Coach Ben Howland wants his UCLA players to enjoy their trip to China as much… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
BEIJING — First came glances and whispers. Commuters could not help noticing a group of strangers — tall strangers — squeezing onto their crowded subway car at rush hour.
Then, on the broad expanse of Tiananmen Square, with evening lights twinkling from the Great Hall of the People and the Forbidden City, people grew bolder.
A trio of young girls wanted a snapshot. An older couple said hello in halting English.
Wherever the UCLA basketball coaches and players have ventured during the first two days of their trip to China, they have drawn attention in this basketball-crazed city.
"People here take the game really seriously," guard Larry Drew II said. "It's kind of flattering."
Yet the only thing the Chinese people haven't seen out of UCLA so far is much basketball.
The Bruins slogged their way through an abbreviated scrimmage Thursday afternoon, arriving at a converted badminton arena where onlookers sneaked in through side doors to catch a glimpse. But Coach Ben Howland kept the session short, mindful that his players were still weary after a long flight from Los Angeles.
Friday's schedule was filled with sightseeing — first the Great Wall, then a chance to step inside the Forbidden City, the massive, ornate grounds that once housed Chinese emperors.
If all of this sounds more like a tourist vacation than a basketball trip, that's fine with Howland. For now.
The coach views UCLA's journey to the Far East in two ways. Extra practices and three games against college and pro teams over the next few days will certainly help the Bruins prepare for a season in which much will be expected of them and their highly ranked freshman class.
But Howland has also emphasized what he calls "the cultural experience" of this trip. He has personal reasons for wanting to bring his team to China.
His maternal grandparents met here as missionaries in the late 1920s. His mother lived in China until she was a teenager.
"When she was 4 years old," he said, "she spoke better Chinese than English."
While growing up, Howland heard his grandfather talk glowingly of the country and its people. His home was filled with Asian art and knickknacks.
But the closest Howland ever got to mainland China was a trip to Taipei, Taiwan, with the Weber State basketball team before his senior year.
"You could walk down the street and there were live animals … you could buy a snake," he recalled. "You remember things like that."
Now he has finally made it to the mainland, with the added benefit of watching his young players experience Beijing for the first time.
Just riding a bus through the city, the streets overflowing with cars, scooters and bicycles, had freshman guard Kyle Anderson talking about culture shock.
"There seems to be a lot of things going on at once," he said. "It's so different."
Anderson also has some familial history in China, his great-grandparents on his mother's side living here before moving to Jamaica and then New York.
"It's great to see the place where they came from," he said.
The tourist outings will soon take a back seat to athletics. An exhibition against Tsinghua University on Saturday night kicks off three games in four days.
But even basketball might have a tourist feeling.
"We get to see what their culture brings to the game," guard Tyler Lamb said.
The Bruins have heard plenty about the Chinese teams and their physical style of play. That could mean some pushing and shoving under the rim.
Kind of like stepping onto the subway at rush hour.