The young food vendor screamed and ran toward Alonzo Mourning.
Now a vice president in the Heat’s front office, Mourning smiled graciously as the young woman requested a picture in broken English. No problem. Just another fan photo, thought Mourning. He has taken thousands through the years.
Then came the punch line.
“Thank you, LeBron James,” she said.
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Hoops might be gaining popularity in China, but some things, apparently, are still lost in translation. Mourning, a true professional, played along and said nothing. The Heat’s trip to China is more about playing the game of public relations than the game of basketball — grin into the camera, nod your head in thanks and move onto to the next public appearance.
“I tell the guys just to smile a lot,” said Shane Battier, who has been traveling to China every summer for the past seven years to promote his signature Peak basketball shoes. The strategy has worked well for Battier. In China, his fans call him “The President.”
On Tuesday, the Heat and its sizable entourage of support personnel and guests did a lot of smiling. The team visited the Summer Palace in Beijing and then a portion of the Great Wall of China, which is a 90-minute bus ride north of the city. The team’s trip to China is a scripted public relations excursion for the NBA, but not even the most carefully planned goodwill tour can anticipate everything. Awkward and funny moments were bound to happen, and they did.
For example, nothing could have prepared Mike Miller and his wife for the souvenir-hawking gauntlet that awaited them at the Great Wall of China. The vendors lining the path up the hillside were every bit as aggressive as the Wall was impressive.
“We should get those guys uniforms,” Miller said. “They could run a mean full-court press.”
The Great Wall stretches some 4,000 miles. If you have seen a picture of the structure then chances are good it came from the section of the Wall the Heat visited. It runs atop a picturesque ridgeline and snakes up and down, over the mountains and out of sight.
There was a time when people had to hike up a technical and exhausting trail for hours to reach the Great Wall. Those days are long gone. Now, a couple Chinese RMB will buy your way onto a gondola that pulls you up the mountain like a snow skier at a winter resort.
Pat Riley, the Heat’s president, was first in line at the gondola. Hours later, after conquering the Wall, he caved to the full-court press of the souvenir peddlers. Riley bought a military-style winter hat — big and fuzzy with long earflaps — emblazoned with the signature red star one might see in an old photograph of Mao Zedong.
Others bought chopsticks and T-shirts. Ray Allen purchased some toy nunchakus and told everyone he was “packing heat.”
Miller, Allen, James Jones and Battier represented the Heat’s veteran players who visited the Wall. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem skipped the adventure and instead chose to stay in downtown Beijing. Of the Heat’s players who made the trip, guards Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole and Terrel Harris logged the most steps. The trio hiked for miles and then ended the day in style by riding sleds down the mountain. The Heat chartered three buses for the trip to the Wall, and Chalmers, Cole and Harris were among the last of the party to report back in.
“I walked as much as I could before I got tired,” Chalmers said. “I had a great time. Me and Cole were talking about how hard it would be to defend the Wall, but at the same time how you could see everything and you could have seen the attackers coming.”
The Heat’s players were allowed to bring two guests to China all expenses paid. Chalmers brought his mother and sister, and Cole brought his parents. Cole’s father, Norris Sr., had a slightly different perspective of the Wall than his son, the budding military strategist.
“Nine-year-old boys probably came to this place and worked for their entire lives,” he said. “There are bones buried in this wall.”
The tour guides on the charter buses confirmed Mr. Cole’s grim but wise thoughts. For one of the buses, the tour guide was a source of pure unintended comedy, a abundant thing for this group of Americans in China.
In a monotone but droll voice, the tour guide explained to the families of Miller and Jones how Americans were fat because they ate McDonald’s and potato chips. Miller and Jones just smiled and nodded their heads. The guide went on to talk about the similarities between George Washington and Sun Yat-sen and why the Chinese lived to be 99 years old.
They take a lot of naps, apparently. And that’s exactly what most everyone did on the bus ride back to Beijing.