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CBA (Chinese Basketball Association)

Pac-12: Cal Bears’ James Zhao says China can learn from US by combining sports and education

  • Cal-Berkeley take on Yale Bulldogs in Pac-12 China Game on Saturday
  • Shandong-born James Zhao wants to be a leading example for home country
PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 November, 2018, 10:09am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 November, 2018, 10:09am

James Zhao is nervous. The Cal-Berkeley basketball star has not spoken Chinese for a while, he says, and never on Chinese social media. The bad news for him is that he is the star draw of the Pac-12 China Game press conference.

Zhao, from Shandong province, also plays for the China under-17 national team as well as being a freshman walk-on for his college.

His Cal Bears take on the Ivy League conference’s Yale Bulldogs in a sold-out Baoshan Stadium in Shanghai on Saturday in their NCAA college basketball season opener, the climax to a week long trip to the country for the student athletes and their coaches.

But what is it like to be back for the first NCAA player to go straight from high school in China, where he was a student at Dulwich College Beijing? “It’s a pleasure to come back to my country with my teammates and to eat Chinese food,” he says. “I love Chinese food.”

He’s been acting as a translator for his teammates on the trip and something of a tour guide. The most memorable part so far for him was a Chinese dinner in Hangzhou.

“I introduced them to every type of food, it was definitely different for them, but it made a lasting impression,” he says.

Authentic Chinese cuisine is just one of the things the players who have been in Hangzhou, Suzhou and Shanghai have experienced. The players and coaches will be going to head-to-head on Saturday but they were of one voice in praising their trip so far.

Yale coach James Jones described it as “once in a lifetime” while Cal player Justice Sueing described it as an “amazing experience” for which he was “very grateful”.

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“Getting to experience a different type of culture has brought us together,” the sophomore adds.

While Yale’s Alex Copeland mentions the food as a memorable part of the tour, it was also a bonding experience.

“Having a tonne of fun, laughing the whole time with my teammates but thankful to have the coaches we do around us to make sure we take this experience in,” he says. “We’re really trying to take it all in.”

Copeland says he has been “humbled” by meeting local youth, especially some of the children from the Yao Ming Foundation. “To meet children across the world and realise we can be a source of inspiration for them.”

From the press conference in the Disneyland Resort Hotel the players were headed to the rides of Shanghai Disneyland accompanying some of the children and staff of the Yao Ming Foundation, a charity the Pac-12 China Game will once again support with a US$10,000 donation. .

In turn the former NBA All-Star is a great supporter of the basketball exchange as, Zhao explains, “he wants to build student-athletes in China”.

That’s something Zhao has seen in China and the US. “The difference for me is in the US, sports and education is together. In China it is separate. You want to pursue sports, you do sports. You want to pursue studies, you stay in education.”

He’s pursuing both at Cal but it will be the athlete half of the equation on show on Saturday and there is a difference to the approach between the two countries. “In China we practised 7-8 hours a day, it was all about practice. In the US, it’s more about teamwork and I can ask my coach more questions.”

As for Saturday’s game, the fans and Chinese media will ask questions of Zhao. First of all, can he live up to fellow Chinese NCAA player Michael Wang?

The freshman who hails from Shanxi got 18 minutes and 14 points for the Pennsylvania Quakers in their season opener against George Mason University on Wednesday.

“He’s Justice’s high school teammate. We want to learn from each other,” Zhao says. In college basketball, it’s small world, after all.