On a cold Wednesday night in January, members of the Williamsport (Pa.) Area High School boys' basketball team played in a game they won't forget. Though the specifics of the 60-31 Williamsport victory weren't particularly memorable, the opponent was: Nanyang Model High School, from Shanghai, China.
The alma mater of former NBA all-star Yao Ming, Nanyang is one of Shanghai's top teams, and the first Chinese high school squad to play in the United States. The team visited Williamsport as part of a tour of the Northeast with other stops in upstate New York, New Jersey, New York City, and Washington, D.C.
Williamsport was Nanyang's third opponent on U.S. soil and when the teams took the court in front of 1,500 spectators the atmosphere was electric. "Normally we draw 600 or 700 people for a weeknight game," says Williamsport Athletic Director Sean McCann. "But our community saw this as a really big game and came out to support the event.
"Our student body was wonderful and cheered for both teams," McCann continues. "The athletes from Nanyang were playing to the crowd during warmups and seemed to really enjoy themselves. It was a great experience for everybody."
A few years in the making, the tour was the brainchild of Joe Cooley, an American businessman who used to live in Shanghai. With a home near Nanyang, Cooley would often attend the school's sporting events and soon befriended the principal and coaches, who mentioned to him that the basketball team wanted to visit America. After moving back to the States, Cooley reached out to his personal contacts to discuss the idea of hosting the Chinese team.
McCann joined the conversation through his school's retired head boys' basketball coach, who was a college fraternity brother of Cooley. McCann thought the game was a fantastic idea, provided it could be sanctioned by the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA).
"The game would have to count against our record because the PIAA doesn't allow in-season exhibition games," he says. "So I had to make sure their players were the proper age and eligible to compete under our state guidelines."
When everything checked out with the PIAA, McCann told Cooley his school was on board. They settled on a date, and it was time to promote the game. "The district had just hired a PR director, and he and I worked together to get the word out," says McCann. "I put together the press releases with information about the Chinese team and he contacted the media outlets."
News of a unique opponent coming to town traveled fast. "A local TV station did two stories, one with a sports angle and the other with a human relations slant, and the newspaper ran several articles," says McCann. "The coverage really built excitement, and that led to a lot of advance ticket sales, which we don't normally get."
After arriving in Williamsport, the Nanyang players were treated to a tour of the Little League Baseball Museum before going to the high school for a pregame workout with their host team. "That was a good opportunity for the players to get to know each other," says McCann. "Then, before tip-off, the two teams exchanged gifts, which is a custom in China. Our booster club presented players from both teams commemorative towels with logos from the two schools and the game's date stitched in."
Once the game got underway, Williamsport's athleticism and full-court pressure defense quickly overwhelmed Nanyang. "Our fast-paced style kind of flustered them," says McCann. "They play a different style of basketball. They had good size--a couple of kids were 6-6, 6-7-- and preferred to walk the ball up court and play half-court offense."
For McCann, though, the on-court action took a backseat to watching the two teams interact before and after the game. While none of the players from Nanyang spoke English fluently and there were just two translators present, student-athletes from both sides quickly figured out how to communicate with each other.
"The best part came after the game when the teams were eating pizza and socializing," says McCann. "A lot of the players had their cell phones out recording videos of each other. One of our players asked a player from Nanyang, 'Who is your favorite rapper?' Our guys were using gestures to describe what a rapper is and then all of a sudden a Nanyang player shouted out 'Jay-Z!'
"Later, they started to dance together and did the popular Dougie dance," McCann adds. "Watching them goof around put smiles on our faces. The other adults and I just watched and said to each other, 'Yeah, this is what it's all about.'"