Bulldogs seeing a ‘different world’ on China trip
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.
Yale’s Alex Copeland drives around Harvard’s Bryce Aiken on Feb. 11, 2017.