The Golden State Warriors and Minnesota Timberwolves spent the last week spreading the gospel of the NBA throughout China. I was there alongside both teams for the journey. Here are some of the stories collected along the way.
Monday, Oct. 2, 2017, Shenzhen Gymnasium, 4:26 p.m. local time
Taj Gibson has been around Tom Thibodeau long enough to know what was coming. After taking the nearly 14-hour trek to China, one which started in Anaheim after a Saturday preseason win over the Los Angeles Lakers, and included a stop in Anchorage to refuel, Gibson, who played for Thibodeau as a member of the Chicago Bulls, and now with the Timberwolves, wasn't surprised to hear about the itinerary after landing in Shenzhen.
"I don't even expect to see a new culture, really," Gibson says with a smile. "Prime example, we got off the plane, we got a bite to eat at the hotel and jumped right on the bus and came to practice. We didn't even really have time to unpack, we just got our gear, came back, got some shots up, got some cardio, and that was it. We don't know what's the rest of the schedule for the rest of the day, but I know we probably got more film. [Thibs] just doesn't want to waste a day. He understands the regular season's around the corner. We're trying to get as much done as possible. We still have a young group, we still have a lot of kinks we have to work out, but [we're] looking forward to it."
So what did the players do during such a long flight?
"Listen to the same songs over and over," All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler says. "Thomas Rhett just came out with a new album. Phenomenal. You should really get it. I listened to some India.Arie. What else? Luke Bryan, big things coming from him. And then messing around with my teammates. So a lot of that."
Butler said he had a glass of wine on the flight and had a conversation with teammate Cole Aldrich about country music. Like Gibson, he didn't expect to be seeing too many sights during his time in China.
"I'll be on FaceTime," Butler says. "My guys aren't here with me so it's kind of different. So I'm sure I'll be FaceTiming them a lot. Other than that, Aaron [Brooks] played here so he's saying he's going to show me around a little bit. I'm fortunate to be able to do that. That's it, man. Basketball's basketball for me. This is still kind of a business trip, but you got to have a little bit of fun."
Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017, Shenzhen Gymnasium, 12:47 p.m.
Even though he is on the other side of the world, Patrick McCaw's heart hurts for Las Vegas as he gets set to participate in the Warriors' optional team workout. McCaw went to school at UNLV and has spent plenty of time in and around the Vegas strip over the past few years. Like so many around the world, he is shocked when he starts hearing the reports of mass murder at a concert in Vegas the night before.
"The randomness of it is crazy," McCaw says. "I've been to Mandalay Bay so many times that I can hardly count. So for something like that to happen there, especially being there and being in the area, having stepped foot there, it's hard to believe."
The Warriors finally make it Shenzhen on Monday night, but they do so without head coach Steve Kerr, who had to deal with a passport issue that he had no control over. He arrives in Hong Kong early the following morning, but he ends up staying within the city throughout the day, taking part in a tour along with other players and team personnel. McCaw and eight of his teammates, including Kevin Durant, are there in the gym that day getting in some work, but for McCaw it's understandably difficult to focus on basketball.
"I knew exactly where it was," he says of the shootings. "When [news reports] said Mandalay Bay at the concert, I knew exactly the venue and the area so I didn't necessarily have to look it up. I just started texting people that I know are still in Vegas and still living there. Just making sure that family and friends are all right."
Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017, Shenzhen Gymnasium, 12:32 p.m.
The Chinese basketball media contingent has descended upon the gym today in hopes of catching up with some of the stars for the Warriors and the Timberwolves. Imagine a more scaled-down version of Super Bowl Media Day and it's easier to get a sense of the setup. The main players, and head coach on both teams, get a spot in front of a podium, while others are left to hang around the periphery to see if any reporters would like to share a moment with them.
For the first time in his career, Gibson, now 32, finds himself at one of the podiums on the far end. He laughs when asked how it feels to be front and center in front of the media.
"It feels good," Gibson says. "It feels good just to be in a new country, a great country at that. [I'm] just enjoying myself and having a good time."
On the other end of the floor, Butler is doing his best to field questions, but is hesitant to repeat any message in Chinese because of his unfamiliarity with the language. The 28-year old is focused on making sure that the journalists around him know that while the Timberwolves might not be good enough to be put in the Warriors' category now, he knows that he won't be scared when they see each other on the court.
"I don't believe in superteams," Butler says. "I just believe in some really good players that play basketball well together. And yeah, we got a lot of talent on this team right now. All of that talent doesn't mean anything if we don't go out there and do what we're supposed to do."
If Gibson were able to hear Butler's answer, he probably would nod his head in agreement. In the meantime, he is asked what he will be asked to bring to his new team throughout the season.
"Just bring toughness," Gibson says. "Bring veteran leadership, being in a position where I've been in playoff games. I've played in the league a long time now; I'm not the young guy anymore it seems so now they're looking to me to give an amount of advice and just be the player I've been the last couple years. Just be ready to come in and help the team win games and be a monster with whatever the team needs me to do."
Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017, Shenzhen Gymnasium, 1:15 p.m.
With some of their teammates staying in Shenzhen and others touring around Hong Kong, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala are among another Warriors group that finds its way to a golf course about 45 minutes outside of town. On the day the NBA announces it has changed its All-Star Game selection process, allowing two captains to choose teams from a group comprising the 12 best players from each conference, Curry wants people to understand that his selecting skills aren't limited to the basketball court.
"Klay had that home-course advantage, that course knowledge, but I guess my captain's skills are pretty good because I picked Klay as my teammate yesterday and we won," Curry says. "So Splash Brothers on and off the court, or on the course, too. We got it done."
One Chinese reporter asks Warriors star Draymond Green what will be his motivation this season after so much recent success. Green's answer is the type of calling card that could be punched out and stuck on a refrigerator for display and safekeeping.
"Just wanting to be great," Green says. "You want to win as many championships as you can. You want to build the best résumé that you can. You want to be in the Hall of Fame. If you're trying to be a Hall of Famer, that never ends until you're done. You're campaigning for that every time you step on the floor. So really just continuing to chase greatness every time we step out there every year, that's always the motivation."
Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017, Shenzhen Universiade Center, 3:54 p.m.
As the fourth quarter winds down, former NBA guard Chauncey Billups can't help but chuckle from his courtside seat. The Timberwolves appear to have the game in hand as Kerr decides to play a majority of guys at the end of his bench to close the game. As Billups, who was in attendance with other former NBA players like Marcus Camby and Kevin Martin as part of a group introduced to fans during the game, looks around, he sees veteran Timberwolves guard Jamal Crawford.
"One more year with Thibs and you're going to be over here with us," Billups says with a laugh. "I thought you were going to play five more years."
The response draws a small smile from Crawford as he dribbles up the floor. After the game ends, both Durant and Curry seem genuinely impressed by the atmosphere they saw throughout the day.
"Today's game was amazing," Durant says. "The fans were incredible. Showed us, both teams, a lot of love, and we really appreciate it. Our time in Shenzhen has been amazing. Look forward to going to Shanghai."
Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017, Ritz Carlton Shanghai, Pudong, 11:45 a.m.
As the Warriors prepare to take a team photo on the rooftop of the Ritz's swanky bar, Flair, some young tourists and their parents sit on the 52nd floor lobby, waiting to catch a glimpse of the most famous team in basketball. Camera phones remain at the ready as Durant stops to take a picture with one young fan. After catching a glimpse of Kerr walking through the lobby with his wife, Margot, one young fan exclaims -- "If I touch [Kerr], I touch Michael Jordan!"
An hour or so later, most of the team makes its way onto the roof for a picture that many will never forget. With the Oriental Pearl Tower hovering in the background, and The Bund, in all its glory all around, the Warriors set up for the kind of team picture that will hang on office walls for years to come. Veteran Warriors PR man Raymond Ridder dutifully gets players and staff members into the right positions, directing traffic like a schoolteacher on picture day.
Players take pictures and shoot videos for Instagram as nearby photographers try to catch each moment. Ridder and his staff endure a few extra phone calls in search of Green, the last player to arrive, but all is well when the All-Star appears and the cameras begin clicking away. First, owner Joe Lacob sits with the players in chair in the middle, then comes co-managing partner Peter Guber.
A fan-fest awaits the Warriors in a couple of hours at the Oriental Sports Center where Curry, Thompson and others will participate in shooting contests and All-Star Saturday type activities for fans, but in this moment the entire Warriors organization seems to be taking a moment to enjoy the surroundings and embrace what they have already accomplished together.
"Eye opening," Warriors center JaVale McGee says of his Chinese experience so far. "Just being able to see a different culture. Seeing that they love the same things we love, maybe even more. They're real passionate people especially about basketball. It's definitely a blessing."
Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017, Ritz Carlton Shanghai, Pudong, 4:22 p.m.
"Perfect," Gibson says as he tries on some of the clothes that were tailored for him during his stay. "Perfect." As Gibson waits for the team bus that will take him to the game, he sees a couple of the workers in the lobby who have bags full of clothes for some of the team personnel who made purchases during their stay in Shanghai. A black winter coat is among the items Gibson will take back with him to Minneapolis.
Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017, Mercedes Benz Arena, 10:45 p.m.
Curry has just put on the kind of performance that fans in Shanghai will not soon forget. He scores 40 points in just three quarters, electrifying a sold-out crowd. After tossing his shoes into the crowd after the game, one fan climbs over a barricade to collect the treasure then gets back to a seat in the arena and just stares at his new prized possession. Curry, who spoke all week about wanting to put on a display for the Chinese fans who repeatedly chanted his name, does so in grand fashion.
"Obviously, Steph put on an amazing show for the fans and that's what they wanted to see," Kerr says. "So that was great."
Both Kerr and Thibodeau praise the environment and response from fans throughout the week. Kerr wishes he could have had more than two official team practices in the middle of training camp, but he is smart enough to understand that he and his team were on a more important mission this week than the usual monotony of training camp.
They were NBA evangelists and played their role well to a fan base that showed nothing but love. After extolling the virtues of Curry, Kerr couldn't help himself while discussing what the real positives were on the last night of the trip. The long plane ride home was waiting, but it would be made easier by the fact that his team finally started to look like its old self in the second half.
"I was most pleased with the fact that the third-quarter defense picked up big time after a slow start defensively," he said. "We picked up the intensity, which was the key to our whole team. We know that we're going to score but when we defend with intensity like that we're tough to beat so that third quarter was great."