They were something like Gullivers in China, amazing in size yet benign in manner. In number, they were 46—the largest American delegation allowed into the formerly forbidden mainland since President Nixon's grand army of aides, diplomats and newsmen descended during the friendly winter of 1972. In stature, they possibly were unmatched in all the 200 Chinese generations since the Shang Dynasty first bloomed in the 18th century B.C. When they strolled along the hot sweeping boulevards of Peking, the city's endlessly flowing stream of bicyclists slowed or stopped or tangled in knots to watch them. When they stood to sip toasts at banquets in their honor their raised goblets looked like thimbles in their outsized hands. When they trouped through the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace outside Peking or the vast corridors of the Great Hall of the People, they made a tall, long, brightly colored line that hitched and writhed its way like a big, happy picture-snapping dragon. At times last week, it seemed that in all of Peking only the ever-present portraits of Chairman Mao Tse-tung stood consistently higher, or more visible, than this American delegation of two basketball teams, men's and women's, on a three-week tour through the People's Republic.
As the first of their kind to come to Red China, they were feted and praised, cared for and adored with as much gusto—although by no means the pomp—as any emperors of the past. They were received, in fact, with almost as much reverence and respect as the exalted lowly peasant in the egalitarian present.
The idea for the tour was conceived during one of Henry Kissinger's cloak-and-portfolio visits to Peking last winter. The plan was to begin a series of good-will sports exchanges between the two countries, and originally the intent was to send the U.S. men's and women's amateur champion teams. As everyone knows, that meant the men's team would be UCLA, winner of the NCAA title for the seventh consecutive time. As virtually no one at all knew, the women's team would be the John F. Kennedy College Patriettes out of Wahoo, Neb., winner of the national AAU title for the past two years. The State Department issued invitations, and the word from Wahoo was an instantaneous "yup," but UCLA said no. Thus it was necessary to paste together a college all-star squad, and early in June the men players gathered in Tennessee for a few days of practice with Gene Bartow, the amiable and intelligent coach of Memphis State University, runners-up to UCLA.
There were no real All-Americas in the group, but they were an uncommonly bright bunch, some of them still teenagers like freshmen Quinn Buckner of Indiana, George Pannell of South Plains Junior College in Texas and Alvan Adams of Oklahoma, or mere sophomores like Kevin Grevey of Kentucky and seven-foot Rich Kelley of Stanford. Kevin Stacom of Providence was one of three juniors, and three had graduated from college—Kentucky's Jim Andrews, North Carolina's George Karl and Ronnie Robinson of Memphis State. Nearly all of the Patriettes, who had compiled a 34-7 record for the season against such teams as the Raytown Piperettes, the Wayland Baptist Flying Queens and the Kansas City Lady Bugs, were from Iowa. The two squads gave the U.S. delegation a remarkably Middle American silhouette. They spoke mostly in drawls, twangs and flat accents that echoed of cornfields and green prairies and long, straight two-lane highways.
Not very many of the Americans had ever been out of the country, but neither had many of their Chinese hosts visited abroad, a condition that is changing rapidly now that Peking has decided there is a use for sport in world politics. After years of isolation the Chinese suddenly are exchanging athletes, teams and sportsmen with dizzying enthusiasm. Last week, for example, China was being crisscrossed by an astonishing assortment of athletic delegations besides the U.S. basketball contingent. There were teams of U.S. swimmers and divers, a soccer team from Somali, a Japanese schoolboy basketball team, a Japanese industrial soccer team, the Mexican men's and women's volleyball teams, the Sri Lanka badminton delegation, an Albanian youths' volleyball team, a British table tennis team, a Pakistani soccer team and a Pakistani badminton team. Going the other way, a Chinese table tennis team was in Japan, another in Thailand and Malaysia; a badminton team was in Burma, a track and field team in Korea, a tennis team in Bucharest, a gymnastics team in Canada and the men's and women's volleyball teams were traveling through Syria, Italy and Lebanon.
But it was basketball that intrigued the Chinese. For one thing, lan chiu, as the game is called in China, is the nation's No. 2 sport, second only to Ping-Pong in popularity. Introduced by missionaries and YMCA workers in 1901, just 10 years after Dr. Naismith invented it, basketball gained no great popularity until after Mao's Communist Party won the country in 1949 and a revolutionary drive for physical fitness swept the country. Today baskets and backboards sprout in every city park, factory yard and commune, and are hooked to trees in the remotest villages. Lan chiu, quite simply, is China's national team game—and the Americans are its prophets.
"We admire your American players for they are the best at basketball in the world," said Tung Yi-wan, a leading member of the All China Sports Federation working with the nation's mass sports programs. "We are not of your caliber, but we can advance friendship and learn from your visit. In many parts of the countryside of China the peasants and workers use their threshing grounds to play basketball. It is a game the people like to play in the interest of the advancement of socialism and defense of the nation through Chairman Mao's precepts of physical fitness."
From the moment of the muggy morning of June 16 when they disembarked from the Hong Kong train and walked tentatively through the famed corrugated-iron arch and crossed the border into China, the U.S. men and women were engulfed in a special air of admiration and awe. As their buses wound through steaming Canton, people waved enthusiastically, and after a two-hour jet flight to dark and rainy Peking, where they received standard energetic applause and embraces, the Americans settled into a routine of constant adoration. When they practiced in Peking's Capital Stadium, a gleaming 18,000-seat arena rivaling any in the U.S., they were joined by several thousand spectators who watched in almost scholarly silence, broken only by hushed aaaaaahhhs when someone rose high off the floor and dunked a ball.
Tickets to the first appearance in Peking—a men's and women's doubleheader against Chinese all-star teams—were sold out far in advance. The best seats cost a dime, the rest a nickel and when a Chinese official was jokingly asked whether there might be some scalping underway, he said briskly, "Of course not. It is against the law." The first games were beamed across all of China by government television.
Wherever they went as a group, the Americans were recognized, but even alone the players were celebrated. One Patriette, Juliene Brazinski, rose at 5 a.m. the day after a televised game and went for a stroll in the rosy morning. To her surprise, she came upon a dusty playground where more than a dozen small boys were playing basketball. When they saw her, one ran to her side, holding up seven fingers—the number on her uniform. He grabbed her hand and pulled his new lan chiu heroine onto the court to play.