Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Wizards conjure up memories of '79



Shang-high: Gheorghe Muresan towers over locals in China's largest city [AFP]Globetrotting basketball tours may be all about the cash these days, but the Washington Wizards are bringing back memories of a much more significant trip on their visit to China.
Players old and new are with the NBA side to mark the 30th anniversary of a trail-blazing tour which aimed to build diplomatic ties between two recently estranged nations.
The focus has now shifted towards business but the basketball team remain proud of their role in bringing the countries closer together.
Hall of Famer Wes Unseld and his teammates were the first NBA team to play in China when they arrived in 1979 at the personal invitation of paramount Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping just after the US normalised relations with Beijing.
'Rewarding'
"It's very rewarding to think that 30 years ago, we started the process of building the relationship between our two countries," Unseld, now 63, said on Tuesday.
"It's very humbling for someone like me to think that I shared a very small part of that."
The process has gone a long way since, not least for the NBA which now has its own operation in China and has grown into the most popular professional sports league in the world's most populous nation.
Such popularity has not been missed and the marquee names of North American basketball, including Lebron James and Kobe Bryant, have flocked to China for promotional appearances this close season.
So, as well as marking the anniversary of their trip and putting on basketball clinics on this 10-day tour, the Wizards – who changed their name from the Washington Bullets in 1997 – were also looking to build business relationships.
Ming dynasty
Unseld joked he had thought of another way the organisation might benefit from the longevity of their association with China.
"I just discovered that Yao Ming's father was on the team I played against in Shanghai 30 years ago," he said, referring to the Houston Rockets' All-Star Chinese center.
"I have one request to make, if you have any more Yao Mings, please send them to the Washington Wizards."

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