Illini Trio Learn About China, Survive Food

Illini Sean Harrington, Alex Legion and Dominique Keller gained valuable basketball experience while on their recent trip to China. But what they gained by seeing a different part of the world may have helped just as much. They now have a better appreciation for the advantages they have in this country.

Illinois coach Sean Harrington escorted a team of 8 players on a tour of China. Despite being just one of many decent groups of players, they were treated like royalty in China according to Harrington.

"It was incredible. I've never seen anything like it. They were very excited to have us there, very welcoming. Any time we went to what they called a small city, 200,000 people is small for them, they would be running down the streets chasing after the bus. The kids just couldn't get enough pictures and autographs.

"I don't think there was an arena that wasn't sold out. We had an outside arena that had about 2000 people. They just built a stands for us. They brought out wood blocks and built it up around the court. We had a couple arenas that had 6000-7000 people sold out. So it was a great experience for them welcoming us. I think they really enjoyed having us over there."

Alex Legion agreed.

"They were just really excited. They really like basketball over there. There are as many men who play basketball over there as there are in the United States. So basketball is a huge part of their culture.

"Yeah. They kept calling Dom (Dominique Keller) 'Kobe' for some reason. I don't know why, they look nothing alike. Whenever you get a dunk in a layup line, you can do a simple two hand dunk and they think you went between your legs. They just wanted to see someone dunk.

"I kind of liked playing in front of their crowds. They appreciate basketball. Over here, you've got to do something spectacular to get people to clap. But you just make a layup and they go nuts."

Keller elaborated further on the Chinese fans.

"It was crazy. When we went into towns of 700,000-800,000, I would walk the streets and people would follow us around to take pictures and just smile at us. It was kind of cool.

"They were putting NBA pictures on the advertisements. So they had pictures of Lebron and Kobe on the advertisements for the games. They thought I was Lebron, so they started calling me Lebron and Kobe.

"One little girl walked up to me and kept saying 'Kobe, Kobe.' I showed her a picture of Kobe, but she kept saying 'Kobe.' I guess they think everybody good is Kobe or Lebron. They don't know any other players. If you show them a picture of the person they're saying, they really don't know. They just keep repeating the same thing."

Harrington said the accommodations were comparable to those in America.

"It wasn't too bad. They put us up in some pretty nice hotels. A couple of them weren't as nice as we're used to having. But I think we stayed in ten different hotels, and nine of them were very good."

However, not everyone enjoyed the food.

"Some guys are more adventurous than others with the food." Harrington said. "We had roasted duck one night that we were a little hesitant about. But that might have been the best meal of the trip. It was actually really good. It's kind of a cross between chicken and turkey in taste. Between the ten of us, I think we went through about three ducks."

Legion and Keller were not among the most adventurous.

"I really didn't eat that much," Legion related. "I survived off of rice and fruit for two weeks. So I lost a little weight over there. That's their culture, so I'm not going to knock it."

Keller was only slightly more accepting of the meals.

"The food was different. I won't say it was bad, but I wasn't real fond of it. I did enjoy the fried rice. Their KFC is a lot different than ours. It's a two-story restaurant, and it was always busy. And the food tastes a lot different. Not original recipe, it was their own homemade recipe."

Legion got sick about half-way through the trip, although it wasn't the food, and they drank only bottled water.

"What made me sick was the large amount of smoke in the atmosphere. They're allowed to smoke in the gyms. In one game, I had to wear one of those doctor masks on the bench and even in the layup lines.

"I just can't take smoke. I'm not used to that over here. I think that was probably what got me sick. I'm not used to inhaling that. Playing with that, running up and down the court kind of got to me."

Keller also had problems with the smoky atmosphere.

"The smoke was killing me. They don't have a rule against it. You're sitting on the bench, and there's like 20 guys smoking cigarettes. It was weird. I just got a mask toward the end. It didn't bother me at the end, but at first it kind of slowed me down."

The team was able to do some sight seeing as well. One site was especially inspiring to Keller.

"The Great Wall, just for the fact it was 10,000 miles. I'd never seen anything that big and that long. It was just amazing."

Legion said the Wall was just one of several sites that impressed him.

"We were able to see the Great Wall. You read about it in history books. We went to the Forbidden City, and we got to see all the houses of Mao, the guy that started Communism over there. I guess one of the big things over there, the Emperor would sleep with 35 virgins a day, and they would die when they were like 40. So that was kind of interesting to me (I'm joking).

"And the last thing that was interesting to me was these Terra Cotta wooden warriors, the 6th Wonder Of The World. I was grateful to see all those."

Keller was surprised by China's interest in basketball.

"Soccer is still the most popular sport, but basketball is growing a lot more, especially in town. Kids would walk down the streets dribbling basketballs, shooting on side goals in the alleys. It was just growing. There were more places selling shoes and gear. I probably saw more Shane Battier and Jason Kidd than anything, on every corner, counterfeit and real."

Through basketball, Legion has traveled to two different parts of the world the last two summers, Poland and China. It has given him a different perspective on life.

"It definitely makes you cultured and thankful. Some of the cities were great, like we have here. But some of them were kind of heart-touching. It makes you grateful for the simple necessities we have over here. We were in the mountains for some of the places, so obviously some were not going to be as good as the inner cities like Chicago. I'm thankful for that."

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