It was a sunny mid-November day, I remember staring out the windows of Newark international airport.
I was in line about to board flight UA89 to Beijing, China. As I entered the plane, I started the walk of shame through first class to get to my economy seat. It was right then and there that I came across a long outstretched 6’9 D.J. White on his phone saying his last goodbyes before our 14-hour flight to Beijing.
Once we landed in Beijing, I tried tracking down the five-year NBA veteran. In an airport where most of the people are on average 5’9, spotting the 6’9 White was easy.
I knew he was probably tired after a long flight so I didn’t want to start bothering him with a bunch of silly questions so I kept it cool.
D.J. was more than excited to be back playing in China (he played with Gilbert Arenas in Shanghai last year) and I was ecstatic to have such a great start to my Chinese basketball journey.
On December 20th, 2013 D.J. White and the Sichuan Blue Whales travelled to Beijing to take on the Marbury-less Beijing Ducks.
The Ducks were back home after a three game road trip and newcomer Damien Wilkins was amongst the first group of players putting shots up an hour and a half before game time.
When travelling from America to Asia, jetlag instantly becomes your worst enemy. It keeps you up at night and makes you tired while everyone is having lunch.
When I ask Wilkins if he was over it (jetlag), he said, “Right when I got off the plane we went on a road trip. I didn’t really have much time to get settled in. I’ve been here for about a week now and I’m just starting to adjust to the time difference,”
Wilkins was brought in as a temporary replacement for Marbury while he gets treatment for a knee injury. For Wilkins, it’s a great way to stay game ready for an NBA team who could potentially sign him after the CBA season.
“It’s my first time in China. I never really thought about playing abroad. I remember it was thanksgiving and I got a call from my agent and he asked me ‘How about playing in China’? I told him I would call him back on it. I went to my mom and asked her what she thought. She responded with ‘it’s better than staying at home’.
Wilkins’ basketball schedule has been very busy from the time he got off the plane to the time we were speaking during shootaround. I asked him what a pro basketball player packs in his suitcase prior to making the trip to play abroad.
He said, “I over packed. I brought a bunch of suits and stuff; you know stuff I would wear to games in the NBA. Little did I know; in China players show up to games wearing sweat pants and hoodies. It’s like going to AAU games. So I’ve got a bunch of clothes that’s just sitting there.”
Wilkins was set to play his former NBA teammate White. He and White were a part of the Oklahoma City Thunder during their inaugural season.
Wilkins said, “I spoke with D.J. during early morning shootaround. I told him ‘man, basketball has taken us far, far away.”
It’s 7:35 p.m., everyone takes their seat after standing for the Chinese national anthem.
The visiting team bows to the home crowd as a sign of respect. Both teams shake hands and we are ready for tip-off.
Before the game, Wilkins told me they were going to try and put the Blue Whales big man and FIBA Asia MVP Hamed Haddadi into as many pick and rolls as possible.
The Blue Whales saw it coming as they start the game off in a zone defense.
Beijing Ducks forward Randolph Morris who played against Haddadi in the NBA starts the game while Wilkins is set to come off the bench.
The Beijing crowd has a ritual to stand up until the Ducks make their first basket.
Late in the quarter, Wilkins is playing his best basketball since arriving in China. He is going toe to toe with Haddadi. Wilkins makes a play on one end for the Ducks and Haddadi makes a shot on the other end for the Blue Whales.
After one quarter the Ducks hold a slight lead, 23-16.
At the 9:00 minute mark of the 2nd quarter Wilkins and Sun Yue break out into a two on one. The ball starts in Yue’s hand; it gets passed to Wilkins who without hesitation passes it right back to Yue for a monster dunk that puts the crowd on their feet at Shougang Basketball Center.
From that point on the Ducks never trailed. They would go on to win by a score 97 – 74.
After the game Wilkins was quick to praise his Chinese teammate, he said, “Sun Yue is so unselfish. He’s one of the great point guards of this league. It’s always a pleasure playing with him.
Wilkins finished with a game high 24 points along with seven rebounds.
He said, “I feel good. Last game I didn’t play well at all. I felt really bad about that loss and the team took it very hard. I just wanted to come out tonight and be aggressive.”
Wilkins’ foreign teammate Morris was also pleased with the aggressive play of his team.
Morris said, “We made a conservative effort to try and be aggressive. In every quarter we had them in the penalty. To get them in the penalty with four minutes left in the quarter is a huge advantage for us.”
Morris is a 6’11, 275 lbs big man who averaged a triple double when he was a McDonald’s All-American in high school. Morris often brings the ball up for the Ducks in Marbury’s absent. I asked him if he was adapting the role of a point-center.
Morris said, “the floor was spread and I attacked the seam. I don’t do that naturally, I just surveyed the floor and saw what the defense was doing. From there I just attacked.”
The visiting locker room was nowhere near as busy as the home team. The first person I saw was D.J White. This time, he wasn’t sitting in a first class united airlines seat but on a wooden chair with ice tapped around both knees.
“They were just making shots,” said White.
“It was just one of those nights and at the end of the day they just played a great game tonight. All we can do right now is just bounce back and be ready for the next game.”
I then walked to the other side of the dressing room to see 7’2 Iranian center Hamed Haddadi sitting on a chair that was way too small for his large body.
After congratulating him on his successful campaign at the 2013 FIBA Asia Tournament, I asked him if he was feeling 100 per cent healthy after coming back so soon from a foot injury.
Haddadi made a grimace and said, “not even close.”
“I’m at about 65 per cent. Coach and I both agreed that if the game were not going our way, I would sit on the bench. Last game I put too much pressure on my foot and I couldn’t walk for two days after that. It kept swelling and swelling.”
Haddadi said it might take up to two months for his injury to fully heal.
“I brought my national team doctor, Dr. Majid, over to China. He’s been here for a month and he’s working with my foot now.”
When I arrived to the arena, my watch showed 5:55 p.m., when I left the arena it showed 10:25 p.m..
Five hours of covering one game felt like it flashed right before my eyes. You get so into the stories that evolve during one basketball event. From the pre game shoot around to players getting their knees iced after the game. What happens in between is amazing.
That’s the beauty behind the game of basketball. There is a great story in every game.
I will be covering the Beijing Ducks home games as the season progresses. The next game comes Christmas night when Yao Ming’s (owner) Shanghai Sharks visit Beijing.