As this year’s preseason comes to a close, the Yale men’s basketball team has stuck to its usual routine of daily practices and workouts. But for the first time ever, team members are pairing their time on the court with cultural immersion and Chinese language classes to prepare for their season opener in Shanghai.
Yale starts its season against the University of California, Berkeley in this year’s Pac-12 China Game. The Elis’ Nov. 9 matchup at the Baoshan Sports Center will mark the Pac-12’s fourth annual opener in China, presented each year by the Alibaba Group and hosted in conjunction with the Federation of University Sports of China.
“We’re all excited,” said forward Miye Oni ’20. “It’s going to be a really great trip for us. We get to do a lot of things we wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to do and also go play the sport we love over there. It’s a really awesome opportunity.”
November’s trip marks the culmination of a 17-month planning process, said Associate Athletic Director Jessica Chrabaszcz, who coordinates internal operations for the men’s basketball team and helped plan the game in coordination with the Pac-12, Alibaba and Cal.
Chrabaszcz and Yale Athletics organized language and culture classes for the players, weekly workshops the team continues to attend in preparation for the trip. Ninghui Liang, a senior lector in Yale’s East Asian Languages and Literatures Department, led three of these classes. Liang said she taught the team basic Chinese phrases, lectured on Alibaba and its co-founders Jack Ma and Joseph Tsai ’86 LAW ’90 and introduced the city of Shanghai.
After previous attempts to involve Yale in the China Game, Deputy Commissioner for the Pac-12 Jamie Zaninovich reached out to former Director of Athletics Tom Beckett in June 2017 to inquire about the 2018 game, said Chrabaszcz.
According to the press release announcing the Yale-Cal matchup in November 2017, Pac-12 launched the China Game in 2015 as the keystone of its Pac-12 Global initiative, which seeks to facilitate cultural exchange and unique educational experiences for student-athletes, coaches and fans. Along with the flagship contest, athletes from each school immerse themselves in Chinese culture as they learn about the country’s language, history and economy.
For teams that have played in previous China Game matchups — Washington and Texas in 2015, Harvard and Stanford in 2016 and UCLA and Georgia Tech in 2017—the trip has always been about more than just basketball.
“We wanted to do everything we could to play in front of Joe [Tsai] and show our guys what it’s like to play basketball in China and also experience everything else — the culture, the economics, the business side of it and give them the full experience,” said Chrabaszcz.
Because the team will leave the U.S. on Nov. 3 – a full week before tipoff against Cal – the Elis will have the chance to acclimate and explore.The Bulldogs will tour Shanghai, as well as nearby cities Hangzhou and Suzhou, thanks to programming orchestrated by the Pac-12, Yale Athletics and Tsai’s group at Alibaba. All in all, the team’s stay in China will span a full week.
Tsai, a former student-athlete on Yale’s men’s lacrosse team, remains a spirited supporter of Yale Athletics. Under Tsai’s influence, Alibaba will offer programming especially for the Yale team, and Tsai himself plans to accompany the Bulldogs on sightseeing trips around the greater Shanghai area.
“Mr. Tsai has been very hands-on with the architecture of the entire trip,” guard Azar Swain ’21 said. “He has planned many exclusive activities for us while we are there in China, which everybody is extremely grateful for.”
Alibaba has hosted every team that has participated in the Pac-12 China Game, and both Cal and Yale will tour its Hangzhou headquarters on Wednesday, Nov. 7. The next day, the Bulldogs plan to visit Disney Shanghai with the Yao Ming Foundation, enjoy sightseeing with Tsai and Alibaba and attend an esports event with Northern Lights Venture Capital. A Saturday night riverbend cruise will anchor their weeklong experience.
Basketball, however, remains the trip’s primary purpose. In advance of their game on Nov. 9 — Nov. 10 at noon Chinese Standard Time — the Elis will hold light practices throughout the week and a yet to be finalized exhibition game against a Chinese university team on Tuesday. Friday’s itinerary will mimic Yale’s pregame-day routine and include a shake-out walk on The Bund, a waterfront tourist destination in Shanghai.
“It’s going to be pretty crazy just the experience and the opportunity we’re getting,” said first-year forward Michael Feinberg ’22. “Beyond just going to China, I get to go out and do something that I love: play basketball at the highest level and kick off my collegiate career against a talented Pac-12 team.”
In November 2017, the Pac-12 extended their China Game through 2020. Alibaba will remain the competition’s lead sponsor.
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