The much anticipated day finally arrived-September 16. Our flight departure from Los Angeles Airport was scheduled to leave at 1:30pm. China Eastern Airlines recommended a two hour preparation time for passport/baggage procedures and gate check-in. We departed Santa Barbara fashionably late (9:30a,), not by design but divine anxiety. Fortunately, for a Tuesday morning, traffic was very light on the 101 and the 405 highways. By 11:05am, we were walking through the Tom Bradley International Terminal, greeted by Breaker guard Tim Taylor, who resides in Pomona.
Players began to trickle in and by 11:55am, Keith Closs, the 7 foot 5 inch center, arrived with two small athletic bags. I had explicitly shared with the players to pack light as they would want to return with many gifts and items purchased in China without a large penalty for excessive weight on the return flight home.
Being the Good Samaritan, I stayed with each player, attempting to secure emergency row and bulkhead seating for additional leg room. Not that it did a lot of good for Closs. The former center for the Los Angeles Clippers with the long gangly limbs, was very limited in the comfort mode but made no complaints. Like the other nine players, he allowed his ipod to immune his cramped positioning.
The 13 and one half hour flight actually went smoothly with no significant turbulence. Three movies were provided as well as 3 very average meals. With the fifteen hour time change, we experienced daylight outside the cabin the entire flight until setting down on the runway in Shanghai at 6:30pm. We quickly made our way to baggage claim, climbed on a 50 passenger bus and within 10 minutes, was ushered into a luxurious hotel that overlooked the 13 million residents of Shanghai. A Santa Barbara friend of mine clued me in that Shanghai is New York City on Steroids! He proved to be right.
After checking into our rooms, we were led to a dining room with a large round table that accommodated 18-20 people. Waitresses began bringing countless dishes of food and placed them on a large round glass that spun around, giving each individual the opportunity to select food they wanted and then spun it onto their colleagues. There was a bit of astonishment as Breaker players viewed the mysterious meat dishes that spun before their very eyes. We had all discussed the awareness that China offers the cuisine dog and cat entres. It was a topic of discussion during the Beijing Olympic Games. Mark Peters, point guard for the Breakers, had the look of seeing a ghost. “Hey Fellas, some KFC would look real good right now,” he bellowed.
Eventually, the familiar sight of fried chicken, sweet and sour chicken, fish, vegetables, rice and salad filled the spinning glass table.
The following morning, we met for an 8am breakfast while some of the players took advantage of the internet service available in the hotel lobby. At 10am, we were on a bus headed for the train station in downtown Shanghai. The upside to traveling by train in China is that it travels 160 per hour and makes very few stops along the way. The downside is that there are no elevators , escalators or baggage helpers to assist you up and down very steep stairs leading to the train. Over the course of about 5 train excursions, most of our party members experienced wheels falling off their NEW baggage carriers as well as the very difficult challenge these stairs presented in carrying “dead weight” for a long distance. We eventuall y made destination in Hefei. We checked into our hotel, which had internet access, dined in the hotel ballroom and eyeballed identical dishes of food like the previous night.
At 8pm, we left for the arena for a 2 hour practice. The players were like children on their birthday. They had not touched a basketball in 5 days and the thought of getting in a good run after 3 days of travel was pure ecstacy. After a very spirited practice, the players returned to the hotel for a snack and going to their laptops to communicate with friends and family back home. One added highlight that evening was turning on the tv and seeing Breaker player, Tyler Newton playing for his Japanese Club team versus a Chinese team. Tyler had emailed me that he would be in China when we arrived. His team won that night but unfortunately, we were in two cities miles apart in the vast country of China
The following morning, we took the bus for a shootaround practice. This is normally a one hour practice just to work on shooting and walk through our offensive plays. We had another spirited workout and returned to our hotel for lunch. After relaxing for the afternoon, we were ready for our first game in China. Our opponent was Baschet Club from Romania. They had finished 2nd in their professional league the previous season. They were big, physical and could shoot the lights out from long range.
What we learned earlier that day was that the city of Qianshan, where the Arena was located, was a suburb of Anquing. Quianshan was so proud as they were christening their new arena on this night and had wanted to do so with an American basketball team. We felt very honored that they were “saving” this special occasion for the Santa Barbara Breakers. The mayor of the city was there. Several television stations were present with their video cameras and it was a sellout crowd of 5,000 fans. There was only one problem. It was a very, very humid night and this beautiful, new arena lacked ventilation or central air conditioning. In laymen terms, the floor was a bona fide”Ice Capades”. From warm-ups until the final buzzer sounded, players were slipping and sliding on the floor, unable to get good footing for proper movement at either end of the floor. Certainly, both teams had to deal with the same conditions but the Breakers are known for an athletic, fastbreaking, defensive pressuring style of play. That was not possible on this night. The Breakers led 15-12 early in the contest, thanks to the offensive play of Kareem Abdul Jabbar Jr’s offensive efforts and the shotblocking and rebounding of Keith Closs. By halftime, the Breakers were down 35-25. One galliant effort was made in the second half, tying the score at 44 all. But the three point shooting of the Romanians proved the difference as they pulled away for a 64-55 win. Although it was great to open up a new arena in the heartland of China, it was disappointing for the fans and players that the floor conditions were not conducive for quality play-win or lose.