Coach Burshaud Williams high fives a student during Spurs basketball training camp.
Coach Burshaud Williams high-fives a student during a Spurs Sports Academy camp. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

In the gym of San Antonio Christian School on Thursday, 48 students from Gansu, China, practiced their dribbling, both low and behind-the-back. It turned chaotic as they scrambled to stop their basketballs from rolling away. While the coaches from San Antonio’s Spurs Academy used their best newly learned Mandarin to shout instructions, it was Councilman John Courage (D9) who found the universal language.

“Can you tell them that the best English they can learn is ‘Go Spurs Go’?” Courage asked interpreter Xu Xueling to tell the Gansu students.

Without missing a beat and not waiting for Xu to translate, 48 kids shouted, “GO SPURS GO!”

It was one of many moments that brought laughter for the 48 Chinese children, ranging from 8 to 12 years old, who were participating in a Spurs camp and educational visit organized by a Chinese nonprofit. None of the students knew each other before traveling to San Antonio, said interpreter Xu, who also teaches Mandarin at LEE High School, but with a full schedule of activities, students quickly bonded with each other and absorbed their new surroundings.

Joshua Brannon, who has worked with the Spurs camps for seven years, said despite the language barrier, there hasn’t been trouble communicating. In the past few days, he and the other coaches have picked up basic Chinese phrases for “left,” “right,” “defense,” “left to right dribble,” and of course “Go Spurs Go.” They do a lot of demonstrating, pointing, and asking kids to repeat the drills they just saw.

“A smile is universal,” Brannon said. “We try to make sure we do a lot of smiling. They love high-fives. Just high energy.”

Between drills, camp coaches horsed around and the campers often joined in. Nevil Shed, who has worked for Spurs camps for 32 years and was a member of Texas Western College’s famous 1966 National Championship team, danced to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song, much to the campers’ delight. He was one of several coaches leading students through drills and basketball games. Brannon said the kids loved sharing their own favorite dances. A video on his phone showed him and the students executing a move similar to Soulja Boy’s “Crank That” move.

“We had a moment, doing a popular dance and letting loose,” Brannon said. ‘Seeing their faces when we do anything with Chinese culture, they love it. Just us trying to say, ‘Very delicious,’ or ‘Pay attention’ [in Mandarin]. They laugh.”

Students pack up their belongings in front of the United States and Chinese flags that are pinned up during the camp. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Many of the campers have no aspirations to become professional basketball players, but the experiences both on and off the court have made the trip worthwhile.

Wang Libo, a 9-year-old who also goes by Alice, played basketball only once before coming to San Antonio. But she likes how encouraging and enthusiastic everyone at camp has been.

“Every time we play basketball, even if we don’t get the ball in, they still say we did a great job,” Wang said.

Ma Xinyu watches as fellow students practice shooting drills. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“Basketball is like playing a game! It’s very fun,” she added.

When they weren’t on the court, the group partook in other San Antonio experiences such as visiting the Witte Museum and the San Antonio Zoo, and even taking in a San Antonio Rampage hockey game.

Wang said that was her favorite excursion, but her friend Ma Xinyu, a 10-year-old who also goes by Mary, said she preferred the zoo.

“China has some of the same things as the museum here,” she said. “But the zoo here has animals I have not seen before in China, like flamingos.”

Ma Yuxi, 11, said he appreciated how much they were learning, along with the concept of how to play basketball and be a team player.

“The coaches have been very generous in giving us tips on how to improve my basketball skills,” Ma said. “This camp helped me fall in love with basketball as a game.”

The Gansu students end their time with the Spurs Sports Academy on Friday.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.