Memphis Tigers go global and look toward China
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) -Forget being a national program. Memphis coach John Calipari wants to make his Tigers global.
The team's practice Tuesday morning, like most this preseason, was attended by the best and brightest coaches China has to offer. They lined the bench scribbling notes that they can take home with their flashy Tigers blue apparel.
The 10-practice clinic is the first step in an agreement the university signed with the Chinese Basketball Association in September, a deal Calipari hopes will revolutionize college basketball by increasing its exposure worldwide. And maybe one day land the Tigers a star Chinese recruit.
"A country with 1.3 billion people, I figure some of them have to play basketball,'' Calipari said.
The five-year agreement includes Calipari running a series of coaching clinics and camps throughout China, and plans are in the works for the Tigers to go to China in May for a series against the national team.
Fifteen coaches from the Chinese association underwent a rigorous screening process that included a written test, then made the 20-hour flight to Memphis as part of a nine-day trip. Now they are evaluating the basketball program at Memphis, which could be ranked No. 1 entering this season.
"The whole philosophy, the attitude, everything here is different,'' said Duan Lian, a junior coach with the Chinese group. "Even different from the NBA. There are a bunch of things we just don't know.''
The coaches have learned about film sessions, weightlifting and medical training. They also indulged in local culture, including a trip to Elvis Presley's Graceland mansion.
Except for a Chinese coach who had an emergency appendectomy, Calipari said the program has gone smoothly.
"If you ask me, 'Why would you do it?' Because the advantage is we will be first and we would be remembered the most,'' Calipari said. "Which means we would have the most goodwill, which means we benefit the most, you would hope.''
One of the Chinese coaches, Cui Wanjun, will stay with the Tigers this season as an intern. The former national team player was honored to learn he would be on the coaching staff of one of the NCAA's premier programs.
"It's like finding out you got accepted by your dream college,'' Wanjun said through an interpreter. "But there is a lot of responsibility on me to help my country. I hope to bring back a lot of knowledge.''
Memphis players are also undergoing a culture shock.
"They pay attention to every little thing, every little thing,'' Memphis guard Chris Douglas-Roberts said. "The other day at practice, when we had a break, not one of them got up to get water or anything. We're running to the cooler.''
The Memphis-China connection began when Calipari read a newspaper article about an agreement between the NBA and China. Calipari then spoke with friends in the NBA and Fred Smith, the founder of Memphis-based FedEx who has worked extensively in China.
Dallas Mavericks assistant Del Harris, who coached the Chinese national team at the 2004 Olympics, put Calipari in contact with members of the Chinese Basketball Association who happened to be traveling to Dallas at the time. Calipari took the next flight to Texas.
"Sometimes I say it's kind of like fate,'' Calipari said. "If I had waited two weeks, it never would have happened.''
He went to tell the university's provost, Dr. Ralph Faudree, about his intentions only to discover Faudree was in China at the time - and had been working in Asia for more than 10 years. Things all seemed to align.
"I said, 'He's over there? Why doesn't anybody know of this potential?' It was just like 'Whoa,''' Calipari said. "We can do this before anyone. It was a total awakening.''
Calipari said his efforts will put Memphis ahead of the recruiting curve in China, the world's fastest-growing major economy. His goal this season is to have Memphis highlights shown nationally on China's state-run television, allowing an estimated 400 million people to watch the Tigers, Chinese basketball authorities estimate. That's about 100 million more than the population of the United States.
The university is filming a documentary to chronicle the program, which may be broadcast in China. Calipari also said he would like to see the NCAA men's tournament, which is shown in 149 other countries, be broadcast in China, too.
"I want kids in China to dream about the University of Memphis,'' he said. "See this gym on TV, see what college life is like.''
Calipari plans to bring Conference USA all-star teams to China in the coming years, with participation from other league coaches. Coaches in the conference are encouraged by Calipari's efforts but worry the initiative could put them further behind Memphis.
"As long as Yao Ming doesn't show up on my floor, I'm OK with it,'' SMU coach Matt Doherty said, referring to Houston Rockets' 7-foot-6 center from China who was the top NBA draft pick in 2002.
Calipari is not certain the agreement will yield a recruit for Memphis. He said the initiative is aimed at spreading NCAA awareness in China and part of a broader goal by the university to build a larger base of Asian students.
His players agree, but offered clearer predictions about Calipari's ambitions.
"In the next three years, I'm telling you, Memphis will have a Chinese basketball player,'' Douglas-Roberts said. "He's not going to go over there without looking at players.''