The Chinese and the Red Oxen

“I look forward to one day hosting the Chinese national team as my guest,” David Stern told a delegation from China in the summer of 1985. Within a week, Stern’s informal invitation had been accepted by the Chinese and the NBA hastily began making arrangements for what would be known as the NBA/China Friendship Tour. The event, sponsored by Kaliber, a non-alcoholic beer, for $20,000 was a month long visit by the Chinese National Basketball Team which began September 24, 1985. When it began the Bulls were getting ready to hold training camp for the 1985-86 season. They had a new owner, new head of basketball operations, a new coach, and, of course, Michael Jordan, coming off of a stellar rookie season. The future was bright for the Chicago Bulls but for at least a day, their training camp was about more than just getting ready for the upcoming season as they showcased American basketball and helped open Communist China to the NBA.

Stan Albeck chose to hold training camp outside the city of Chicago, and he selected the Beloit College campus in Beloit, Wisconsin only ninety miles away. The team arrived on September 27, 1985 where Michael Jordan and the Bulls were quite the attraction for Beloit college students who could pay fees of $1, $4, or $5 to watch practices and scrimmages. The entire camp with pictures was written about here by Fred Burwell in a 2013 edition of the Terrarium, the Campus newspaper.

The Chinese arrived in the United States on September 24, 1985 and ex-Bulls coach Ed Badger (1976-1978) and Bill Blair coached and travelled with the Chinese team as they made rounds scrimmaging the Knicks, Nets, Bulls, Pacers, 76ers, and Bullets. Both Blair and Badger estimated that the Chinese were about as good as a Division II college team and teams structured the workouts as to not humiliate the Chinese while also giving NBA teams quality practice time.

The Chinese arrived and scrimmaged the Bulls on October 5, 1985. Information on this twenty-two minute game is limited and no photos have been found. The Beloit College archives turned up nothing, leading to the conclusion that it was a closed event since the school advertised most practices open to spectators. The Chinese, who had previously worked out the Knicks and the Nets, noted the aggressiveness and the physicality of the NBA teams, while Bob Sakamoto of the Chicago Tribune reported that the Chinese had impressed Michael Jordan with their quick ball movement. The Bulls won the scrimmage 46-25 although no official score was kept.

“I`ve played against teams from all over the world, and nobody moves the ball better than the Chinese. I played against them in the (1984) Olympics, and I can see how much more they have improved since then. We have much more ability, but they have less selfishness.” –Michael Jordan on the Chinese, October 6, 1985

The Chinese team went on to workout with the Pacers, 76ers, Bullets, and get clobbered by the Cleveland Cavaliers 120-80 in an official preseason game on October 21st.  Finally, on October 25th the Chinese team watched New Jersey beat Boston in the season opener at Meadowlands Arena and two nights later watched the 76ers defeat the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Outside of basketball, the Chinese players also had a host of new experiences such as a Yankees game and a visit to the Liberty Bell. They also saw the New York Stock Exchange, had dinner with David Stern in the World Trade Center, and took part in the festivities at the Nasmith Hall of Fame. Despite these experiences, what Chinese guard Wang Fei remembered most was going up against Michael Jordan:

“I’d never heard of Jordan…every time I would try to penetrate, I lost the ball, and by the time I looked up, he was already dunking on the other end. I thought: ‘these players are not human. They are from another universe.'” -Wang Fei on Michael Jordan from Operation Yao Ming by Brook Larmer

After the workout in Beloit, the Chinese expressed interest in hosting the Bulls in China and even though no actual visit occurred Micheal Jordan and the Bulls made the trip. It was fitting that the Bulls played a role in the event that opened China to the NBA, seeing as their roster contained the player that would come to define the sport as it grew globally. In 1990, five years after the friendship tour, David Stern visited China and while touring the ancient capital of Xi’an, a guide, who had found out who he was, expressed that she was a fan of the “Red Oxen.” The story, as told by Brook Larmer in Operation Yao Ming, noted the confusion on the part of Stern for their entire conversation until further explanation revealed that the woman was referring to the Chicago Bulls, and if Wang Fei and many of his countrymen had never heard of Michael Jordan in 1985, by 1990 they were all fascinated with the “Red Oxen” and its greatest player, the man they called “Kongzhong Feiren,” the “Space Flier.”


I’m on Twitter @jlw771








Posted on August 5, 2014, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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