Harvard center Zena Edosomwan pulls out his cellphone and scrolls back to the photos from his last trip to China. There, he finds a picture of himself at a Chinese market with a small boy of about 6 years old sitting high on his shoulders.
“There’s so much love and positive energy there,” Edosomwan said last week as he prepared to return to China, this time with the Crimson basketball team for its game against Stanford on Friday night. “A lot of Stanford and Harvard players are going to be surprised. They’re going to be like rock stars there.”
Two of the top academic universities in the United States, Harvard and Stanford are visiting Shanghai this week to open their men’s basketball seasons, and do a little brand-building while they’re at it. The schools are already well-known internationally, Harvard has 1,802 students and scholars from China, according to its website, but few there think of basketball when they think of the two prestigious institutions.
“It’s an amazing chance, and we’re proud to be a part of it, proud to represent this great brand, this great school in China,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said last week as he prepared to visit the country for the first time. “We’re not just thinking just for us; we’re representing Harvard. We try to do that wherever we go.”
For Stanford, it’s the third in-season international trip in the program’s 102-year history (Mexico, 2009; Bahamas, 2012), though the team visited Rome, Florence, Venice and Como during a summer tour of Italy in 2015. This year’s visit by the Pac-12 follows one last year, when Washington beat Texas, and completes a two-year deal. Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said he is working on extending the commitment.
Visiting Harvard last week, NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said the trip reminded him of the “ping pong diplomacy” of President Richard Nixon’s administration and hoped it would help break down barriers between the nations.
“College sports diplomacy is a great trend,” he said. “It’s a great game, and I think it’s a great entrée for people to interact.”
For sure, it won’t just be basketball on this trip.
The Crimson arrived in Hangzhou on Sunday night and, after sleeping off the 30-hour trip, had a meet-and-greet at the online commerce company Alibaba. They visited some ancient temples on Tuesday and a museum on Wednesday before playing Jiao Tong University in an exhibition. On Thursday, they were scheduled to appear in the Shanghai Disney parade and make an appearance with students from a school funded by the Yao Ming Foundation. Friday is back to work to prepare for the game, which is scheduled for noon Saturday local time, or 11 p.m. back on campus.
The Cardinal had a shorter flight, a mere 14 hours, with many of the same activities planned, adding a Huangpu River Cruise and an exhibition against Tsinghua.
All the while, players will have to keep up with their school work. Amaker said a half-dozen players have exams they will need to take on the trip, scheduled to coincide with the time their classmates are taking the tests back home. A handful of China scholars and other Harvard officials made the trip with the team.
“Studying is part of the travel,” Amaker said. “It’s going to be a lot that’s put into it, but we’re hoping we’re going to gain a lot from it.”
Asked if there was anything special he was looking forward to on his first trip to China, Amaker said, “Other than beating Stanford?”
Amaker arrived at Harvard in 2007 to find a basketball program with no past and not much of a future. The Crimson had never won an Ivy League championship in men’s basketball before winning five straight, starting in 2011. Twice they have advanced in the NCAA Tournament by beating a higher-seeded first-round opponent.
With that success has come a highly regarded recruiting class and new opportunities, like trips to the Battle for Atlantis in the Bahamas and the Great Alaska Shootout and now China.
“This is another layer that we can add to the growth of our program. The success that we’ve had in the past allows us to be invited and thought of for moments like this. And we’re proud of that,” Amaker said. “How lucky are we to have this opportunity in front of us, and to be able to thank basketball for something like this? This is where sports and athletics can provide opportunities that most people won’t have.”
Edosomwan has been to China twice before, running an educational conference there last summer. He has taken six semesters of Mandarin and six other classes on China at Harvard, making him a bit of an expert among his teammates.
“I guess in a way I know a little bit more,” Edosomwan said.
And what did his teammates want to know?
“Mostly,” he said, “what’s the deal with the internet?”