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UCLA basketball team reaches China to pioneer for Pac-12

Bruins weather 13-hour flight to nation to play exhibition games. Pac-12 Conference hopes to foster relations with a land with basketball-crazed populace.

August 22, 2012|By David Wharton
  • UCLA center Joshua Smith tries to power his way past two defenders during a game last season against Richmond.
UCLA center Joshua Smith tries to power his way past two defenders during… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

BEIJING — It was no mean feat for Joshua Smith to fit his sizable 6-foot-10 frame into an economy-class seat for the 6,300-mile flight to China.

At least the airline put him in the front row of his compartment, so the UCLA center could stretch his white-stockinged feet toward the bathroom door.

"It's all right," he said. "They gave me some room."

Of all the challenges UCLA might face on the court during a series of exhibition games here, travel ranks near the top.

This trip represents a trial run, the start of what could be an annual exchange between the Pac-12 Conference and the Federation of University Sports of China.

Pac-12 officials are eager to foster relationships with a country where they might someday broadcast games and sell merchandise to a basketball-crazed populace.

UCLA agreed to take the first step, players and coaches assembling at Los Angeles International Airport in the early morning hours on Wednesday, sprawling across chairs, stretching out on the floor and using backpacks as pillows.

Next came a 13-hour flight that — because of the international date line — landed in Beijing at the break of dawn Thursday.

A lucky few, such as Smith and guard Tyler Lamb, were able to sleep for much of the way. Others could not. Forward David Wear said, "I just want to get to the hotel and go to bed."

Coach Ben Howland hoped to have his players in their rooms by 7 a.m., but after their wait for bags and fight with rush-hour traffic, that time was pushed back by more than two hours.

On the long, slow bus ride to the hotel, the Bruins were reminded that this wasn't like home.

A Chinese representative, speaking over the intercom, asked them to stay out of trouble and keep track of their passports. He reminded them to drink only bottled water.

It was a bleary group that finally lumbered into its hotel at midmorning.

"It's still so surreal," Smith said. "I don't think it will hit us until we are here for a while."

What was supposed to be a leisurely morning turned into a couple of hours of rest before the team met for lunch and climbed back onto the bus.

As part of this seven-day, three-game tour, the Bruins agreed to practice with — and scrimmage against — the Tsinghua University team they will play on Saturday evening.

"This is a cultural exchange — it's not just about us playing basketball," Howland said. "So we want to be helpful and let them learn more about us."

Not that UCLA was likely to give up many secrets during a session that was set to begin as this newspaper went to press. Howland planned to limit the session to basics.

"Some shooting," he said. "I expect we'll get up and down the court."

The schedule did not figure to provide much rest in coming days.

The Bruins will visit the Forbidden City and the Great Wall on Friday, then do more sightseeing before Saturday evening's game.

On Sunday, they will fly to Shanghai, practice and take a boat down the Huangpu River. Then come consecutive games against Shanghai Jiao Tong University and the Shanghai Sharks, a professional team.

All of which seemed a little daunting to players who were fighting jet lag as they headed off to Thursday's scrimmage.

"I guess I'll be ready," Lamb said. "Just have to get the kinks out of my legs."

david.wharton@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesWharton

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