They waited on buses, sang songs out in the cold, stood in lines and listened to speeches in a different language, but 48 young smiles endured Saturday at the AT&T Center.
The surroundings were foreign to them but also the reason this group of 8- to 12-year-olds from China and their chaperones traveled halfway around the world this week to San Antonio, where they will remain until the end of next week.
They come from rural and impoverished parts of Gansu province in north central China to take part in a weeklong basketball camp and educational visit hosted by Spurs Sports Academy. The children of all skill levels will receive three days of private instruction before joining a group of 40-50 San Antonio kids in the New Year Tip-Off Camp starting Jan. 2 at San Antonio Christian School.
It’s not the first time the Spurs have hosted a group from another country for a basketball camp, but this is the largest group so far and the visit coincides with a significant date in the relationship between China and the U.S.
Tuesday brings the 40th anniversary of the United States and China officially normalizing relations Jan. 1, 1979, seven years after then-President Richard Nixon made his historic visit to China beginning that process.
Four decades later, the two countries are at odds when it comes to trade and other issues but have much in common such as the world’s two largest economies and a love for the NBA.
“We want to learn about culture here and bring that culture back to China because the American sports industry is more mature than what is in China,” trip organizer Leo Xie said through interpreter Xingping Liu. “We want to learn from American and learn from NBA culture. We also would like to invite American children to visit China and learn about culture in China.”
Xie works with the nonprofit Gansu Aesthetic Education Promotion Association and Future Sifang Group, an auction house based in Lanzhou, Gansu, to fund the project. He said he is working to organize and fund a similar trip for San Antonio-area youths to visit China in the coming year.
Xie and Joe Clark, Spurs vice president of youth sports business development, share a mutual friend who connected them to begin the planning. Xie took a group of more than 100 students from China to Cleveland last year to work with the Cavaliers but said the number had to be reduced this year because of tightening U.S. visa policies. Xie said some children who were scheduled to make the trip had their visas rejected by the U.S.
“We want to learn some secrets about basketball and bring those secrets back to China,” Xie joked.
Xie said he chose to contact the Spurs and organize this year’s trip to San Antonio because he appreciates the way coach Gregg Popovich handles himself and teaches his team perseverance and to play as a team. Xie said Popovich is very popular in China.
The children will perform at halftime of the New Year’s Eve game between the Spurs and the Boston Celtics. Xie said the message behind their performance is one of “best wishes for a happy new year to the people of both countries.”
They will also visit the San Antonio Zoo and Witte Museum and attend a San Antonio Rampage game. They previously visited the Johnson Space Center and the Houston Museum of Natural Science when they arrived in the U.S. earlier this week.
Xie said the 48 children come from different schools and must be recommended by their schools to be eligible. They also must have a love for basketball, even though some have never played the game.
One thing many of them have in common is a love for Yao Ming, the great 7-foot-6 Chinese center. He played 486 career games in the NBA but hasn’t played in the league since Nov. 10, 2010. Yet Xie said many kids in China want to be like Ming and follow in his footsteps to the NBA.
They will be tutored while in San Antonio by coaches such as Nevil Shed, who has worked camps for the Spurs for 32 years. Shed was a member of the Texas Western 1966 National Championship team.
Shed has had to overcome communication barriers in the past with small camp groups from Mexico, Columbia, Argentina, and even China.
“There is an old saying: If you involve them more in the activity, they learn to master it better,” Shed said. “So it’s a challenge, but the guys who are working for me, we’ve been through this a lot with kids from other countries. So it’s a lot of patience. We always have to maintain that positive attitude because sometimes they may become confused and the spirit may drop. Our job is to lift it up. If they’re having fun, they’re going to learn.”
When it was Clark’s turn to greet the contingent at an opening ceremony for the camp Saturday afternoon, he did so in Chinese, which the group audibly appreciated. The children returned the favor a few minutes later with a hearty “Go Spurs Go” chant.
“It’s great for this age of kids to have a cultural experience that not everyone has, and then to be able to use basketball and sports to be able to make an impact on the kids’ lives is great,” Clark said. “Obviously we hope to teach them and have their skills improve a little bit.
“We’re looking for this to be not just once, but hopefully a long-term arrangement and they will come back once a year. We may potentially take some of our camp coaches and go over to China for a couple days. We’ve been invited. We’re just taking this first step and then we’ll keep building upon it and the experience will be bigger and better in the years to come.”