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