Tigers prep for visit from China staff
15 coaches will be observing U of M practice next month
By Dan Wolken
Thursday, September 27, 2007
John Calipari returned from China with a few new words in his vocabulary (Did you even know that was possible?) and a new appreciation for ancient eating utensils.
"Ni hao (hello), xiexie (thank you), and chopsticks," Calipari said. "Am I good with the chopsticks now or what?"
Of course, if the University of Memphis' new partnership with the Chinese Basketball Association goes as well as Calipari hopes, his cross-cultural knowledge will only expand over the next few years.
On Wednesday, Calipari and provost Dr. Ralph Faudree recounted their recent trip to China, where last week they announced a five-year agreement that could represent a breakthrough in basketball relations between the two countries.
Though the centerpiece, for now, is a coaches' exchange program -- which will begin next month when 15 Chinese coaches observe 10 days worth of Memphis practices -- the long-term ramifications could reach much further.
Not only does Calipari envision Chinese players possibly attending U.S. colleges one day, thus exposing a country of 1.3 billion people to NCAA basketball, but he believes the UofM could become a cultural base for undergraduate college students from Asia.
"We've had partnerships with various Chinese institutions for over 20 years," Faudree said. "We do feel like this is a great opportunity for us to have visibility in China, for us to bring some students and some coaches to this city, which has a tremendous basketball tradition."
Calipari revealed Wednesday that the seed money to begin the program came from FedEx, which has a large Chinese operation. When he first thought about pursuing a relationship with Chinese basketball, Calipari said his first phone call was to FedEx president and CEO Fred Smith to gauge its feasibility.
"And he said, 'It's brilliant, run for it because it's exploding over there, and the opportunity is there if you take advantage of it,'" Calipari said. "He said, 'Whatever support you need from me, just call me and I'll support this.'"
In the process, Calipari said he discovered an eagerness on the part of the Chinese Basketball Association to develop coaching techniques, which have not evolved much over the years.
Of the 15 coaches who will come to watch Memphis practice, one per year will stay with the team and serve as an intern, observing everything about how the Tigers run their program.
A byproduct, of course, is that Memphis would clearly have the inside track should the Chinese government ever desire to send one or more of their top young players to an American college. Though Calipari wasn't sure how far away that possibility might be, he said there seemed to be an openness to new ways to develop Chinese players.
"If there's 40 or 50 players they send to the U.S., we won't be the only ones, and if that happens, those games will get on Chinese TV," Calipari said. "Now those players will be well-known in China, so if they go back to the CBA, they just built their value, plus they got a college degree. But that's not where their mindset is right now because that's not how they've operated, but that's where we're trying to go to. We'd be the first case of bringing them over."
In the meantime, Calipari said he's working to gather anybody of Chinese descent living in Memphis to help put together a welcome reception for the visiting coaches at Memphis Madness on Oct. 12 at FedExForum.
"For our school," Calipari said, "one of the things we were excited about, if we build this Asian base on our campus, you're talking about our students being able to interact and create friendships that later on could be their hallmark to get them to where they're trying to go."
Reach Dan Wolken at 529-2365; read his blogs on Tiger basketball at thememphisedge.com.