Bulldogs see­ing a ‘dif­fer­ent world’ on China trip

The Register Citizen (Torrington, CT) - - SPORTS - JEFF JACOBS

The Yale bas­ket­ball team landed in China last week­end, got some sleep and gath­ered for its first break­fast buf­fet. One side had western op­tions, Alex Copeland said, and the other side had Chi­nese op­tions.

“They had these pan­cakes that were salty and sour,” Copeland said. “We had no idea what to think about those. There were dif­fer­ent types of ra­men and soups. Since then, we’ve had oc­to­pus, all sorts of stuff.

“It’s def­i­nitely not the Chi­nese take­out we or­der in New Haven.”

With that, from 13 time zones and nearly 7,500 miles away, Copeland let out a good laugh.

“The re­al­i­ties of this trip def­i­nitely have met the ex­pec­ta­tions,” the Yale se­nior said. “And the ex­pec­ta­tions were high.”

The Bulldogs are in Shang­hai to play Cal­i­for­nia in the fourth an­nual Pac-12 China Game at Baoshan Sports Cen­ter. The sea­son opener, with a start time in Con­necti­cut of 11 p.m. on Fri­day, will be tele­vised on ESPNU.

This is a busi­ness trip. The Bulldogs prac­tice each day. It’s also a cul­tural trip. And an ed­u­ca­tional trip. The Pac-12 China Game is pre­sented by Alibaba Group, an e-com­merce com­pany whose co-founder Joe Tsai hap­pens to be a Yale grad­u­ate and for­mer lacrosse player. It’s nice to have a bil­lion­aire host, too.

Coach James Jones was in China with a Yale team in the spring of 2011 for an ex­hi­bi­tion tour. For some of his play­ers this is their first trip abroad, and for all it is their first time in China.

“The cul­ture shock of the peo­ple star­ing at us, the food — all of it is kind of weird,” Copeland said. “We had a lot of prepa­ra­tion for it. Ev­ery Thurs­day for about a month we had an hour-long class on the cul­ture, try­ing to learn a lit­tle of the lan­guage. Ex­pe­ri­enc­ing it first-hand has been in­cred­i­ble.

“We just got to Shang­hai (Wed­nes­day night) for the first time. It’s hard to ex­plain. It kind of looks like Ve­gas and New York com­bined.”

The team spent a cou­ple of days in Suzhou. There was a visit to the an­cient Hum­ble Ad­min­is­tra­tor’s Gar­den, filled with its pavil­ions and bridges. There was an ex­hi­bi­tion game Tues­day at lively Suzhou New District Cul­tural & Sports Cen­ter, a 93-84 vic­tory over a com­bined team of Chi­nese Univer­sity Al­lS­tars. Yes, it was a cul­tural & sports ex­pe­ri­ence.

“It was prob­a­bly the most phys­i­cal bas­ket­ball game a Yale team has played in a great many years,” Jones said. “You’re on the road, in a for­eign coun­try, they ended up tak­ing 38 fouls shots and we took nine. I didn’t think we were nearly as phys­i­cal as they were. There was an ad­just­ment pe­riod (Yale trailed by one at the half).”’

Five play­ers, in­clud­ing Copeland, scored in dou­ble fig­ures, led by Matthue Cot­ton (19 points) and Miye Oni (18), as the Bulldogs took con­trol dur­ing the third quar­ter.

“That was one of the most in­ter­est­ing ex­pe­ri­ences I’ve had on a bas­ket­ball court,” Copeland said. “They played ex­tremely hard and to­gether. But the phys­i­cal­ity, the way they

played, there were a lot of times, we’d look around and go, ‘They didn’t call a foul? That’s crazy.’

“Af­ter­ward, we were able to re­flect on it a lit­tle. It was, ‘Wow, pretty cool how peo­ple on the op­po­site of the world play.’ But at times it felt like we were play­ing an en­tirely dif­fer­ent game.”

It was on to Hangzhou and Alibaba on Wed­nes­day.

“Hav­ing been to China once be­fore, I kind of knew what to ex­pect,” Jones said. “But meet­ing Joe Tsai, go­ing to Alibaba, un­der­stand­ing what kind of man he is, blew my ex­pec­ta­tions away.”

Tsai — a self-made busi­ness­man ranked this year at 154th on Forbes’ global list of bil­lion­aires — do­nated to $30 mil­lion for Yale Law School’s China Cen­ter. He and his wife made an­other do­na­tion to Yale for the Tsai Cen­ter for In­no­va­tive Think­ing. Tsai bought 49 per­cent of the NBA’s Brook­lyn Nets this year with the op­tion to buy the rest in 2021. The Pac-12 and Alibaba also have an agree­ment to dis­trib­ute 175 live Pac-12 Net­works events in China an­nu­ally.

“He has a great in­ter­est in ath­let­ics,” Jones said. “He feels that the Chi­nese ath­letic pro­grams have some­what failed here in the be­lief of par­ents un­der­stand­ing the full value of ath­let­ics along with an ed­u­ca­tion. He’s is try­ing to help that along.

“You’re hav­ing some of

the best uni­ver­si­ties in the world com­ing over here to play in this game. Stan­ford, Har­vard, Yale, Ge­or­gia Tech, Cal … now you see, OK, you can be a great ath­lete and a great stu­dent. He’s try­ing to bridge that gap.”

Yale toured the ex­pan­sive Alibaba cam­pus and prac­ticed in its bas­ket­ball fa­cil­ity. Ath­letic direc­tor Vicky Chun pre­sented Tsai with a lacrosse na­tional cham­pi­onship ring. Tsai even played a lit­tle one-onone hoops.

“He’s not bad,” Copeland said. “He has a cou­ple of moves. We threw a cou­ple of fresh­men out there to get em­bar­rassed.

“The thing that re­ally stood out to us was this is a guy with so much wealth and in­flu­ence, but for him to be so down-to-earth, so gra­cious and take so much time to talk to us was very cool.”

Copeland was the first Yale player to write an en­try about the trip on the school’s web­site.

“He came to the ho­tel and I in­tro­duced my­self,” Copeland said. “He goes, ‘Oh, Alex, I read your blog post.’ I wrote it, jet-lagged, half-asleep, what we ate, some things of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism. And here he is hav­ing taken the time to read it and with some opinions. It was a sur­real mo­ment for me.

“He’s a huge sup­porter. I heard he even watches streams of lacrosse prac­tices. It’s only right he gets one of those natty rings.”

On Thurs­day, Yale will go to Shaghai Dis­ney with the Yao Ming Foun­da­tion. The play­ers, Copeland said, are hop­ing Yao will be there. On Satur­day night, there will be a river cruise. They’ll re­turn home, rest a few days and play at Mem­phis on Nov. 17.

“The ca­ma­raderie of the trip, the bond­ing, re­ally is what to take out of a trip like this,” Jones said. “It’s also about learn­ing some­thing new. Who knows how a trip like this could ex­pand them for the rest of their lives?”

Copeland vis­ited Paris with his fam­ily and, as part of a Yale pro­gram, spent time study­ing in Croa­tia. China is an­other mat­ter.

“There are some fa­mil­iar things in Europe,” he said. “This feels like a dif­fer­ent world. There is a sea of peo­ple who look a lot dif­fer­ent than we are used to, signs, ev­ery­thing so dif­fer­ent. Go­ing through it to­gether, learn­ing a lot about a dif­fer­ent cul­ture, we’re look­ing to have a spe­cial year on the court. This is def­i­nitely a start. The coaches make sure we stay fo­cused. We have to take care of busi­ness. I’m also sure this is an ex­pe­ri­ence we’ll re­mem­ber for­ever.” And the food?

“The guys are get­ting a lit­tle more ad­ven­tur­ous as we go,” Copeland said.

Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia file photo

Yale’s Alex Copeland drives around Har­vard’s Bryce Aiken on Feb. 11, 2017.

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