Memphis and Calipari Go to Hoop in China
By PETE THAMEL
Published: September 20, 2007
In a move that may someday help expand the exposure of college basketball in China, the University of Memphis signed an agreement with the Chinese Basketball Association.
Skip to next paragraph Memphis Coach John Calipari traveled to Beijing with university and city officials for the announcement of the deal, which will include Calipari’s running a series of coaching clinics and camps throughout China in the next five years.
Also, 15 men’s and women’s coaches chosen by the Chinese Basketball Association will go to Memphis for 10 days in October to learn from Calipari and his coaching staff. They will evaluate how Memphis, which could be ranked No. 1 entering this season, runs its program. One of the Chinese coaches will stay with the Tigers for the season.
Calipari said his efforts would plant a recruiting seed in China, a country with a population of 1.3 billion and a love for basketball. But he said he was unsure of the logistics of recruiting in China in terms of N.C.A.A. eligibility rules.
“I’ll be honest: In the worst-case scenario, this never includes a player,” Calipari said. “It’s still good for our campus and our city. It’s an advantage to our university as well as our athletic program. There’s no downside.”
Calipari first hatched the idea of an agreement with China after a conversation with William Wesley, a man well known in basketball circles who has strong ties with LeBron James and other N.B.A. stars. Wesley told Calipari how much the Chinese embraced James during a trip there and that a large percentage of James’s jersey and gear sales came from China.
“William Wesley told me that I wouldn’t believe how big this thing was,” Calipari said. “He told me that LeBron was like a rock star over there.”
After that, Calipari said he read a column in The New York Times in May by William C. Rhoden that talked about an agreement the N.B.A. signed to help establish a foothold in China. Calipari said that after reading the article, he wanted to become the first United States coach to hire a Chinese assistant coach.
Calipari then spoke with Fred Smith, the founder of Memphis-based FedEx who has worked extensively in China. He also called Del Harris, the Dallas Mavericks assistant who coached the Chinese national team at the 2004 Olympics. At the time, the Chinese basketball delegation happened to be going to Dallas.
“I hopped on the next plane,” Calipari said.
The agreement could benefit the university beyond basketball. The provost, Ralph Faudree, who is traveling with Calipari to China, is discussing with Chinese officials the requirements for admission to Memphis. Faudree is hoping to double the number of students from China.
Calipari seems to be thinking bigger as well. He said he would love to have Memphis basketball highlights shown on China’s national television shows and was intrigued when told that the Yankees began a relationship with the Chinese Baseball Association in January. He wants to teach his up-tempo system to Chinese coaches and hopes it can spread throughout the country.
Calipari also said that the N.C.A.A. has virtually no presence in China and he hoped that the N.C.A.A. men’s tournament, which is televised in 149 other counties, could be televised there someday.
“It is fascinating to watch Coach Calipari as he grows the relationship with China and Chinese basketball,” the N.C.A.A. president, Myles Brand, said in a statement. “It speaks to the global appeal of intercollegiate basketball.”
Calipari acknowledged that reaching his goals would take time, but he is clearly excited to take the first step.
“The only way to approach this stuff is how it will help coaching and how it will help the game of basketball,” he said.
“We want to be good-will ambassadors as opposed to greedy Americans. We’re basically putting together an exchange program.”