time CBA MVP and former NBA player, Mengke Bateer. (Photo via NetEase)

Since the Chinese Basketball Association held its first season in 1995-96, the league has seen a steady increase in foreign players, coaches and consultants. But in recent years, the league has also seen a foreign increase in another area, one that is arguably just as important: strength and conditioning coaches.

Once a luxury reserved for only the Chinese Senior National Team, foreign professional strength and conditioning coaches have slowly been hired to work with Youth National Teams all the way down to the senior club level. This season, more than half of the CBA’s 17 teams have at least one foreigner on their strength and conditioning staff, a number that should — and probably will — increase in the future as the league continues to open its doors to foreign influence.

Because in a country that is still learning how to take better care of their athletes, the benefits of bringing in Western strength training and development are obvious. With many athletes training 10-11 months out of the year, the need to take care and improve players physically should be at a high priority. And with China’s ambitions on the international stage growing higher and higher, Chinese players need to be strong, flexible and explosive in order to stand up to the rest of the world’s elite athletes.

There’s still some way to go, but the results have already been pretty impressive. Last summer when the Chinese Olympic U-23 team played against the Duke Blue Devils in Beijing, we were impressed, but not totally shocked, to see China’s players have little if any difference in muscle tone, agility and athleticism in comparison to their American opponents.

Accordingly, more CBA teams are taking notice. As part of their off-season push to get over the championship hump that they’ve come up short in climbing the last three seasons, the Xinjiang Flying Tigers brought in the first foreign strength and conditioning coach in the history of the franchise, Curtis Donald.

Donald, who got his first gig with a professional basketball team as intern with the Los Angeles Clippers in 2009, knows a thing or two about Chinese basketball players. He worked as Yi Jianlian’s private performance specialist from the summer of 2009 until the summer of 2011, when he was hired to come to Xinjiang. During those two seasons, Donald was with Yi year-round, both while he was playing in NBA with New Jersey and Washington, and also while he was with the Chinese National Team during the summers.

And it was during those summers where Yi and Donald’s work especially paid off — forced to step into the team’s lead scoring role after Yao Ming’s retirement, Yi played the best and most complete basketball of his career at the 2010 FIBA World Championship, where he was the only player in the entire tournament to average 20+ points and 10+ rebounds, and at the 2011 FIBA Asia Championship, where he lead China to a gold medal and an automatic berth in the 2012 London Olympics.

With his first season in the CBA almost over, Donald and NiuBBall hopped on Skype for a discussion about the year in Xinjiang, what it was like working with Yi, and the state of Chinese strength and conditioning as a whole.

NiuBBall: You’re heading into the Playoffs tonight, describe your first year working in China.

Curtis Donald: It’s been challenging, just dealing with all of the changes we’ve gone through this year. And especially the injury bug that we’ve been hit by. First with Quincy [Douby] going down early and then Patty [Mills]. We had [Maierdan] go down, too. And then the changes to the coaching staff as well. So it’s been kind of a learning experience dealing with all of the issues.

NiuBBall: What were your expectations coming into this year? When you were hired for this job, what were your understandings about the Flying Tigers and their expectations?

CD: I just knew that they had a great tradition and basketball culture. They were consistently at the top of the league the last few years, so I knew expectations were going to be high. They had been to the Finals the last three years, so I knew anything less than a championship was going to be unacceptable. It was good to have those expectations. This season is only successful if you win the championship. Period. If you go undefeated and you lose in the championship, then the season didn’t matter. It was interesting to come in for my first head job and be a part of an all-or-nothing situation. It’s just very unique.

NiuBBall: The reality of that championship goal has changed because of all of the changes that have gone on within the team this year. How has that affected your own expectations as the season has progressed?

CD: It’s going to be a lot more difficult to win a title. But, having come in here with that mindset, I’m trying to maintain my belief that anything less than a championship is a failure. No matter what’s happened, I still need to treat the players and help them to the best of my ability. I came here in October to help this team win a championship. It’s February now and that hasn’t changed for me. Like I said, it’s going to be much more difficult, but it hasn’t changed how I approach my day-to-day.

NiuBBall: Take us through your responsibilities to the team. What do you do both on a day-to-day basis and on a more long-term, full season basis?

CD: My responsibilities include strength and power development, injury prevention, and if necessary, nutritional guidance. The day-to-day is all about having seamless communication between the coaching staff, players, team physician, and myself on players progress and potential issues.

Over the long term, I try to see improvement in a series of performance tests that indicate progress in areas such as lateral quickness, vertical jump, and linear speed. Improvement of these results is mostly seen in the off-season, but in-season we attempt to maintain those results. Also, throughout the season I am constantly evaluating players for movement inefficiencies or improper biomechanics.  Its important to develop and maintain proper movement patterns to keep each athletes risk of injury to a minimum.

It’s really a unique job. You train guys differently based on who they are, how much experience they have and how many minutes they’re getting. But then you’re also going on guys’ individual experience as well. Guys like Kenyon Martin, Patty and Quincy don’t do the same things as the 12th man on the bench. So it’s unique. You have a high-level NBA player to work with on one end that needs more corrective and preventative work so that he can avoid injuries, and you also have Chinese guys who fit into that category as well with Tang [Zhengdong] and [Mengke] Bateer. But then you have the  Xirelijiang’s and Meng Duo’s that you still need to develop, but they’re getting high minutes, so they’re kind of in between. Although this is a professional basketball team, the job has a lot of “college” aspect to it because you do need to develop players. The younger guys who maybe aren’t playing as much, you’re always trying to develop them. My favorite part of the job, has been the diversity between the different players goals and training experience.

NiuBBall: All of the foreign players are obviously used to the Western training methods that you’re using, but what about the Chinese guys? How have they responded?

CD: The players love it. I feel that they’re really interested in how strength and conditioning can elevate and extend their careers. They come to me after practice wanting more work, they ask questions about why they’re doing certain things. They are engaged in the whole process. They’re used to doing a lot of back squatting for example. But, I take the bar off their back and we do a lot of single leg work with a weighted vest. They’re a little confused about it at first, but then when it’s explained to them, they really respond and they start to understand that this is how you get better, this is how you stay healthy. They then start to realize that their knees feel better, or their back isn’t hurting, or whatever the case may be. Then that draws guys even closer to the system and the American way of doing strength and conditioning. To me, that I can affect their training habits and gain their trust, that’s been very gratifying.

NiuBBall: You talked already about Tang and Bateer. Both of them are former CBA MVPs and have played big roles in the National Team set-up. Now they’re late in their careers, how have they reacted to having you around the team?

CD: Let’s talk about Tang first. Luckily with him, he’s dealt with foreign strength coaches before because he’s played for the National Team in recent years. So he understood right away and he bought in right when I got here. Tang’s main issue is that he has a weight issue. It’s hard for him to manage his weight and when he gets above a certain weight his knees start to bother him significantly. When I first got here, we had Tang doing three workouts a day. Bob [Donewald Jr.] and I decided that we wanted to get his weight down as quickly as possible before all the travel started, so we had him doing pool workouts at lunchtime. While his teammates were sleeping – you know how much the Chinese players love their post-lunch nap – he was at the pool doing plyometrics and intervals with me. And he loved it. He was exhausted, but he was seeing results. He had already bought into it, and then once he started to see improvement, he really started to trust me.

With Bateer, it’s a little different. I treat him like an NBA guy. I give him a lot more freedom. He has way more experience than I do. I didn’t come in and try to dictate his routines or change the way he trains, I just gave him some ideas and approached him more casually. Like you said, he’s won MVPs and he’s been in the NBA, so he knows what he’s doing. But, he’s also stayed healthy for the most part. So what’s there for me to do? We discussed some things that we wanted to add and I give him a little bit at a time, but I kind of let him go on his own. And when he needs me, he comes to me. And I think that’s a great approach. I’m not going to force myself on a guy who’s had success.

NiuBBall: There’s a common belief amongst Chinese, especially within Chinese basketball, that Chinese bodies are genetically inferior to their Western counterparts and that’s why the Chinese are unable to develop high-level players. With your experiences, first with Yi and now with Xinjiang, do you buy into that?

CD: I do believe that they’re just not as athletic overall, but I think it comes down to how this country’s younger players have been training, both inside each club’s youth team and inside the youth national teams. You can train to be more athletic. You may not ever be able to jump out of the gym like an elite NBA athlete, but you can still improve. I think it’s an excuse. Chinese players miss a window of opportunity right after puberty to really gain athleticism, strength and power because of out-dated training methods.

NiuBBall: I think the obvious example right now is Jeremy Lin. He’s Asian, but was born and raised in the States, and now he’s starring for the New York Knicks.

CD: I think he’s a great example. He’s Asian, but if he’s not built like a Westerner, or he’s physically at a disadvantage or whatever, then why is he having so much success? It’s because he was raised in a different basketball culture and he took advantage of his opportunity when it came. So that can’t be an excuse if guys like Jeremy Lin are having the success that the is having.

NiuBBall: So is bringing over those Western training styles and teaching the Chinese how to use those methods an important step in developing athletes here?

CD: Absolutely.  There have been a number of Western strength coaches that have done a great job over here. I believe the hiring of these coaches must continue. There needs to be continuous effort to educate the Chinese in the area of strength and conditioning. There needs to be opportunities for junior team head coaches to be educated or there needs to be budgets to get some developmental strength and conditioning programs inside of teams, maybe getting a Westerner in there to run a program and teach the Chinese coaches. I think if there was an improvement on the youth level, middle school or high school level, it’d make a world of difference. It would prepare them to compete at a higher level internationally in events like the World Championship and at the Olympics. Ideally, they wouldn’t have to scramble around for the next Yao or the next Yi. They’d have a crop of guys who are just ready to step in and they’d have a lot of guys to choose from because they’ve been training the right way from an early age.

NiuBBall: How much of the things that you’re bringing to this team are being picked up by players? Whenever you’re done in Xinjiang, do you see them being able to use these things by themselves long-term? Do you think the organization will employ Western training methods down through the club?

CD: I think it just depends on the player. Guys who realize that this is how you’re supposed to take care of your body are going to continue to do it. A lot of it has to do with the culture of China. They’re very respectful to authority. So if you get a new coach who doesn’t do it this way, then they’re going to listen to their coach, no matter how different his strength and conditioning methods are from mine. So it just depends on the guy.

I don’t think I’ve been here long enough to change the culture of the team and the way the front office views strength & conditioning. But there are a number of former and current national team players that have had positive experiences with strength and conditioning that might be able to influence the front offices decision to keep western training methods around the organization. As for these methods being used down on the junior team level, it’s very unlikely until there is an obvious long-term financial benefit in developing young players that can be seen by management.

NiuBBall: You’re American, you’ve worked in America with the Clippers, but over the last two years you’ve been working exclusively within Chinese basketball. Now that you’ve had experiences with both sides, what are the major differences you’ve noticed between the U.S. and China in terms of strength and conditioning?

CD: The culture here is much different. I can only speak for basketball, but I’m sure it extends over to other sports as well. And that’s the quantity of work, the quantity of practices and the length of practice time over the quality of those practices. For example, it’s not uncommon at the youth national team even at the senior national team level to have a two-to-three hour practice in the morning and then another two-to-three hour practice in the afternoon. And some guys are on club teams where they do the same thing. So some players are doing what essentially amounts to 12 straight months of two-a-days. That’s unreal. When is there time to recover? When is there time to really get quality work?

And that brings up other issues. When you know you’re going to go through the same practice routine every day of the week for months on end, it’s human nature to find a pace that gets you through it. It’s not a pace that gets them better, they’re not going at an intense game-speed that will get them better, it’s this pace that gets just get them through the day. It’s survival, it’s “How can I survive through this day?” They know that they have a two or three hour practice in the morning and another one in the afternoon. So it creates a pace, and really a mentality, that slows development. It doesn’t develop a great athlete. They can never reach that world-class intensity because they’re just pacing themselves to get through each day.

If there’s one change that the sport culture in China needs to go through, the one that will give this country’s athletes the most benefit, I think they need to learn quality over quantity. Teach these guys to reach high intensities over shorter periods of time and then rest and recover.

NiuBBall: The prime example is of course Yao, who had to retire because of all the injuries and wear and tear that piled up on his body after playing year-round for so many years. Yi is also playing all year, how has that affected his career?

CD: I think it’s had a huge effect on Yi’s career, especially in the NBA. You have to understand: He goes through an NBA season, maybe he gets a month off after and if he does that’s a huge amount of time for a Chinese player to be resting. Then he has to report to the national team and play there. Luckily. Bob [Donewald] has been managing his minutes through all of the exhibition games that they play over the course of a summer and that’s definitely helped. But still, with the way the Chinese Basketball Association schedules the summer, it’s not uncommon for Yi to be playing nine games in 10 days. How can you expect a guy to play an NBA season, play an entire summer’s worth of games, play in a major continental or international competition depending on the year, and then go back and play in the NBA again?

Yi’s reputation is that he’s a soft basketball player. I’ve seen him play at the top of his game at the World Championship and at the Asia Championship. He’s not a soft player. But if he doesn’t find that rest, he just doesn’t have a motor. He doesn’t have any gas in the tank. He’s exhausted. And until they make some changes, they’re never going to see an All-NBA caliber player like Yao ever again.

NiuBBall: Let’s talk more about Yi. What was it like to work with him for those two years?

CD: It was a tremendous opportunity to help his career, both internationally and in the NBA. He’s a great guy to work for, he’s a true professional.

NiuBBall: What was he like as a client? What was the relationship between you two like?

CD: He was great, he reacted very well to having me with him. Yao had a foreign strength and conditioning guy when he was with the National Team and at that time, Yi was pretty young. So I think he saw the success Yao was having and I’m pretty sure that Yi thought that was the best route for him to go. Just in terms of that he’s being taken care of on the performance end, both in the NBA and when he’s with Team China, to have a guy guiding him through all the things he needs to do to get better and remain healthy.

We had full trust in each other. He had already committed to taking the advice of the people around him. It was his idea to bring someone in for himself. He thought, “I’m investing in my career, so I’d better take full advantage and listen to everything that this guy is telling me.” So right from the start, he had 100% trust in me and the entire process as a whole.

And you know, his work ethic is world class. Rarely did Yi cancel a session, unless it was something personal that he had to attend to that day. In Washington, we’d sometimes work into the wee hours of the night. Sometimes we’d meet at midnight and we’d be in the gym by ourselves, lifting and doing core work. His work ethic and commitment level were world class.

He’s a total professional. I’m really glad I had the opportunity to work for him because he opened up a lot of doors for me. If it weren’t for him and his people, and the opportunity that they gave me, I wouldn’t have been around the National Team, I wouldn’t have gotten with Donewald and I wouldn’t be here in Xinjiang right now.

NiuBBall: Curtis, thanks for the time and good luck with the rest of the season.

CD: Thanks, Jon.

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Bothfeld: In Hangzhou, Wilson Chandler gets by with a little help from his friends

February 9, 2012

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We took our seats at a Western-style restaurant in Hangzhou, China, after another Zhejiang Guangsha Lions win. Wilson Chandler, Guangsha’s star player and the best NBA player under contract in China, scored 19 points and pulled down 8 rebounds that night in the blowout victory over Shanxi.

Joining Wilson and me was Larry, Wilson’s childhood friend and personal manager, his agent Chris Luchey, and Guangsha’s assistant coach Rodney Heard. This was the China Crew.

“Can I get a spoon?” Luchey asked a waitress. She stared blankly so he tried again. “A spooooon,” Luchey slowly pronounced as he carefully drew a picture of the utensil in the air with his finger.

Seemingly simple luxuries of daily life can be difficult for a foreigner living in China, but Chandler and company knew the challenges ahead when he signed his one-year deal with Zhejiang Guangsha in August. It was a well-calculated decision.

At the time, the NBA and the Players Association were embroiled in a bitter labor dispute. Most people involved figured that the lockout would last well into January or even cost the NBA an entire season.

“I thought the lockout would last a while,” said Heard. “My sources in the NBA said [the labor dispute] was a bad one. Everyone else was losing money, [Wilson] would be making money.”

Heard touts an impressive basketball resume and is one of Wilson’s most trusted friends. His coaching career started in the early 90’s when he spent a season in China coaching in Guangzhou before returning stateside to coach at the University of California at Berkeley. After his coaching stints, Stu Jackson (now the NBA’s Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations) hired him as a scout for the Vancouver Grizzlies. He went on to be the director of player personnel for the Atlanta Hawks before being hired as a head scout under Isiah Thomas with the New York Knicks.

In the midst of his NBA personnel jobs Heard also served as the president of the Team Detroit AAU team. It was there he met Luchey, who founded and coached the rival Michigan Hurricanes on the AAU circuit, and the two became good friends.

Chandler didn’t start playing basketball until he was 16, and it was immediately apparent that he had a natural gift for the game from the moment Chris first saw him on the court.

As Heard recounted, “They told us about a good player up in Benton Harbor. There had been good players who came from there before, so Chris went up there, met him, and got him to join the Michigan Hurricanes.”

Chandler played two years of AAU ball under Luchey before heading to DePaul University on a basketball scholarship. Still, Luchey was in constant contact with him and although DePaul was losing, Chandler was blossoming as a player, so much so that he was garnering attention as a prospect for the NBA.

After his sophomore season, Chandler entered the NBA draft and hired Luchey as his agent. At the time, Heard was working for the Knicks as a scout and advised then-GM Isiah Thomas to draft Chandler as the 23rd pick.

“We worked him out for the New York Knicks before the draft. I had worked him out in the summers at different camps — ABCD or Reebok camp, so I was seeing him developing and getting better every summer,” recalled Heard. “He puts in a lot of hard work and is very focused. He doesn’t have a lot of miles on his body. A lot of guys have a lot of miles from before AAU and high school. There is a lot of untapped potential. He could one day potentially be a multiple-time All-Star.”

Upon being drafted by the Knicks, Heard made the conscious decision to take the 20-year-old Chandler under his wing and help him develop as a basketball player and a person. While in season they kept in constant contact and in the off-season Heard is Chandler’s personal trainer.

“I’ve trained him every summer since he’s been in the NBA. We have been trying to develop his game, and I’m proud to say, every year he has gotten better.”

Heard’s assertion is true. In each of his three and a half seasons with the Knicks, Chandler improved in every major statistical category, and averaged a career-high 16.4 points in 2011 before being included as a key piece in the trade to the Denver Nuggets for perennial All-Star Carmelo Anthony, which left Heard devastated. “That was a sad day for me. It was like losing your first-born.”

After the Nuggets’ first round playoff defeat at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder, the NBA lockout set in and Chandler faced a difficult decision; would he flee the U.S. and play overseas like many of his peers, or would he wait in the States and hope the lockout ended? Chandler was at a pivotal juncture in his career as a restricted free agent. If he were to get injured, he would potentially lose out on a huge payday. On the other hand, playing overseas would allow him to stay in shape and get play a lot of minutes.

“I thought it would be a great opportunity for him to grow because he is still developing,” said Heard.  “Guys like Carmelo [Anthony] or Amare [Stoudemire] don’t need to come over, but Wilson still needed game experience.”

After fielding multiple offers from teams in Italy and China, Chandler decided to sign with Guangsha not because they offered the most money, but because it was the right situation. Guangsha’s owner and GM both have a great reputation for their dedication to winning (“GM” as she is referred to, whose name is Ye Xiangyu, even sits on the bench with the team). Furthermore, they had also hired longtime former Chicago Bulls and L.A. Lakers assistant coach Jim Cleamons as head coach.

When asked about Cleamons’ role in Chandler’s decision Guanghsa, Heard said, “I had met Jim in previous years. He is a great person, a great leader, and a proven winner. It was a good opportunity for Wilson to be coached by him. He has helped Wilson grow as a player and a person.”

Yet as the season approached, Cleamons still did not have a complete coaching staff. As the focal point of the team, Wilson lobbied for Heard to join Guangsha. “I told Chris it would be good if he were here working me out.” Luchey agreed, “It made sense. It’s a short season, both of them are familiar with each other, and having coached in China before, Heard is familiar with some of the issues we would deal with.”

With Guangsha, Chandler has excelled as their leader, averaging 26 points and 11.3 rebounds. These numbers come even though Chandler plays within the team’s game plan. He often enters half time having scored under 10 points, instead looking to get his teammates involved. Then, in the second half he will assert himself, using his strength and athleticism to get to the basket at will and his shooting touch to burn opponents from the outside.

Chandler led Guangsha to a 13-4 record, and for a while it looked like they were legitimate championship contenders. However, they have struggled in recent months and now find themselves at 15-13, in the thick of the playoff race. With his return to the NBA imminent, Chandler has remained committed to his Chinese teammates. In the four games leading up to the Chinese New Year, during which the CBA has a week off, Chandler made only 31 of 104 shots, good for 29%. Instead of heading to the sunny beaches and warm weather of Hong Kong like many of the American basketball players in China, Chandler remained in a cold and wet Hangzhou, working on his game with Heard and shooting over 500 shots a day.

Although his experience in China is coming to and end, Chandler feels he has improved as a basketball player. “I’m getting better in every aspect of the game. Working with Heard every day has been helping with that. I’m a more mature player in terms of my outlook and approach to the game.”

Having been together for the ups and downs of life in China, Chandler’s relationship Heard has also grown. They eat every meal together; sit together on the team bus, and spent a turkey-less Thanksgiving together on the road, instead eating pizza and potato chips. They are also there for each other during bouts of homesickness – Wilson has a young daughter and Heard has a wife and two kids anxiously awaiting their return.

Reflecting on his time With Guangsha, Chandler said, “I won’t forget this experience. I didn’t know what to expect. I came with these guys and it gave me a comfort zone. I got a chance to be with people I know and care about in another country.” “That will probably never happen again in life for us as a group. I don’t think any of us would be able to last without all of us. We need each other.”

Luchey’s spoon finally arrived as we chatted about the other CBA results of the night and which teams would pose Guangsha the biggest threat in the playoffs. The conversation then shifted to the NBA – how the lockout ended and which teams were in need of a wing player.

Upon his return to the NBA, Chandler is likely to rejoin to the Denver Nuggets, who retain his rights and are said to be interested in signing him long term. It’s unclear where Heard will work once the Chinese season is finished, but he will train Wilson during the off-season. “I need a break from Heard for about a month,” laughed Chandler.

Edward Bothfeld can be followed on Twitter @bothfeef

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Bob MacKinnon Jr. Interview

September 29, 2011

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Bob MacKinnon Jr., who spent last season in the Chinese Basketball Association with Tianjin Rongcheng, takes a moment to instruct a player during a late season game against Jiangsu in March.(Photo: Sina Sports)

The wild world of the Chinese Basketball Association has had a long, noticeable history of foreign players, numbers of which have only increased not just in size, but also in star-power as the league has developed over the years. In the last two seasons, Bonzi Wells, Stephon Marbury, Ricky Davis, Steve Francis, Rafer Alston and more have all flew over the Pacific Ocean to the Middle Kingdom in hopes of extending their careers, tapping into a huge market, and ultimately making some nice cash. Countless others of NBA D-Leaguers and fringe NBA players have also made the jump as well.

But, while some people know who is playing on the court, many don’t know that the league and Chinese basketball as a whole has made a push to bring in more foreigners on the sidelines, too. Last year, five six foreign head coaches, Bob Weiss (Shandong), Jay Humphries (Guangdong), Bob MacKinnon Jr. (Tianjin), Bob Donewald  Jr. (Shanghai), Casey Owens (Fujian) and Brian Goorjian (DongGuan), roamed the sidelines in their respective Chinese cities, brought in to not only get wins, but to establish Western training methods into a country that is still very much behind the curve in that area.

Last season, the Tianjin Ronggang Golden Lions were one of those teams. With a young roster full of potential, Tianjin went with MacKinnon, someone who has had his fair share of experience developing players. The son of former NBA/ABA general manager, Bob MacKinnon Sr., the younger MacKinnon has spent time in the NBA D-League, guiding the Colorado 14ers to a title in 2008-09 before moving on to coach the Idaho Stampede in 2009-10. Before Colorado, MacKinnon worked as a scout for the Los Angeles Lakers. He also worked as an assistant under Matt Doherty in Notre Dame and North Carolina, and coached as well as at Marshall.

Arriving with optimism, MacKinnon was quickly introduced to basketball with Chinese characteristics. One of the smallest budget teams in the league, Tianjin couldn’t afford to hire assistant coaches, athletic trainers, video coordinators or any other person who could take some of the load off of MacKinnon. After hearing about his situation early in the year, we at NiuBBall unofficially announced ourselves as volunteer team video coordinator, a job which required helping the non-Chinese reading Coach Mac get online video of his next opponents.

Our first professional gig didn’t go so well: Tianjin finished the year in last place at 5-27 and after a lengthy, drawn out off-season decision making process, management elected not to bring back MacKinnon for another season. They are instead going with the Chinese coach who preceded him the year before.

Good for MacKinnon though, people in the States recognize that the man is a heck of a coach. Two weeks ago, MacKinnon was announced as the new head coach of the D-League’s Springfield Armor. The Armor are run by the New Jersey (soon to be Brooklyn) Nets, making the new job an impressive opportunity. Based on his track record, MacKinnon should be an excellent fit with the franchise.

But most impressive is how Coach MacKinnon can now enjoy the highly honorable distinction of being the first ever CBA coach — foreign or Chinese — to be interviewed by NiuBBall.com. We chatted with him last weekend to reflect on last year with Tianjin, the state of Chinese basketball, the quality of the CBA and more.

NiuBBall: Let’s talk about Tianjin. How did you first find out about the job?

Bob MacKinnon Jr.: A friend of mine who is a scout with the Minnesota Timberwolves, J.T. Prada, who had coached over in China, called me about it last year in late September and just picked up on it from there. I went back and forth a little bit and decided to do it and came out in late October.

NiuBBall: What ultimately led you to deciding to take the job?

BM: I wanted to see what the CBA was all about. I had never been to China and I thought it would be a great opportunity to coach internationally and experience international basketball and a new a culture.

NiuBBall: What kind of impressions did you have of China and of Chinese basketball before you came out? Did you have any initial expectations?

BM: I knew that the country was huge and I knew that basketball was huge in China and I was excited about the excitement level of basketball in China. And obviously what someone like Yao Ming has meant to Chinese basketball and I kind of felt like basketball in China was on the up rise and gaining popularity and gaining exposure. And I think its going to keep getting better and better.

NiuBBall: Before you flew out to China and then once you got to Tianjin, what were your thoughts about the team? What kind of expectations did ownership have for the team?

BM: Well its interesting. Everything is done through an agent and I never really talked to the people in Tianjin. Its all done through intermediaries and basically I found out when I first got there that I was hired as a consultant first. They wanted me to watch and observe, then they asked me to take over practices in the pre-season. So I did that for a couple of weeks and I guess after doing that for a few weeks and doing a few exhibition games, I passed the test. And then they decided to take me on for the rest of the year [laughing].

NiuBBall: So when you arrived in Tianjin were you expecting to be head coach?

BM: I didn’t know what to expect. I thought I was coming out to coach, but then I learned that I guess I was on a tryout, which I wasn’t aware of when I first got there. But, I learned that’s kind of the way its done. I was confident in my abilities and I’m confident in what I know from a basketball standpoint, that I can teach it. We had a very, very young and inexperienced team and I think they wanted someone who could teach and put in a system that they could grow on for the next five or ten years.

NiuBBall: After the adjustment period and once things got settled in, what did you begin to realize about the team and Chinese basketball as a whole?

BM: After going through the exhibition games and stuff, we actually were above .500 in our exhibition games. We had played well. But, I realized that we were very thin and inexperienced in the backcourt. I saw around the league that the best teams have good backcourts, as with most teams. You have to get good guard play. And we just weren’t on that level.

We had some good wing players, I thought Herve [Lamizana] was a good four-man for us who could play as a perimeter four. And I thought we could get by with the big kids we had, the Chinese players, but we need to be stronger in the backcourt. And I think that’s where we had problems. But, you know we played the exhibition games very well and started off the season with a great win against Shanghai. And then our best point-guard, our best Chinese point-guard, got hurt and we was out for about the next month and a half with a back injury. And we just didn’t have enough depth to sustain that.

NiuBBall: Were you then looking to bring in a foreign guard? Was that something you talked to management about?

BM: Well I had talked to management from the first time I saw them play. I told them that the guy they should be looking to sign was a good backcourt player to go along with Herve. They thought that we needed to bring in more of a center. And that’s when they decided to sign Lee Benson. Lee just wasn’t a good fit and it took me about 19 games for me to convince them of that [laughing].

Luckily, we were able to get Vernon Hamilton over. Had we had Vernon from the beginning of the year, I think that the season would have turned out much differently and the Chinese players around him would have gotten much better as the year went on because Vernon helps his teammates get better and he’s a great teammate. And not only could he hold his own against the better guards in the league, but he would have made everyone else around him better. And I think to be honest, you would have seen a drastic difference in how we played.

NiuBBall: Why do you think management was so unwilling to make that switch, even as the games went on and you continued to drop in the standings?

BM: I don’t know. I think they had it in their mind what they wanted to do, and it just took some realistic facts to get them to come around. They told me they wanted two bigs from the beginning and I again, I didn’t think that was the way to go. But, that was their choice.

NiuBBall: Unlike some of the other teams with foreign head coaches, you did not have a foreign assistant coach on your staff. What was it like to work with your Chinese staff?

BM: Well, there was the GM and the assistant GM and those two were really good people. They tried to do their best with the financial constraints that the team was under. You know, I did not really have an assistant coach per se. During practices, I was the only coach. We did not have a strength coach, so I was the one who took the team in and did the stuff in the weight room with them. We didn’t have a video coordinator as you well know. So I had to rely on you to get videos [laughing]. So the financial constraints kind of limited what the GM was able to do and what he was able to provide me.

That’s fine. I enjoy coaching players. And I enjoy being with the players everyday. I did every single individual workout with the players, I did every practice with the players, every film breakdown, every weight room workout. I really enjoyed working with the players.

NiuBBall: One of the things I’ve heard foreign coaches and players say about the Chinese is that there’s a big difference in the level of effort given in practice compared to players in the Western world. After coaching a full season here, what are your thoughts on that?

BM: I think the Chinese system… they practice for long periods of time several times a day. And I think that the Chinese players learn how to pace themselves. Basketball is bang-bang-bang, and moving from one play to the next quickly. It’s quick movements and quick actions.

So what I did when I got there, through time, I cut our practices down and I asked them to give me maximum effort for a shorter amount of time. And I think as time went on, our players saw the sense in that and adjusted to that and really did a great job of doing that, of just giving maximum effort over a shorter period of time. And I think they got better.

NiuBBall: Players have gone on the record in previous interviews talking about the various day-to-day adjustments they have to make while playing here. As a coach, what were some of the things you had to adjust to off the court while you were in Tianjin?

BM: I think the biggest thing is the food.  And getting used to eating with chopsticks was a challenge, I’m not sure the players ever thought I mastered that skill.  Also the time difference is a big adjustment.  Calling home on a totally opposite clock is somewhat different and at times confusing. Lastly one of the things that I never quite got used to was that in most of the hotels you sleep on what I consider to be a box spring here in the States, no real mattresses.  That took some getting used to.

NiuBBall: The CBA suffers from a number of issues that holds the league back. If you could magically press a button and change one thing about the league, what would you change?

BM: I think there has to be a uniform agreement among all the teams on facilities. You go from one facility to the next and some are heated, some are not. Some were clean and great to play, and some were dirty. So I think there has to be some sort of uniform commitment to facilities and making sure people have adequate practice time and practice availability, and that it’s the same temperature in every arena for every game. It might seem like a little thing, but when you got guys sitting on your bench in parkas, that’s just not the way to play the game.

And then I think the level of officiating needs to get better. I think they need to get someone in there who is going to be strong to head the officials, and train them and teach them. And again, I think its a financial obligation that the league has to make to officials and to train and to teach. And I think if they do that, the officiating will get better and the league will get better.

NiuBBall: There’s a lot of NBA players coming to the league this season, J.R. Smith, Wilson Chandler, and now Kenyon Martin among others, what would be your advice to them as they start the year here in China?

BM: I would say enjoy the experience and enjoy the people. Because the people love basketball and overall I found the people to be very generous and outgoing. And you know there’s so many people. And enjoy going out and seeing a different culture. It’s different. Different isn’t bad and it isn’t good, it’s just different. I enjoyed my experience in getting to know people out there. I’d go out for a run in different cities and it’s funny, I think I’m the only person who runs or jogs in China [laughing]. People are looking at me and cars are honking at me and stuff and it’s just good to get out and see the different culture.

NiuBBall: A lot of foreign players, especially ones fresh off playing in the NBA, find the adjustment to China difficult. Do you think these guys can stay the whole year?

BM: That’s all personal circumstance. I don’t see why not. The season is short. Again, it’s great to go around to see the culture. There’s such a variation of culture just within China, from Shanghai to some of these other provincies. Or Beijing, which is almost more of a Western city, to some of these more outlaying places. To me, it was just very fascinating to see and just the size of the country itself to travel and see. In one place, its almost totally different than another place, yet you’re still in China. It was really fascinating to see all of that.

NiuBBall: Let’s talk really quickly about your new job with Springfield. Are you excited to return to the D-League and coach the Armor?

BM: I’m extremely happy. This is a great opportunity. The NBA Development League, in my mind, is the second best league in the world behind the NBA. The players play hard all the time because they know they’re being looked at all the time. And its to great to coach guys on the level that they’re on that are motivated. And for me to be with the Springfield Armor, whose basketball operations are owned and operated by the New Jersey Nets, is a great opportunity because I am an extension of Avery Johnson’s staff now. For me to have the experience to learn from Coach Johnson and Tom Barise and Popeye Jones, Sam Mitchell, is just a great opportunity.

NiuBBall: Coach, we wish you the best of luck in Springfield this season. Thanks a lot for the chat.

BM: Thanks, Jon.

Follow Jon Pastuszek on Twitter @NiuBBall or on Sina Weibo @NiuBBall

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Patrick “Pat the Roc” Robinson Interview

August 29, 2011

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Patrick “Pat the Roc” Robinson

Like Pete Axthelm’s classic ode to New York City basketball is written, basketball is the city game. And like we’ve always said, since China has the most cities in the world, basketball is clearly a Chinese game, too. With an estimated 300-400 million ballplayers across the country, there are quite likely more outdoor basketball courts here in China than anywhere else in the world, making it an ideal place for someone to find a game. As long as you don’t mind playing on concrete, that is.

Though China boasts a huge number of basketball players, the country’s basketball infrastructure is still quite limited. Even in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, indoor courts are relatively few compared to other countries in the West. With the demand high and the quantity low, these courts, which also often double as badminton courts, a sport that also has a large following in China, are booked pretty much solid year-round by companies, leagues and private recreational teams who call ahead to the gym weeks in advance to ensure they’ll have an hour or two to play full-court. The Western phenomenon of walking into a local indoor rec center, calling next and getting some full-court run in simply does not exist in China which means the vast majority of people in China, including some high-school and college teams, don’t have access to gyms and are forced to practice outside, even in the winter.

Yet despite all that, basketball thrives as an almost exclusively outdoor sport. And like anywhere else in the world where people play outside, Chinese ball is mainly predicated on breaking off opponents one-on-one off the dribble for finishes at the rim, the one place on the court where even the strongest of gusts of winds have no say in the shot’s outcome. Like we said back in April, the style here is related to the sport’s hops-and-handles heavy offspring, streetball, and though its not exactly Rucker Park here, there is definitely an enthusiasm and a passion that is unlike anywhere else in the world.

And that’s where the S.K.Y. Streetball Syndicate comes in. Comprised of many of the players who pioneered streetball in the United States in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the S.K.Y. team has been coming to tour China since last year to expose the sport and play in all-star games in different cities throughout the country. This year, the team played in seven different cities against Chinese streetball teams, including one in Shanghai that saw Dwyane Wade suit upagainst the Americans. (For more on that, check out That’s Shanghai’s audio interview with Antwan “8th Wonder” Scott, Earv ”I’ll Be Right Back” Opong, Taurian “Mr. 720″ aka “The Air Up There” Fontenette and Dennis “Spyda” Chism.)

Having wanted to see this live and direct for a while now, we headed over to People’s University for the tour’s last stop in Beijing. And as one would expect, we saw a heavy does of sick handles, crazy dunks and fancy passes before, during, in-between and after the game that got fans out of their seats on numerous occasions.

After the game — and after almost all of the S.K.Y. guys threw their shoes, jerseys and even a pair of shorts into the crowd — we asked Patrick “Pat The Roc” Robinson, who is known as one of the best ball-handlers in the world, a few questions about this year’s tour and what he and the rest of the S.K.Y. Streetball Syndicate has in store for the future.

NiuBBall: So Pat, you just finished up the last stop here in Beijing, how would you rate this year’s tour?

Pat The Roc: It was unbelievable, man. We’ve been here for about a month, just going up and down the coast of China. We’ve seen some good competition every night. I’d say just from last year to this year, the Chinese players have really improved. They really put on a show.

NiuBall: Yeah I wanted to ask you about that. I know you were on this tour last year, you just said you feel the Chinese guys have improved a lot, are there any other things that have evolved from this year’s tour to last year’s?

PTC: Just the fans, man. The fans were even more into it this year because last year was our first year, we had the television show, and everyone seeing the show and everything else, the commercials that we had… So when we came back the anticipation was so high. Some of these cities were unbelievable.

NiuBBall: When you first got started with this, did you ever think that streetball would take you all the way out to China and other countries in Asia?

PTC: Man, it’s unique. This is actually my sixth time in China. And I’ve been to a couple different places in Asia. Indonesia, I’ve been there like five or six times and also Japan. I think the first time I came over was 2006 and each time I come back I see that streetball is as big as the NBA over here. [Watching streetball] is the closest thing they can get to the NBA because the NBA isn’t over here. So we have to put on a good show every night. They look at it like its the NBA.

NiuBBall: Do you see China as a long-term option for you? Are you trying to do more things here in the future?

PTC: Yeah, man! Actually right now, I’ve been talking to some people over here about setting some camps, some clinics. I’m just trying to get back, that’s what I want to do. I want to come back every couple of months or whatever and do some clinics, two or three hours, hit all the cities and try to help these kids. Because that’s the one thing they lack, the training. Instead of us just coming over here and playing games, why not leave something, you know?

NiuBBall: As you’ve obviously seen here, there’s a big streetball culture here because all of the basketball is played outside. So there’s definitely a big emphasis on ball handling. As a guy who is known for your handles, what kind of advice do you give players on how to improve their dribbling?

PTC: Just practice a lot. Personally, I took the ball out everywhere. I took it to school, to the library, to class, I always had the ball with me. For them, if they’re walking up the street, going to school, whatever, just keep the ball with you. Don’t just watch streetball tapes, watch the NBA. We didn’t grow up watching streetball tapes,we watched the NBA, we watched professional players. We got the fundamentals down first and then we figured out ways to be creative with it. We don’t go out and just practice tricks all day. We played basketball and its just something that naturally came to us.

NiuBBall: Were there any guys you looked up to when you were growing up? Any guys that influenced your game at all?

PTC: Yeah, definitely. I grew up in the [Washington] D.C., Maryland area. There’s so many unbelievable guys that came out from there. You got Allen Iverson, Steve Francis, “Baby Shaq” (Hugh Jones), “Silk” (Andre Poole), a lot of guys way older than me. So I had unbelievable training and guys to look up to on a face-to-face basis.

NiuBBall: You’ve played a ton of ball around the world, what do you think are the main differences in term of playing style between China and the States, or even other countries for that matter?

PTC: I think the Chinese, they’re super excited because if you think about, we only come here once a year. So they have all year to think about this and play and practice. And you can just see it, like for instance of I’m on defense and I see a guy bring the ball up the court, I can see that enthusiasm. I can see that he’s been waiting all year for this. Like “I’m gonna get a move off on Pat the Roc!” You know, so I just think they’re really excited to come out and compete.

NiuBBall: Chinese basketball has developed a reputation for being physical. Is that something that you guys have to adjust to at all?

PTC: That’s anywhere, man. If you’re known for doing something great, everywhere you go somebody’s trying to come at you. They don’t want to see you come out on top. They want to be physical, they want to really be into it. We’re used to that, even in the States. It’s anywhere we play, and we play all over the world. It’s always a good, tough fight. When you watch the highlights, it don’t look like that, but that’s the way it is.

NiuBBall: So what’s next for you after this?

PTC: Go home for about a week, then I gotta go to Japan. After that, I gotta go to a couple of other overseas things, one of them is Australia.

NiuBBall: So you’re not done traveling.

PTC: It’s year-round, man. Hopefully I can get back out here soon and trying to something with the kids.

NiuBBall: Cool. Thanks a lot, looking forward to seeing you back here in the future.

PTC: Thanks, man.

Follow Jon Pastuszek on Twitter @NiuBBall or on Sina Weibo @NiuBBall

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Dave Hopla Nike All-Asia Camp interview

June 15, 2011

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Dave Hopla drains another shot while he gives his world famous shooting clinic at the Nike All-Asia Camp on June 8th. (Photo: Jon Pastuszek/NiuBBall.com)

Even before introducing ourselves to the premier shooting instructor in the world, Dave Hopla already knew who we were and what we were all about.

Extending my arm for a handshake, Hopla, wide-eyed with a smile, excitedly proclaimed ”You’re the guy from China Daily!”, and from that point on, the best shooter known to man demonstrated why many people also consider him to be one of the nicest and most approachable men in basketball.  Having read NiuBBall’s page-long profile in China Daily in his hotel room a couple of days earlier, Coach Hopla was full of questions about us, the blog, basketball in China and life in Beijing.  Though somewhat stunned that a world famous basketball coach knew who we were, we gladly answered all of them before asking him a question of our own: Would he be down for an interview with the site?

Hopla eagerly accepted and we scheduled a time in the morning the next day.  Unfortunately, my non-Mandarin speaking cab driver got lost on the way, which got us into the gym about 10 minutes late.  Ignoring our numerous apologies, Hopla put us at ease and promised to find some time before the end of the morning sessions.  True to his word, we were sitting together with a notebook and recorder in hand before noon.

Hopla and the Nike All-Asia Camp have some serious history.  He was an instructor in the camp’s inaugural year in 2002, and has attended every one since.  The camp’s opening ceremony on Wednesday afternoon was highlighted by Hopla’s world renowned shooting clinic, where he lectures on the art of shooting while he’s shooting.  Giving a high-quality, impassioned class while shooting is tough enough, making 98% of the 300-400 shots he takes during the span of the lecture — a percentage he has consistently hit in his 23 years of lecturing — is flat out ridiculous.

Over the years, Hopla has worked as shooting instructor and consultant for the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards, and has also worked individually with Kobe Bryant, Ray Allen and Gilbert Arenas among many others.  He has what seems like every Guiness World Record for shooting, the latest of which includes the world record for most free-throws made in one minute with one ball.

Sitting down on the far end on the third floor of the DongGuan New Century Basketball Academy, Hopla had much to say about his experiences at the camp over the years, his philosophy for shooting and life, iHopla, and more.

NiuBBall: You’ve been at the Nike All-Asia Camp every year since its inception in 2001.  What has been the progression of the camp?

Dave Hopla: You know, it’s really funny.  The talent level the first couple of years was a lot of really big kids.  Now, it’s more guard play, wings.  And it varies from year to year.  Right now the U-19 Taiwan team is playing in some tournament somewhere.   A couple of years we’ve had those kids come here, the U-19 Chinese teams have been here, so that’s when the talent has been a little bit better.  So it changes from year to year.

NiuBBall: Has the overall talent improved from when the camp first started?

DH: Definitely, kids are getting better all the time.  Skill level, handling the basketball, I’ve seen bodies become better. They’re in better shape than what they were when it first started.  They really struggled with the physical training, so they’ve made improvements in that area.  I think these kids still need to get tougher mentally.  Like, I knew today was going to be a tough day.  I did a shooting station and I had six kids telling me they’re hurt.  How can you be hurt shooting the basketball?  I’ve got kids telling me they’ve got a stomach, my arm’s sore, my finger’s sore… You know, kids back home [in the States], they fight through it.  They’re a little bit tougher.  [The kids here] have to learn how to play hard every possession.

But, they’re getting there.  It’s a journey, it’s not going to happen overnight.  When they have to compete and play against a better level of competition, then they start to practice a little harder.  The one thing they have to learn is how to go game speed in drills.  If you don’t practice game speed in drills, everything you’ve worked on is like something new because you’re doing it at a different speed.

NiuBBall: How would you rate players’ shooting mechanics at this camp and in Asia in general?

DH: Very poor.  Very poor.  I don’t see anybody here with great form on their shooting.  I see a lot of mistakes.  Take the mistakes of this one guy, for instance.  You look at him, he takes ten shots and if you took pictures of them, you would think it’s ten different people.  One time he may have good footwork, the next time his left foot’s forward, the next time is body’s twisted, the hands… There’s no attention to detail on shooting the basketball.

NiuBBall: Why?

DH: I don’t know.  I expected it to be different.  When I first came over, I expected the Asian discipline.  You know, doing things the right way.  I figured they’d be more disciplined and there’d be more attention to detail.  But, it’s so difficult.  I really can’t answer that because I can’t speak the language and I don’t know if things are getting lost in translation or not.  It’s a tough thing to do, I can’t imagine being in their position.  You know, being at a camp with coaches talking in a foreign language and so forth.  It’d probably be 100 times worse if it were flipped around.

NiuBBall: What do you think are the mental characteristics of a good shooter?

DH: The mental aspect of becoming a great shooter is very important.  I talk about first thing, before you become a great shooter, before you become great at anything, you have to visualize.  You have to visualize yourself.  I say you have to swish the shot because it takes a little more focus and concentration to swish a shot than to just make a shot.  I visualize myself shooting the ball with perfect form, perfect balance, perfect rotation, everything being perfect.  And then, when I go practice, I try to take that visual image and then emulate it physically.  Doing things the right way.  I used to do everything the wrong way.  My foot used to be twisted, I shot the ball sideways… I didn’t know!  So I went to my first basketball camp and then I started just like a baby.  I started, I made sure everything was right, I’d go home at night and visualize shooting the ball with perfect backspin.

The mind is a powerful thing.  A lot of people are weak mentally. I have a whole philosophy, even in life.  I never say “I’m doing good.”  You ask me how I’m doing, I’ll never tell you I’m doing good.  I’m doing great, phenomenal, fantastic.  ”Good” is good, nobody remembers good.  People remember great.  So my attitude is “I’m doing great.”  I’m going to swish a shot, I’m not going to make a shot.  I think outside the box.  If you’re going to be great, you have to think differently than an ordinary person.  I don’t call it a foul shot, because a foul is a negative term.  Foul means stinking, rotten, nasty, no good.  I don’t call it a free-throw because I don’t throw the ball.  I call it a free shot or the one-point line.  But when I say that [here], these kids don’t know what I’m talking about.  And I never say the word miss.  Miss, to me, that’s a single girl.  Misses, married girl.  And when kids for a rebounder, I say “No, I want a passer.”  Rebound means to get missed shots.  I ask people to catch the ball out of the net and be a great passer.

But, the thing is, trying to teach these kids a lot of the mental, it carries over to the physical stuff. Like, good passes precede good shots.  If I have my hands in position and there’s no defense, you’ve got to make a good pass.  These are mental problems.  You’ve got to focus and practice because if I can’t throw a good pass in practice, am I going to be Jason Kidd in a game?  So, it’s all focus and being mentally sharp.  Even when you’re tired, you have to be mentally sharp.

NiuBBall: Who’s the best shooter you’ve ever been around?

DH: Ray Allen.  Just his discipline.  And I tell people Reggie Miller was a great shooter, but that’s not something you’d want to emulate.  Drazen Petrovic was a great shooter, had a great a work ethic.  But, Ray’s the best shooter.  I mean, he’s the all-time leading three-point shooter and he works so hard.  I was fortunate enough to have met him when he was at UCONN.

NiuBBall: In 2007 when you were on the Washington Wizards staff, you helped Brendan Haywood, who up until that point had been a career 59.4% free-throw shooter, improve his percentage by almost 15 points to 73.5%.  Since you left the Wizards, however, his percentage has plummeted to 36.2% this season for Dallas –

DH: — But, what has he done in the last few games? 5 for 6, 5 for 8 and 1 for 2!  Guess what happened?  Coach Hopla was in Dallas!  I was in Denver doing some things, he wanted me to go back [to Dallas] and help him.  We were hoping that Chicago would win one more game [against Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals], that way I would have been able to work with him for four more days. Actually, I wish I had my phone here, I’d show you the text.  He said “Don’t go to China, I need you!” But, it’s a big thing. You talk about the mental part.  Brendan is not there mentally.  I mean, he’s got a few things mechanically, but it’s more mental.

I’ll show you, you wanna see this? [Pulls out a notebook].  This is when I was there a couple of weeks ago.  We do this thing.  See, here’s the thing.  When I was in the pros, the coaches were like “Shoot 50 free-throws and go home.”  I said, “No, no, no!”  That’s like giving an uzi to a bad shooter.  I’m going to shoot off 50 as quickly as I can so I can get out of the gym.  So they said, “Well how about we make 50?”  I said, “No, that’s not good because there’s no cap on it.”  You made 50, but you shot 100.  That’s not doing any good.  So I said, “Why don’t we do a thing called ‘three twenty-five?’” You gotta make 25 free-throws before you have three misses.  You’re almost shooting 90%.

Look at this. [Opens the notebook to the inside back cover].  Look at this: “May 18th, 2001, Dallas practice facility,  B-Wood [Brendan Haywood].” 48 in a row he had. So the next day when we got into the car, he picked me up so we could go to practice, and I just opened up the book and showed him.  Just being positive.  And the other thing is he feels comfortable with me because he had a lot of success in Washington.  Then the second year he broke his wrist and he only played six games.  But, the thing is, when I first went to Brendan, I told him “You’re going to shoot 75% this year.”  And right off the bat he says, “What?!”  All I wanted him to do was to trust me.  We had a bet: Every month that he shot over 75% I’d buy him dinner and the months that he wasn’t he had to buy me dinner.  So, we actually played on Halloween, October 31st and he was 3 for 5.  So I said “Wood, you owe me dinner!” He says, “What are you talking about, that was only one game!”  I say, “Yeah, but there’s only one game in the month of October!”  But, he’s signed on to come down when I have some free time this summer and we’ll work together in Charlotte.  So you know, he’s concerned about it.  The main thing is that he’s confident.  I was watching the Playoffs and he just looked so confident going to the line.

A lot of the times I can tell, like when Nick Anderson went to the line [in the 4th quarter of Game 1 of the 1995 NBA Finals], when he missed the four, I knew he was done.  And he was done for his career because all he wanted to do was shoot jump shots, he didn’t want to go to the line.  If I was struggling offesnsively, I’d want to get to the line because I knew the ball was going to go through the basket and that would give me confidence.

NiuBBall: When you try to fix a player’s shot, do you tweak or do you break the whole thing down and rebuild it from scratch?

DH: It depends, it depends on who the person is.  And I try not to say “change.”  Guys hear that and they get all worked up.  So I tell them we’ll make a little slight adjustment, because they don’t mind the adjustments.  When they see me do my thing, the other night was one of my worst performances ever, I missed 10 out of 303 shots.  In the girls camp I was 341 for 344.  I’ve been doing basketball camps for 23 years speaking and lecturing.  I’ve been charting my shots since I was 16.  I’ve stressed the importance of it.  You see yourself succeed and you gain confidence, confidence leads to success.  It’s an ongoing cycle.  Even if nobody knows you’re getting better, you know you’re getting better, and when you see yourself getting better you want to practice more.

NiuBBall: What are you for the year so far?

DH: I didn’t total it up for this last one yet, but coming in I was 5,834 for 6,006.  So right now I’m at 98% and change. July is always my best month.  Do you know why that is, Jon?

NiuBBall: Why is that?

DH: Because I do the most lectures in July!  I shoot the ball the most in July.  The more I shoot, the better I get.

This is my lecture book (pulls out another notebook).  Now, I don’t shoot everyday, but every day I shoot, I can tell you where I was at and what I shot.  I’ve filled a total of 13 notebooks in 23 years [of lecturing].  So I developed something called iHopla, and it’s on iTunes.  It’s available for iPad, iPod and iPhone.  The Android is ready to go, I’ll have it registered when I get home on June 14th. And what it is, it’s a 500 megabyte system, it’s got one-hand form shooting, and it has how many it takes you to make ten.  So if you’re ten for ten, you punch it in, you click the save button and the number comes on. And then you go to your next spot, we’ve got off the dribble, spin outs, it’s got everything.  When kids see that, when I show them the iPad, they go crazy.  Nobody says anything when they see the notebook, but when they see the iPad, they want to do everything.  Kids are visual with everything.

NiuBBall: If people want to learn more about iHopla, where can they go?

DH: They can go to my website, www.davehopla.com or they can get on Facebook and go to my Facebook page.  Or they can go to the iTunes store and see all the information about it.

NiuBBall: Coach Hopla, thanks for the chat and best of luck with the rest of the camp.

DH: Thanks!

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Rudy Gay Nike All-Asia Camp Interview

June 14, 2011

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Rudy Gay instructs a player at the 2011 Nike All-Asia Camp in DongGuan, Guangdong province, China. (Photo: Jon Pastuszek, NiuBBall.com)

 

What if.

It’s a question that, no matter how successful the Memphis Grizzlies’ Playoff run ultimately was, Grizzlies and NBA fans will be asking this summer and possibly beyond, if a lockout prevents the regular season from tipping off at its familiar late October start date.  Because even though the Grizz turned the Western Conference upside down by becoming the fourth eighth seed in League history to upset a one seed in the first round, they could have kicked the typically all-to-predictable NBA completely off its axis if arguably their best player hadn’t been injured for the team’s entire Playoff run.

Which makes any suggestion that the Grizzlies’ terrifying six game destruction of the San Antonio Spurs was the product of addition by subtraction sound positively ludicrous.  Even all the way in Beijing, we were never buying into any of that after watching the Grizzlies’ bench fail to come up with a consistent scoring punch throughout the against the Oklahoma City Thunder after O.J. Mayo was forced into the starting lineup as a replacement for Gay.  Nor was anyone else who watched the team struggle time and time again to create good shots without their most talented wing scorer in the many crunch times of Game Four’s three overtimes.

So for us, there’s no doubt: Had Gay, who before his injury was averaging 19.8 points per game alongside career highs in minutes, field goal percentage, three-point percentage, free-throw percentage, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks in the first year of a five-year $82 million contract extension, been healthy, there’s no doubt those fatal issues would have been at least somewhat resolved.  Then, maybe it would have been the upstart Grizz taking the Thunder’s spot as the League’s most promising young team going forward.

Thus, the what if.

Down in DongGuan, Guangdong province, however, where Gay and DeMar DeRozan were getting to work inside the newly constructed DongGuan New Century Basketball Academy as player-coaches at the 2011 Nike All-Asia Camp, there weren’t any hypotheticals when it came to instructing some of the continent’s best high-school aged talent.  Out of his sling, but unable to lift his left arm above his shoulder, Gay never used the injury to duck out of his responsibility to the camp’s 60 players as he willingly and actively helped to instruct stations in the morning and afternoon stations.

He also didn’t duck out of an interview request, which he kindly accepted after NiuBBall approached him about hooking up with the number one English-language blog about China and basketball.  Sitting within the comforts of air conditioning one floor below the main courts, we caught up with the 24 year-old on Day Three of the Nike All-Asia Camp for a chat.

NiuBBall: How was the flight?

Rudy Gay: From what I remember of it, it was alright [laughing].

NiuBBall: Is it a longer flight from the U.S. to Beijing or from the U.S. to Istanbul, where you were for the World Championships last summer.

RG: Actually, we flew [to China] from Chicago.  When we went to Istanbul, we stopped for a couple of weeks in Greece and in Spain, so it was a little different.

NiuBBall: Before your injury, you were having a career year.  It’s a topic that’s been talked about a lot, but I wanted to get your comments on it.  What do you think is so special about the Team U.S.A. experience and why do players improve so much as a result?

RG: It was a great experience as far as just learning.  We had great coaches.  And just playing with great players, you can just take your level up to an all-time high.

NiuBBall: Aside from a few small moves in the off-season, the Grizzlies essentially brought back the same core from last year.  Why do you think the team was able to make such a big leap this year with essentially the same personnel?

RG: We had more of a seriousness about us.  We went out there and we played hard together.  We knew that when we were out there, we were out there for a reason and that was to win games.

NiuBBall: Was that a product of a collective mentality before the season?  Did you guys talk about that during the summer?  Was it spurred by coaching?

RG: When we came into camp it was just different.  It was a different atmosphere than before, we weren’t trying to play around.  We were basically just trying to become a better team.

NiuBBall: What was it like to watch your team’s playoff run from the sidelines?

RG: It was tough, it was tough.  It was one of the toughest times in my career, or really ever.

NiuBBall: How is the recovery coming along?

RG: It’s getting there.  I started a little rehab, but you know it’s just slow.  I’d like to go out there and do more, but it’s just slow.  It’s been a slow process.

NiuBBall: Is there a timetable for when you’re going to be back?

RG: No, I just take it a little bit by a little bit.  Every time I go back [to the doctor] to check it up, they tell me what more I can do.

NiuBBall: Is there less of a rush to come back with a lockout looming?  Would you be on a stricter timetable if there wasn’t the possibility of a shortened season?

RG: No, you know I don’t think it’s that kind of an injury.  You have to let it heal, or else it could affect the rest of your career.  I definitely want to be at my maximum potential, so I’m gonna wait it out and see what I have to do.

NiuBBall: As a result of the team’s success mixed with your injury, your name has popped up in a lot of trade rumors the last few weeks.  Your owner came out in the press a couple of weeks ago and basically squashed all those.  How have you reacted to your name being thrown around in trade scenarios?

RG: This is my fifth year in the league.  I’ve pretty much seen everything.  If it happens, then I’m prepared to to take whatever team that is to the next level.  But, you know our if owner said [a trade] was gonna happen soon, then I have to really think about my future with the Memphis Grizzlies.

NiuBall: Do you want to be with the Grizzlies going forward?

RG: Yeah.  Contractually I’m still a Memphis Grizzly.  If I’m there, I wanna win.  As long as I’m there, I’m going to try and do my best to make the team win.

NiuBBall: Where do you think this team is going in the future?

RG: We’re definitely moving in the right direction.  Every year we’ve made strides to get better as a team.  Last year I think we won 40 games, this year we won a little bit more than we won before.  But, we’re definitely getting on a level to where its somewhere we can be a contender.

NiuBBall: Zach Randolph turned into an absolute beast for you guys, particularly in the second half of the year and in the playoffs.  Did you notice any changes from him this season?

RG: To be honest, it’s nothing that we knew he couldn’t do.  He’s been doing it his whole career.  But, the only difference was we were winning [this year].  You know, it’s easy to be a 20 and 10 player when you’re losing.  This year, we were winning and he was obviously one of the reasons why we were where we were.  It shows his commitment to the game.

NiuBBall: I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about this trip to China.  This is your first time being here, what are your initial impressions of the country and what are your feelings towards the trip so far?

RG: Well, it’s different.  It’s not a bad different, it’s just different.  I’m a little out of my element, I don’t really know what to expect.  But, it’s been great just to soak up their culture and really getting a chance to understand different things. Those are the things I really like to do in my life.

NiuBBall: How busy has your schedule been since arriving here?

RG: Really busy.  Of course there’s jet lag and all that stuff.  But, I’m getting onto China time so I’ll have more time to enjoy the city and the country.

NiuBBall: What have you thought about the camp so far?

RG: There’s a lot of good players.

NiuBBall: What are some of the differences you’ve noticed already in the way the game is played here in China than in the States?

RG: Of course we have more people who can coach and more people who know the game in America.  There’s a lot more skilled players over there, but there’s a lot of raw talent over here.  The more people that go and play over in the League, you know the Yi’s and the Yao’s, then there’ll be more people to come back over here to teach [the Chinese] a little bit of what we [Americans] know.

NiuBBall: I think everybody in the NBA knows the potential of the Chinese market.  How much is that talked about amongst players either in the locker room or off the court?

RG: Yeah, we have certain guys who wear Chinese shoes, you know the Li Ning’s and the PEAK’s, so it’s talked about a little bit.  But, maybe not as much as some people think.  They’re just shoe companies, we talk about them as much as we do about Nike or adidas.

NiuBBall: You have a teammate, Shane Battier, who wears one of the Chinese shoes you just mentioned, PEAK.  He’s so famous in China that he can’t even walk out of his hotel because he gets mobbed the second somebody sees him.  Have you ever heard him talk about his profile in China?  Did he have any advice to you before you flew out here?

RG: Not really.  He just told me what China has to offer and that it’s a great country.  The people are really dedicated to the sport of basketball, more than what you may think.

NiuBBall: How do you see yourself in China in the future?  Do you have any ideas for trying to enter this market a little bit?

RG: No… you know, it’s just about basketball.  The better you play, the more people will notice, so it just motivates me to do even more out on the court.

NiuBBall: Is there anything specifically, either by Nike or by your agent, to help Rudy Gay do something here?

RG: Well, I mean, it’s my first time over here, so it’s something that could be done in the future.  My agency has an office out in Beijing, so I don’t think it would be as tough to do as people may think.

NiuBBall: Have you eaten any Chinese food yet?

RG:  [Asking his friend] Have we?  No?  Nothing authentic, I guess.

NiuBBall: Are you looking to eat anything local?

RG: [Laughing] I’ll try some things… as long as it doesn’t talk to me [laughing].

NiuBBall: Anything else on your mind that you want to say?

RG: To all the people in China, thank you for welcoming me to the country and hopefully I’ll be back here doing different things in the future.

NiuBBall: Rudy, thanks again for your time.

RG: No problem, man.

Follow Jon Pastuszek on Twitter @NiuBBall or on Weibo @NiuBBall

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Alan Paul Interview

June 10, 2011

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Around here, Alan Paul needs no introduction.  As fans of words, basketball and China, Paul has been somewhat of a legend in NiuBBall’s eyes for quite some time.  A senior writer for SLAM Magazine for the last several years, Paul, in addition to his outstanding catalog of work profiling some of the NBA’s best past and present players, also has a thick stack of pages written about one of our favorite subjects: China and basketball.

One of the few male “trailing spouses” in the world, Paul followed his wife to Beijing in 2005 after she accepted a job offer from the Wall Street Journal to become their China Bureau Chief.  With the wife busy at her new gig, Paul was forced into the role of a stay-at-home Dad who was responsible for his three kids before and after school.  Most would take the situation as a tombstone.  Paul, however, made the most of his China situation — instead of moping around the house during the day, he roamed freely around the outskirts of Beijing in Shunyi, taking full advantage of every unique opportunity that came his way (and got an aiyi).

Fortunately for everyone, he also spent a lot of time in front of his computer screen.  Author of the widely acclaimed “Ex-Pat Life” on WSJ.com, Paul got even more props — in our circles at least — for his Far Post blog on SLAMOnline, which focused specifically on hoops in the Middle Kingdom.  But even with all of that niu-ness, his greatest contribution came in his amazing article written about former Providence Friar point guard, God Shammgod, playing professional basketball in Taiyuan, Shanxi province with one of the most dysfunctional franchises in the Chinese Basketball Association, the Shanxi Zhongyu Brave Dragons.  It is on the required reading list for fans of NiuBBall.

As his is new book, Big in China, which chronicles his experiences in China with honesty and charm.  Eventually, Paul’s willingness to branch out combined with a passion for music, which led him into become a bonefied China superstar as the lead singer of an award winning blues band called “Woodie Alan.”

Paul will be in NiuBBall’s home base of Beijing for a book signing at the Bookworm on June 15th and a reunion show with his band on June 17th at Jianghu Jiuba.

A writer we’ve looked up to for a very long time, Alan was not only gracious enough to reply to an email we sent out a short while ago, he also volunteered to answer whatever questions we could come up with about his experiences in China.

NiuBBall: The WSJ column, the book and now a movie… why do you think your story has been such a hit and did you ever expect this type of reaction?

Alan Paul: I can’t say I expected it, but it all slowly built on itself so it never felt shocking. The big shock came in the very beginning, shortly after I moved to Beijing, when I saw how people were responding to my blog posts. I never intended them to do anything more than keep friends and families informed about our new life. Then people started forwarding them around and the response encouraged me to try to be a bit more professional and led me to submit some sample columns to the Wall Street Journal Online, which led to The Expat Life column.

When that started, I was amazed when I realized how many of my experiences – things I thought were very China-centric – resonated with people who had lived outside of their home cultures anywhere in the world. That encouraged me to begin thinking that maybe there was a book in my stories. I started one project and put it aside to focus on the band and just enjoy life in Beijing. I thought I was being sort of irresponsible to my long-term career, but the attention to the band paid off in a million ways. It was purely uncalculated – I was following my heart and doing what I loved – but it made for a much more interesting tale and book.

I was very self conscious about the idea of writing a memoir – it seems like a crazy concept – and determined that if I did so I had to find a way to make it bigger than me. I tried to explore some larger issues – how it’s never too late in life to chase your dreams or have an adventure. How things that people think might pull a couple apart can pull them together. How traveling with children can be a huge plus and not just a drag.

NiuBBall: Some people call it “The Expat Bubble, ” in the book you call it “Expat Land.”  Explain to people what that place is, and how you were able to successfully find a balance between your life there and your existence in “real China.”

AP: Expat Land is simultaneously in Beijing and in its own special universe, which can be transported around the globe. It can be simultaneously isolating and comforting. One of the primary challenges is to push out of it and remember that your timeline in your temporary home is brief and the clock is always ticking. Get out there and live it up!

We didn’t really have a choice because the Wall Street Journal owned a home in Beijing Riviera and there were certainly times that I wished we didn’t live there, but I have no regrets.  It made our transition much easier, especially for the kids, allowing us to hit the ground running and accomplish a tremendous amount quickly – including becoming more comfortable in the “real China” because we could choose our spots a little. And it was mighty comforting to have a nightly sense of retreat for my wife, who was deeply immersed in every aspect of the real China as the WSJ Bureau Chief.

NiuBBall: As a student who studied abroad in Beijing for a year in college, one of the toughest things for me was adjusting back to life in the States.  It’s something I’ve heard a lot of other people mention, too. How have you dealt with readjusting to life in your home country after three years of living in Beijing?

AP: It wasn’t particularly hard to readjust to life in the US, but it was excruciating to walk away from a life and a city I enjoyed so much. And it wasn’t just me; my whole family struggled. After a few months, I asked my oldest son Jacob, who was 11, what he missed about China and he said, “Pretty much everything except the guys spitting all over the place.” In China, I often missed specific people and places in the US, but I sort of knew I’d be back some day. When we left Beijing, it was more final, and we were mourning what we left behind.

I have been back for a while and the ache has faded. The book kind of saved my life – or at least my sanity. It provided a vehicle to work through my entire experience, as well as a demanding, exciting project to plunge myself into.  It also allowed me to keep one foot and half my mind in China, which was welcome.

NiuBBall: We at NiuBBall are really into Chinese food.  Anyone who had read your book knows that you are, too.  What are some of your favorite dishes and have you found an American restaurant that does a decent job imitating them yet?

AP: Last question first: mostly no, with a few exceptions.

Anyone who reads Big in China will recognize that I have a passion for great Chinese food. Some of my favorite dishes were eaten in tiny holes in the wall. I love spicy food, so fresh rice noodles in Hunan piled with tons of fiery goodness will forever stand out in my mind. Two kuai bowls of Guilin noodles on the side of Guangxi roads also resonate in my brain. It is possible to get some pretty decent noodles in Chinatown, New York – rice, hand-pulled and otherwise.

I fell in love with Guizhou food on a trip to that great province and ate it constantly in Beijing. I love most of it, but especially the slow-cooked ribs, the sweet and hot dumpling-y puffy balls, the picked vegetables…I haven’t seen anything remotely like this here – same deal with Uighur food, which I ate all the time.

I once had a plate of Sichuan chicken wings in an airport restaurant in
Chongqing that were sensational, just covered in fired little pieces of garlic and Sichuan peppercorns. I have tried to replicate these myself and while I failed I have come up with my own secret Sichuan wings recipe and they are damn good.

Then there’s hot pot. What can I say about that except hell yes. I found a pretty good place on the Upper West Side this winter.

I could keep going forever, but I’ll stop with one of your favorites: Jianbing. I am looking forward to seating several a day throughout my visit, as I always do. I bet I could find this in Flushing or some place, but so far I have never eaten one in the US.

NiuBBall: Now, let’s talk about the really good stuff: Did you play any basketball out there?  How would you describe the Chinese style of play?

AP: I played a little and wish I had played more. The style was familiar to me from years playing at JCCs and YMCA’s – tenacity, awkward shots, hunched over dribbling with shoulders leading the way, an uncanny ability to use glass. Lots of fun; unfortunately the best I ever played was one afternoon when I had to cut it short. I was with my friend Scott Kronick in his legendary pickup games. We were out to a great Taiwanese lunch with our families and I was wearing sandals, so I bought some old school Ahanghai at the gym. In the middle of the fourth game, just as I was starting to really roll, I realized that my feet were aflame with blisters and had to stop.

NiuBBall: Your piece on God Shammgod in Taiyuan for SLAM is legendary among these parts and a lot of other ones, too. What did you come away with about China, the CBA and Chinese basketball as a whole after writing the story?

AP: Thanks. It was a highlight of my career – both in terms of the writing and the overall experience. Part of what I came away from was the extent to which coaches control their players’ lives. Another was something you have commented upon – the CBA team’s utter failure to help foreign players eat food that is not McDonald’s, Pizza Hut or KFC. Sad.

NiuBBall: When looking at basketball in China, is there anything that you think really sticks out as different in comparison to basketball in the States?  Are there some concepts or aspects of Chinese basketball that really need to be understood before somebody states their opinion?

AP: I would say no on question two – anyone has a right to watch, observe and comment. And fresh eyes sometimes pick up on things that more seasoned people overlook as “normal.” A lot of things stick out as different, but one that always struck me the way teams tend to run all players through the same drills, regardless of position. This seemed to be changing a bit in the junior ranks and since I am a couple of years removed, I hope it has changed more.

Another related thing is the way that I think the players are overworked, resulting paradoxically in somewhat lackluster play. I think these guys have learned from a young age that they have to pace themselves because they work so many hours a day and it leads to them having a hard time understanding how to turn it up for actual games.

NiuBBall: What is your favorite memory covering basketball in China?

AP: That Shamm story – the few days I spent with him in Taiyuan and the ongoing relationship we established and maintain to this day.

NiuBBall: China, among other things, is known for its occasional randomness and ridiculousness. Case in point: You wrote that you saw Tracy McGrady ride on a crappy camel on the Great Wall.  Were there any other random situations involving basketball during your three year stay?

AP: Of course. There were many, but I’ll focus on just a couple of things that happened during my few days in Taiyuan reporting the Shamm story.

They were playing Guangdong, who were the two-time defending champions and featured Yi Jianlian, who was really huge at that moment. After the game, I wanted to hang out with Shamm but he told me that the owner would probably keep them in the locker room for a couple of hours and we should just meet up in the hotel. That’s what happened, so I was kicking around the arena.

Then I saw Rashid Byrd, the 7-foot malcontent who was the other foreigner on Shamm’s team, come out, so I said “Hi” and asked where Shamm was. “He’s still in there. I’m done.” He had just walked out on the owner and basically quit the team. He and I were looking for the Guangdong bus to get a ride back to the hotel. We ended up stuck in a vestibule and he was bum-rushed for autographs – a moment I captured in this video: http://alanpaul.net/2006/12/more-hoops-video/

Then we got on the bus and teetered through the crowds pushing forward, around the arena and to the hotel across the street. They were concerned about the throng of fans who were going to surround the bus when the players started to emerge, so they made a plan to have all the coaches form a wedge/wall around Yi and asked me to help out. Then the driver barreled over the sidewalk and pulled right up to the steps, sending people scrambling.

Sure enough, when the doors opened, there was a rush, and I had my arms locked with two assistant coaches and a few other guys, including a Nike rep, I think, forming a barrier, with 7-foot Yi behind us, secure. We pushed him into the lobby, then he ran for the elevator and I stood there watching, amazed that I had just been in the middle of this improbable scene. Several people ran over and asked me for my autograph. I told them I was not a player, in both English and Chinese, but they just shrugged and handed me stuff to sign, including shirts, posters and programs. I laughed and signed them all, to great thanks.

NiuBBall: You covered the 2008 Olympics in-depth for NBC and SLAM.  As one of the lucky few who got to see every Team U.S.A. game, who do you think is the better team, Dream Team or Redeem Team?

AP: The Redeem Team will always be special to me because, as you said, I was lucky enough to be in the arena for almost every minute they played. But you can’t compare them to the Dream Team, which had three all-time legends in Michael, Magic and Bird. You could make an argument that Kobe, Wade and LeBron deserve similar status, but I’m not buying it. And the first time that NBA players were in the Olympics created such intense buzz…it can never be matched let alone topped. It still bugs me that Isiah wasn’t on the Dream Team, by the way.

NiuBBall: Do you think Yao Ming will try to play in the NBA again, and more importantly, should he?

AP: I have no inside information but my guess is that yes he will try. He says his child is inspiring him to get back. I think he should try again, but I also think he should be realistic and ready to move on.

NiuBBall: How would you characterize basketball in China?  Where was it when you were there, where do you think it is now and where do you think it’s going?

AP: It’s in sort of a weird place, actually, because even as the sport gains in popularity, the CBA itself still has a lot of issues. I followed it so closely while I was there, but have been wrapped up in my book and other projects, so I hesitate to make too many proclamations. I don’t know what the heck happened to NBA China but it seems to me have imploded. I’d love to do a great story on this. Shhhh.

My friend Jim Yardley of the New York Times has written a book about basketball in China that will be out early next year and I’m sure it will be both a great read and full of information.

On a totally unrelated note, I am sad to see what has become of Chen Jianghua. Maybe I got caught up in some hype, but I thought he had a chance to be special.

NiuBBall: Anything else you’d like to add, either on basketball, the book or China?

AP: Thanks for the interest. China was obviously a grand and very rewarding adventure for me. I was really surprised by the extent to which my years  as a Slam senior writer opened doors for me there. I had no idea that would be so relevant.

I feel very happy about how the book came out. I think I captured my own China experiences and did so in a way that puts it into context and isn’t just about me. I’m proud of it and hope that you and your readers enjoy it. Please visit me at www.alanpaul.net and always feel free to drop me a line.

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Jason Dixon Interview

April 24, 2011

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Simply put, there are few Americans in the world better qualified to talk about Chinese basketball than Jason Dixon.   Spending a total of 10 seasons with the Guangdong Hongyuan Southern Tigers from 1998-2001 and 2003-2009, Dixon helped Guangdong to five CBA titles before having his #15 retired in December 2008.  To date, only one other player, Shanghai’s Yao Ming, has had their number hung from the rafters of a CBA stadium.

In 369 career games, by far the most games ever played by a foreign import player, Dixon averaged 17.7 points, 10.2 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and 58.2% shooting.

In a league where import players are constantly coming in and out, sometimes only weeks after signing, Dixon’s decade-long career was remarkable not only because Guangdong won so much, but also because he was around for so long to be a part of it all.  And after sitting down with him for a bit before Guangdong’s huge Game 4 win at home to tie the CBA finals at 2-2 against Xinjiang, it was easy for us to see why he’s been here for so long: Humble, relaxed and friendly, Dixon was interrupted several times during our interview by teammates, team employees and well-wishing fans, all of whom greeted him as a close friend and a valued member of the community.

Dixon, now retired from professional basketball after winning an the AirAsia ASEAN Basketball League for the Chang Thailand Slammers, is back in familiar surroundings working as an assistant coach with his old squad, Guangdong.  We talked about the new gig, his playing days in China and more in our sit down on Friday.

NiuBBall: So you’re back from playing a season in Thailand, how did you get hooked up with the job? Did you have it lined up with Guangdong ahead of time?

Jason Dixon: I came [to DongGuan] this Christmas to visit. We’re having dinner and the owner said, “When you retire, we have a job for you.” I was like, “Alright, cool.”

NiuBBall: Do you see yourself doing coaching long-term?

JD: They told me for the first year, we’ll just take it year by year and see how I do.  As more days go by, I’m actually fitting into it.  I wouldn’t mind doing it long-term.  With coaching, there’s no retirement age, you can as long as you want.  So I figure this is a good start.  With the NBA influence coming in here and all that stuff I could do that, or at least some major college or something. I was coaching little kids in the summer, coaching my son, but you do that for fun.  It’s cool, but as far as making money, I wouldn’t mind coaching at a major college.  I told people, first I want to do freshman or junior varsity [high-school], because those kids are still young and you can still teach them. But, now that I’m doing professional, it’s a little bit easier.  It comes a little bit more natural.

NiuBBall: What kinds of things does the team have you do?

JD: For now, its just player development with the big guys.  It’s cool because they’re starting me off, giving me a little piece, and then as time goes on they may give me some more responsibilities.  I guess as I show that I’m mature enough to handle it.

NiuBBall: You’ve been with this team for a long time, has knowing all of the players you’re working with made the transition easier?

JD: They like me, which is cool because I have the respect already. As a foreigner coming in here as a coach, they listen to you.  But, they think you’re going to leave and go back to America, that you’re just here to get the money. And you know, some of them learn. The thing is that they know the stuff that I tell them to do is the stuff I do myself. They’ve seen me work hard, they’ve seen that I’m always in shape, so they can’t say anything back to me, like “You’ve never done this.” Everything I’m telling you, I’ve done, so don’t say a word to me. So the only thing they say now is, “You didn’t shoot that well” [laughing].

NiuBBall: As a foreign coach, what are some of the challenges in working with Chinese players?

JD: The language barrier is always tough. And their work ethic is a lot different than Americans. I don’t want to call them lazy, but when they work out its very laid back.  At home, we say do a drill and kids go hard as hell. Here, it’s just like “Eh, we’ll do the drill.”

NiuBBall: Why do you think that is?

JD: Honestly, it’s because they play ball all year. They’re exhausted.  So it becomes monotonous to them.  I honestly think they lose the love for the game.  In America, you can go get a pick-up game and at this pick-up game, nobody knows who you are. You can do whatever – if you want to dribble the ball, no one is going to say you can’t do it.  Whereas here, you go to practice, you have a position.  If you’re a big man, you’re not supposed to dribble and that get’s old, it get’s boring. I have ideas to kind of see if the players respond to it.  My original idea I had was to just let the kids play five-on-five, have some kids come to gym and just say, you guys got 60 minutes to play five-on-five and whoever loses has to run “seventeens.” The coach was like, “We’re going to be fired if you do that” [laughing].  The kids don’t love the game.  One of the things about Americans is they have love [for basketball.] Even Europeans love the game.

NiuBBall: For sure.  One of the biggest elements of the off-season is playing pick-up, that’s how a lot of guys refine the skills they’ve been working on in the gym by themselves.

JD: Exactly. It’s how people improve. I think they’re starting to understand a little bit. You never improve during the season, because the season is when you want maintain. The off-season is when you improve your shot, you improve your dribbling skills, footwork… So, them having me in the summer, I think they have that confidence that maybe I can take their big men to another level. The problem is, all of their big men are on the National team. They won’t be here with me.  I’ll just have the younger guys.

NiuBBall: You played with the team for 10 years. I think that’s incredible given the turnover rate with foreign players in this league. Why do you think you were able to play here for so long? How were you able to adapt so well?

JD: Personality is one thing.  I’m the kind of person who gets along with everybody.  And then, there’s winning.  They’re going to go with someone who plays hard and wins games.  I think we only had one season when I was here when we didn’t do well, there was one year when we finished in sixth. Every other season that, we’ve been at least top four.  If it’s a proven thing, why would you go away from it?  The year that I actually did leave, we did terrible.  Then when I came back from Europe, we started winning championships again.  Now the stuff they’ve got going on, it’s so far past what I’ve done.  But before it was like, “You’re putting us in the finals, so we’re going to keep bringing you back.”

NiuBBall: How big of a role has the city played in everything? Do you like living here?

JD: I do, I love the city.  The city has grown.  It has a lot of foreigners here. It’s like a small college town, everyone knows everybody.  If someone does something, everyone is going to hear about it.  There’s enough restaurants where I can only eat foreign food.  I don’t really eat Chinese food.  So it’s grown a lot.  The first three years were rough.  I’d just sit in my room and play PlayStation.  But, you know we travel so much, you’re really not home.  You look forward to Beijing, Shanghai and Ningbo.  You hate hate the Xinjiang, Jiangsu and Liaoning trips [laughing].  But, now everyone loves coming here. When I’m here, I make sure I take everyone out, I get them a burger, a steak, whatever they want. Guangdong is the place to be at now.

NiuBBall: Do you think foreign players need to have a certain type of make-up, a certain type of personality to play here? Why do you think some foreign players don’t last long out here, especially this year with all of the NBA guys?

JD: I think some of these teams don’t know what they really want from a player.  They’ll look at stats and they’ll say “That guy scores a lot,” or “That guy rebounds a lot, we want that guy.”  But, they don’t understand chemistry and I think that’s the main reason.  It’s chemistry.  If you come here and you demand to take 40 shots a game, that takes shots away from the other players.  Some teams will tolerate it if you’re winning, but if you’re losing they won’t want you here.  Some guys have bad attitudes.  China’s actually tough. If you’re not in a good city, it can be really tough.  With the NBA guys, I think it’s even harder for them because they’re coming from traveling on team planes, this whole lap of luxury. You get out here and it’s not the lap of luxury [laughing].  It’s rough.  It’s an adjustment.

NiuBBall: In that sense, is Guangdong different from other teams where they look at a foreign player in terms of how he fits into the existing team, as opposed to just bringing a player in because he can put up huge numbers?

JD: Yeah, I think they are different.  Because in reality, you’re not going to come to this team and score.  Take David Harrison.  Last year I came here for Christmas, and David had come over from Beijing where he was getting the ball a lot and he was upset.  I said “Dave, you’re not going to get the ball here.”  You have five National team players on this team, all you can do is grab rebounds.  You’ll score about 15 points a game.

NiuBBall: Plus there was Smush [Parker].

JD: Plus there was Smush.  Plus you have that rule [foreign players can only play at the same time for two quarters], so you’re not going to score.  Get your 12-15 points and 10-12 rebounds.  On this team, your job is really easy. More or less they want the big men to come here and defend every other team’s big man and [Mengke] Bateer.  Bateer, Tang [Zhengdong], and Wang Zhizhi.  Everything else isn’t that hard.  It shocked me because when Dave got hurt, they didn’t rush to find another big man.  They took their time and they still were winning a lot of games.  It just shows that they don’t need a big man to come here and take shots.  Those days are over.

NiuBBall: Who was best player, local or foreign, that you played against?

JD: Man, that’s tough… for foreigners, it’s tough to say.  There’s been a lot of great players who’ve played here.  For locals, its definitely Wang [Zhizhi]. He’s left-handed and he’s taller than me, so I couldn’t really do anything.  Liu Yudong was tough too. That dude, he didn’t miss a shot!  Foreigners, it’s really tough to say because there’s been so many. I looked at it as, you’re a man and I’m a man, and we’re going to go head-to-head.  A lot of people say, if you’re seven feet tall and you’re in China, you must not be that good.  Some of those guys were not [laughing.]  Some of them were really athletic, but there’s more to the game than that.  Earlier in China, the level of Americans was different because of the pay. The pay reflected the competition. I really can’t think of the best foreigner.

NiuBBall: A lot of people have said Quincy Douby might be the best foreign player of all-time.

JD: He’s on a team with Bateer!  He can shoot.  He’s definitely a great shooter. But, if you look at his whole game, I don’t want to sound like I’m hating on the guy, but all he does is shoot!  I mean, he drives to the basket, but he doesn’t guard anybody.  I think people say that because he makes a lot of noise.  In China, they love the three-point shooters, but to say he’s the best in the history… I’d say you have to look at a guy like Lee Benson. I don’t know how he does it, but game after game he’s got 30 points and 20 rebounds.  How do you say he’s not up there?  I mean, having Bateer down there makes the biggest difference.  Xinjiang has always had good foreigners, even when teams couldn’t pay a lot.

NiuBBall: For the first time in team history, Guangdong is in a close series and isn’t necessarily favored to win.  What’s the mood in the locker room been like?  Have you noticed a difference in mood and attitude with this year’s team in comparison with other years?

JD: They’re aware their backs are against the wall.  We have two huge games coming up.  We got to get them both.  This team, they’ll play one good game and then they’ll play a bad one.  The thing is, we got to win two back-to-back.  We know we have to come here and win two.

NiuBBall: Is there something missing from this year’s team that maybe they had in years past?

JD: We don’t have the inside game that we used to have.  And we still have the young guys, too.  The guys are getting older.  Somebody asked me, “Are they still hungry?”  Some people think they don’t have that same fire.  I think maybe they’re burned out.  They had the Asian Championships, the Olympics, the China Games… its insane.  I wouldn’t say they’ve lost their fire, they’re just burning out!  You play so many important games and you don’t have that same emotion.

NiuBBall: I saw that Yi Jianlian is now back in Guangdong rooting his old team on after his season with the Washington Wizards is over. You obviously played with him for a while, why do you think he has struggled to live up to expectations in the NBA?

JD: I wouldn’t say he’s struggled.  I think people had this high expectation of Yi and I don’t know where that high expectation came from.  To be quite honest, Yi didn’t dominate the CBA. He only played three years in the CBA and his first two years, I don’t want to say he was a nobody, but he wasn’t dominant.  His third year he did what he was supposed to do.  He got noticed, made noise, but for some reason people were like he’s going to go [to the NBA], he’s going to be a starter, he’s going to average this and have this great career.  I had to bite my tongue about it.  He doesn’t have great ball handling skills.  He has a great outside shot and he’s very athletic.  But, it’s politics, it’s China.  Teams want the Chinese market.  I would say Yi hasn’t had a great career, but it’s been a healthy career.  How many players go into the NBA for a lot of years?  He’s got his years, he’s got his pension.  I think Yao just raised the bar… But, I wish him the best of luck.  I’m curious about what happens when he comes back to play for this team.  What’s going to happen then?  It’s going to be so unfair.

NiuBBall: You think after he’s done in NBA, Yi’s going to come back and play again for Guangdong?

I think he would because he’s such a nice guy and the team has such a good relationship with him.  I think he would do it for one or two seasons.  That’s going to be so unfair.

NiuBBall: You’ve been in this city for so long, do you have any side projects off the court that you’ve been working on?

JD: I’ve had ideas, but it’s hard because you’re playing three games a week and you’re always on the road.  It’s kind of hard.  People have told me “You should do something, you have a name in the city, you should do this.”  And when I try to pursue it a little bit, you know it’s like, we have three games this week.  And when the season’s over, I don’t want to be here.  I want to go home and see my kids.  Now that I’m a little older, now that I’m actually here for a while, I can actually be here.  There’s a few ideas, people want me to start my own basketball academy.  But, here it’s not like how it is at home.  It’s not like it is back home where after school, parents want their kid involved in some type of sport.  Here it’s like they want them playing piano or ballet, doing something “intelligent.”  But, I may try it.  My daughter is coming out here to go to school next year at an American school.  I figure it’d be cool to start something new.  I asked [the team] about [starting a basketball academy] and they were the ones who told me about kids being into piano and ballet… Asia, I guess.

NiuBBall: Jason, thanks a lot for the sit down. Good luck with coaching and everything else.

JD: Thanks.

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