The two American basketball gurus have just finished the second day of a clinic for 200 Chinese coaches, and Harris is patiently posing for photos and signing autographs. The 71-year-old former coach of the Los Angeles Lakers is a basketball legend in China. In 2004, he took the helm of the national team and led it to an upset of Serbia and Montenegro at the Athens Olympics.
Calipari, head coach at the University of Memphis in Tennessee, is much newer on the China scene. The day before this clinic started, his team (augmented by players from some other Conference USA schools) played the last of its three-game tour in Guangdong province. The exhibition games and the coaching clinic are both part of an agreement that Calipari has with the Chinese Basketball Association. He ran an 11-session camp for CBA coaches in Memphis last fall and coach Cui Wanjun spent the season as an intern with the team.
"We see what in all likelihood is coming," Calipari said in an interview between games two and three of the series. "Basketball is just like everything else in China. It gets started and then it just rolls downhill. We are putting our program in a position to capitalize on that."
For the coaching clinic, Calipari has traded his players for about a dozen teenage students at a Tsinghua University laboratory high school in Shenzhen. The city was the first place that Deng Xiaoping began testing free-market economic reforms in 1980, and it has surged from a small fishing village to a city of about 10 million. An experimental boomtown with a big migrant population seems like a suitable setting for the China debut of a guy like Calipari, who led Memphis to the NCAA title game this year using players he'd recruited from all over the United States, and an unconventional offense.
He's just spent the last two hours teaching elements of that offense to the Chinese coaches. Now, with Hālǐ-sē (哈里斯 as Harris is known in China) through with his last photo op and back in the car, Calipari has a question.
"Do you think any of that got through?" he asks. He is concerned because, despite the presence of a very capable translator, not one of the coaches asked a question during or after the session. "I mean, what we do is not normal. I just wish they could watch our players do it."
"It's like anywhere," says Harris. "A few will get a lot more out of it than the rest."
Recruiting Far From Home
Calipari's coaching career has taken him from his hometown of Pittsburgh, through Kansas, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Philadelphia and now finally to Tennessee. But what is he doing in China?
One of the NCAA's great recruiters, he says this foray is about the ultimate score—a blue-chip recruit from the other side of the planet.
As Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson, who joined the team on the Guangdong trip, likes to say, "We're looking for the next Yao Ming." He sounds unsure whether he is serious, but both he and Calipari believe that their first-mover status in China could benefit the university.
"If we do get a Chinese player, a guy who can really play, our team and our university will be huge," Calipari says. He hopes his efforts in China will help attract non-athlete students to study at the university. "It's about more than just basketball. It's about putting Memphis on the map as an international school."
In his hopes for a Chinese recruit, finding some talent is the least of his worries. If he wants to take a kid from Guangdong to Memphis, Calipari is up against a system that finds and professionalizes players relatively young. He hopes to lure a player and his parents with the promise of an education at an American university.
"The risk in this is we never get a player," he says. "We end up with great relationships, some great new friends and experiences." In the meantime, Calipari is leaving his mark on this basketball-mad country.
Does China Really Need Their Help?
It's not as if basketball is new in China. The game has been played here for decades, and the NBA has been cultivating ties here for more than 20 years. But the military-sports complex that has produced the world's best divers and table tennis players is not as conducive to building top basketball teams.
"When I got here, their practices were based on military training," Harris says of his arrival to coach the Chinese national team before the Athens Olympics. "They were in the gym for four hours at a time." Harris shortened practices to two hours, so players could train with intensity instead of saving themselves for the endurance required for marathon sessions. He also took the team to the weight room and the track—to add some bulk to their skinny physiques and to correct an inefficient running form that used too much side-to-side motion.
Harris began a cultural change in the program that is continued today by his friend Jonas Kazlauskas, the Lithuanian coach who now leads the Chinese team. Team China has a lot to be excited about, even without its three current and former NBA players. En route to its three wins on the exhibition tour, China was able to stymie Memphis' transition game and do some running of its own. The team works so well together, it begs the question of whether the return of stars Yao Ming, Yi Jianlian and Wang Zhizhi will throw off the on-court chemistry during the Olympics.
But changes at the highest level have yet to trickle down to the programs that feed into the national team. The author of this article trained with a provincial women's team last year, and would often excuse herself as practice entered its third hour. The young team had a constant rotation of injured players. At any given practice, three or four women watched from the sidelines, an indication that they were over trained. And that running style that Harris objected to? You can still see it in gyms all over China, including the Shenzhen gym that was the site for Calipari's clinic.
Reform and Opening
In a recent talk in Beijing about the state of basketball in China, CBA head Li Yuanwei said the sport needs the same changes that revolutionized the Chinese economy—a free market and openness to international influence. "We must enhance our international experience… and strengthen cooperation," Li said. "Priorities will be given to exchanges of young players."
Bringing in John Calipari, winner of this year's Naismith College Coach of the Year, sounds like just what Dr. Li ordered. But of all the offensive styles that China could be importing from the NCAA, Calipari's seems the least likely. He uses something he calls dribble-drive motion, an offense with few screens, lots of drive-and-kick-out action and room for the players to read and adjust to defenses.
Of three key personnel ingredients for a Memphis-style offense—consistent three-point shooters, nimble big men who get up and down the floor quickly and penetrating guards who read defenses well—lots of Chinese basketball teams have the first, many lack the second and the third is almost nonexistent.
Whether at the professional or the provincial level, if it can be drilled into players through repetition, Chinese coaches can teach it. But where they run into trouble is in creating "basketball IQ," that intangible sense of the game, a requirement for good execution of the free-wheeling dribble-drive motion.
Though it seems an unnatural fit, Calipari's approach could actually be a shortcut of sorts for the right coach. In order to make it work Calipari—like Vance Walberg, the junior college coach credited with inventing this style of play—runs drills at practice that are more directly related to what's expected of players at game time. And those were the drills Calipari was sharing in Shenzhen. He also left behind practice plans in Mandarin, the ones he'd had created for Coach Cui.
Given the tools to run practice, and the right combination of players, maybe some CBA coach will latch on to this easy-to-translate Calipari strategy: "Run fast, handle the ball running fast, shoot running fast. Keep running fast."
But after two days of energetic teaching for him and Harris, Calipari notes one thing that doesn't need translation: "At least they can see the passion we have for the game after all these years."
Related: China Basketball Sweeps Memphis, 3-0
Tags: basketball, CBA, Del Harris, John Calipari, Jonas Kazlauskas, Memphis