The Washington Wizards basketball team is visiting China to commemorate a trip to the country thirty years ago by the same team (then called the Washington Bullets), which marked the first visit to China by a professional U.S. sports team. AP reports:
“We thought the best way to pay homage to the anniversary of our historic trip in 1979 was to return to China, because 30 years ago it was unheard of to travel overseas with an NBA team,” Wizards owner Abe Pollin said.
The 1979 visit came at the invitation of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping as part of celebrations of the forging of diplomatic ties between Washington and Beijing earlier that year.
That team, led by Unseld and fellow future Hall of Famer Elvin Hayes, played exhibition games against the Chinese national team and the People’s Liberation Army’s Bayi team. The Americans were also shown historic sites, including the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and the Great Wall.
Since then, basketball’s popularity in China has soared. State television began showing NBA games in the late 1980s, and in 2004 the Houston Rockets and Sacramento Kings played the league’s first games in China, a pair of preseason exhibitions.
Members of the 1979 delegation recollect their visit for the Washington Post:
Some of the old Washington globetrotters tell the story of that 1979 trip in their own words:
Jerry Sachs, then-Bullets president: We won the NBA championship in 1978, and Abe Pollin took the team and wives to Israel. He decided it would be a great thrill to go to China the following year. He talked to his friends at the State Department, who talked to the Chinese, and they sent us an invitation.
John Thomson, then-counselor for cultural affairs at the U.S. Embassy in China: We had just normalized relations with China. It was a big deal that the team was coming. It was part of the opening up of China.
Jan Berris, then-program director for the nonprofit National Committee on U.S.-China Relations: We’d spent much of the ’70s sending every amateur sports team you can imagine to China: diving, basketball, soccer, volleyball and, of course, ping-pong in 1971. The Bullets were the first professional team; it was significant.
See a video about the 1979 trip: