They were something like Gullivers in China, amazing in size yet benign in manner. In number, they were 46—the largest American delegation allowed into the formerly forbidden mainland since President Nixon's grand army of aides, diplomats and newsmen descended during the friendly winter of 1972. In stature, they possibly were unmatched in all the 200 Chinese generations since the Shang Dynasty first bloomed in the 18th century B.C. When they strolled along the hot sweeping boulevards of Peking, the city's endlessly flowing stream of bicyclists slowed or stopped or tangled in knots to watch them. When they stood to sip toasts at banquets in their honor their raised goblets looked like thimbles in their outsized hands. When they trouped through the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace outside Peking or the vast corridors of the Great Hall of the People, they made a tall, long, brightly colored line that hitched and writhed its way like a big, happy picture-snapping dragon. At times last week, it seemed that in all of Peking only the ever-present portraits of Chairman Mao Tse-tung stood consistently higher, or more visible, than this American delegation of two basketball teams, men's and women's, on a three-week tour through the People's Republic.
As the first of their kind to come to Red China, they were feted and praised, cared for and adored with as much gusto—although by no means the pomp—as any emperors of the past. They were received, in fact, with almost as much reverence and respect as the exalted lowly peasant in the egalitarian present.
The idea for the tour was conceived during one of Henry Kissinger's cloak-and-portfolio visits to Peking last winter. The plan was to begin a series of good-will sports exchanges between the two countries, and originally the intent was to send the U.S. men's and women's amateur champion teams. As everyone knows, that meant the men's team would be UCLA, winner of the NCAA title for the seventh consecutive time. As virtually no one at all knew, the women's team would be the John F. Kennedy College Patriettes out of Wahoo, Neb., winner of the national AAU title for the past two years. The State Department issued invitations, and the word from Wahoo was an instantaneous "yup," but UCLA said no. Thus it was necessary to paste together a college all-star squad, and early in June the men players gathered in Tennessee for a few days of practice with Gene Bartow, the amiable and intelligent coach of Memphis State University, runners-up to UCLA.
There were no real All-Americas in the group, but they were an uncommonly bright bunch, some of them still teenagers like freshmen Quinn Buckner of Indiana, George Pannell of South Plains Junior College in Texas and Alvan Adams of Oklahoma, or mere sophomores like Kevin Grevey of Kentucky and seven-foot Rich Kelley of Stanford. Kevin Stacom of Providence was one of three juniors, and three had graduated from college—Kentucky's Jim Andrews, North Carolina's George Karl and Ronnie Robinson of Memphis State. Nearly all of the Patriettes, who had compiled a 34-7 record for the season against such teams as the Raytown Piperettes, the Wayland Baptist Flying Queens and the Kansas City Lady Bugs, were from Iowa. The two squads gave the U.S. delegation a remarkably Middle American silhouette. They spoke mostly in drawls, twangs and flat accents that echoed of cornfields and green prairies and long, straight two-lane highways.
July 1, 1973
Not very many of the Americans had ever been out of the country, but neither had many of their Chinese hosts visited abroad, a condition that is changing rapidly now that Peking has decided there is a use for sport in world politics. After years of isolation the Chinese suddenly are exchanging athletes, teams and sportsmen with dizzying enthusiasm. Last week, for example, China was being crisscrossed by an astonishing assortment of athletic delegations besides the U.S. basketball contingent. There were teams of U.S. swimmers and divers, a soccer team from Somali, a Japanese schoolboy basketball team, a Japanese industrial soccer team, the Mexican men's and women's volleyball teams, the Sri Lanka badminton delegation, an Albanian youths' volleyball team, a British table tennis team, a Pakistani soccer team and a Pakistani badminton team. Going the other way, a Chinese table tennis team was in Japan, another in Thailand and Malaysia; a badminton team was in Burma, a track and field team in Korea, a tennis team in Bucharest, a gymnastics team in Canada and the men's and women's volleyball teams were traveling through Syria, Italy and Lebanon.
But it was basketball that intrigued the Chinese. For one thing, lan chiu, as the game is called in China, is the nation's No. 2 sport, second only to Ping-Pong in popularity. Introduced by missionaries and YMCA workers in 1901, just 10 years after Dr. Naismith invented it, basketball gained no great popularity until after Mao's Communist Party won the country in 1949 and a revolutionary drive for physical fitness swept the country. Today baskets and backboards sprout in every city park, factory yard and commune, and are hooked to trees in the remotest villages. Lan chiu, quite simply, is China's national team game—and the Americans are its prophets.
"We admire your American players for they are the best at basketball in the world," said Tung Yi-wan, a leading member of the All China Sports Federation working with the nation's mass sports programs. "We are not of your caliber, but we can advance friendship and learn from your visit. In many parts of the countryside of China the peasants and workers use their threshing grounds to play basketball. It is a game the people like to play in the interest of the advancement of socialism and defense of the nation through Chairman Mao's precepts of physical fitness."
From the moment of the muggy morning of June 16 when they disembarked from the Hong Kong train and walked tentatively through the famed corrugated-iron arch and crossed the border into China, the U.S. men and women were engulfed in a special air of admiration and awe. As their buses wound through steaming Canton, people waved enthusiastically, and after a two-hour jet flight to dark and rainy Peking, where they received standard energetic applause and embraces, the Americans settled into a routine of constant adoration. When they practiced in Peking's Capital Stadium, a gleaming 18,000-seat arena rivaling any in the U.S., they were joined by several thousand spectators who watched in almost scholarly silence, broken only by hushed aaaaaahhhs when someone rose high off the floor and dunked a ball.
Tickets to the first appearance in Peking—a men's and women's doubleheader against Chinese all-star teams—were sold out far in advance. The best seats cost a dime, the rest a nickel and when a Chinese official was jokingly asked whether there might be some scalping underway, he said briskly, "Of course not. It is against the law." The first games were beamed across all of China by government television.
Wherever they went as a group, the Americans were recognized, but even alone the players were celebrated. One Patriette, Juliene Brazinski, rose at 5 a.m. the day after a televised game and went for a stroll in the rosy morning. To her surprise, she came upon a dusty playground where more than a dozen small boys were playing basketball. When they saw her, one ran to her side, holding up seven fingers—the number on her uniform. He grabbed her hand and pulled his new lan chiu heroine onto the court to play.
For sure, there was the predictable onslaught of banquet bombast and diplomatic oratory. The Americans were reminded so often of the Chinese philosophy of sport—friendship first, competition second—that they came to refer to it simply as FFCS. Their introduction to the ancient Chinese habit of toasting friendship again and again and again and again in flaming swigs of their explosive sorghum liqueur, Mao Tai, came at a dinner in the famed restaurant, the Peking Duck. After seven or eight gulps in honor of FFCS, the great game of basketball and "the women's team of Wahoo, Nabersaka," Quinn Buckner looked wonderingly at a snifter of Mao Tai and gasped, "Man, back in the States you could start your car with this stuff."
The most dramatic moment of the tour, at least diplomatically speaking, occurred at the outset of the first night's games. The leaders of the American delegation were whisked off to a reception room somewhere deep in the capital arena where they met the U.S. Ambassador himself, David Bruce, who was making his first public appearance in China. Even he did not know who would attend from the Chinese hierarchy, but at last the names were announced: Chiang Ching, the wife of Chairman Mao, and three other members of the Chinese Politburo. American diplomats gasped. It was an almost unprecedented display of Chinese diplomacy, and in a way more significant than if Premier Chou En-lai himself had appeared, for Madame Mao is severe and vigilant in detecting any softness in the Chinese position. Her appearance at an event so absolutely American-oriented as a basketball game was seen immediately as a powerful new message that China wants nothing to obstruct the progress of her rapprochement with the United States.
During the reception Madame Mao hobnobbed pleasantly with the leaders of the U.S. delegation, but at one point sent Sinologists' hearts racing. She said, "You were defeated once by another super-power and we hope it will not happen again." The reference, it was finally realized, was to the U.S. basketball team's defeat by Russia in Munich.
The reception over, Madame Mao led her comrades into the arena and proceeded to greet and shake hands with every member of the American delegations, including the swimming group, coaches, trainers, reporters and performers. It was a splendid scene of friendship, with the small, dignified first lady of China reaching up, up, up to grasp the hands of the smiling young giants from America.
Once the formalities of international diplomacy and unspoken messages to world capitals were finished, the games began. The women from Wahoo came up against an astonishingly powerful team of stars from various physical-culture institutes around the country. The Patriettes, mostly pretty girls in their teens, were all but blasted off the floor by the rugged, quick Chinese team, a group of skilled veterans who averaged more than 27 years old. The score the first night was 79-63, and in two more Peking games the Patriettes fared no better, losing 65-46 and 74-62.
Though they tried bravely to find some values of friendship in their defeats, the girls from Wahoo could scarcely hide their dejection. Like the Chinese, they too wanted their play to mean more than the final score. They had come to China in the rather desperate hope that this grand tour might somehow help rescue their school, a tiny college with an enrollment of 350 that in its eight years of existence has fallen on hard times. It is facing at least a quarter-million-dollar deficit this year, and the dream was that a successful China trip and its attendant publicity might somehow trigger a new rush of students to Wahoo. Winning, it was felt, might have helped.
The U.S. men's team had no such problems. It worked smoothly together despite its short time as a unit, and the Chinese men were no match. The scores (88-59, 94-67, 95-75) were almost an international embarrassment, as the Americans, led by Karl's drives to the basket and the superb rebounding and all-round play of Robinson, dropped in shots almost at will. The Chinese were not all that much smaller than the Americans—their largest man was 6'10" and the team averaged more than 6'3"—but generally they showed a playground style. They had adapted their fast break from the Americans but it was almost always out of control. Their defense was usually a simple man-to-man, and not very effective against the stronger and faster Americans. Although the Chinese had some fine shooters, they showed few signs of the fluid team movement that makes U.S. basketball what it is.
Bob Hopkins, assistant coach of the U.S. team and head coach at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans, said, "Their whole game is geared to offense. They can shoot very well, but they don't handle the ball well and they haven't even tried to develop the basic fundamentals of footwork. Their defense is underdeveloped and their big men lack agility."
Despite such visible shortcomings, Team China was the best the country had yet produced. And happily, there were plenty of FFCSes to ease the home team's losses. As one Chinese interpreter put it, "Winning teams have weaknesses and losing teams have strengths and both can learn from each other." Which, of course, was why the American lan chiu team was in China.