Arizona State‘s unofficial goodwill ambassadors to China are packing up for tomorrow’s flight to Beijing, starting a 10-day tour through the Asian country.
And, oh yeah, they’ll play some basketball while they’re there.
Fans turned out at Wells Fargo Arena Saturday for a chance to watch the men’s basketball team practice, meet the players, get autographs, and wish them bon voyage. And then attention turned to the tour, the first international trip for the program since 2001 when the Devils traveled to Australia.
But this trip has a bigger purpose and broader vision.
The Sun Devils will be just the second Pac-12 basketball team to represent the conference and the USA in a new globalization initiative begun last summer when UCLA sent its men’s basketball team on a similar three-game tour in China to kick off the program.
When Larry Scott took over as Pac-12 Commissioner in 2009, he determined that expanding the conference brand into Asia would be a priority. Since then, the Bruins began the initiative, followed by a Pac-12 all-star volleyball team that visited Shanghai and Huaian City in June, playing six games against Chinese professional teams. Next month, three current and former Pac-12 basketball coaches will hold a coaching clinic at Shanghai Jiaotong University, and the University of California women’s basketball team will start a goodwill tour through China on Aug. 17.
ASU will play the Tsinghua University team in Beijing on Monday, followed by games against the Fujian SBS professional team twice, once in Zhaoquing on Friday and in Nanning on Sunday.
Along the way, they’ll take time to visit the country’s landmarks and experience the culture. The team will start with a visit Saturday to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, followed by a hike along the Great Wall at Mutianyu on Sunday. They will also get a trip to the Yu Garden in Shanghai, tour the World Financial Center in that city, and soak up the culture of the country by strolling through the alley districts and courtyard homes in the Hutongs in Beijing and the old Chinese part of town in Shanghai.
Head coach Herb Sendek says he sees the trip as an “opportunity to be goodwill ambassadors for Arizona State” and also points out that ASU is currently involved with a number of higher-education initiatives around the globe, including China. The school has established academic collaboration and exchange with more than 30 universities in China and currently offers PhD, MA, and BA degrees in Chinese.
“We’ll have an opportunity to interact with people who are involved with our university, and that may be the most important mission of this trip,” Sendek points out. (Don’t forget the basketball, Herb)
ASU actually has alumni chapters in Beijing and Shanghai and he and Steve Patterson, the Vice President for Athletics who is traveling with the team, have scheduled events with both groups while there.
The game of hoops is big in China. Statistics show that approximately 300 million people play basketball in China and, according to the Pac-12 conference, Chinese students make up the fastest-growing demographic of applicants to Pac-12 universities. The conference is already looking into the idea of playing a regular-season game in China, something Scott says could happen within the next couple of years.
Patterson feels the exhibition tour will accomplish more than basketball alone can offer. He sees the tour as helping to re-connect alumni, build enrollment, and strengthen the relationships the university has already built in the country.
But make no mistake, what it will do for the Sun Devil basketball program, which is trying to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five years, is not insignificant. The opportunity to play against international competition, not only at the college level but at the professional level, will be an invaluable experience. And the team bonding that comes with being together in a situation like this is icing on the cake.
However, Sendek points out that there are pitfalls to this experience.
The NCAA allowed Sendek and his staff 10 practices to prepare for the exhibition tour, which the Sun Devils began using toward the end of July.
When the tour was announced in early July, Sendek explained: “We’ll have three exhibition games. We’ll have three practices. We have to use those judiciously because guys typically aren’t in the same kind of condition they are once you start playing games in November. Plus, we don’t want to make the season too long, to our detriment.”
The practices are done now. The games await. Tomorrow the team will gather at high noon in Weatherup Center to board the bus to Sky Harbor Airport.
But it will be a couple of months yet before the results of this once-in-a-lifetime experience can be put to the test on the hardwood. In the meantime, it’s a win-win experience for the school and the players.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)