The University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa men’s basketball team has climbed the Great Wall of China. Now the Rainbow Warriors hope to rely on that experience to climb up the standings of the Western Athletic Conference this season. Hawaiʻi head coach Gib Arnold, his coaching staff and 10 players made the historic 16-day trip to China and Japan in August.
It is the first time a UH athletic team made such a journey to Asia.
“This has been just so valuable for us,” says Arnold, who is in his second season as head coach. “It’s such a fun way of building a team. There have been a lot of great moments on this trip—a lot of different levels of why it’s been great.”
For starters, it offered a jump on preparation for the season and invaluable experience. The ’Bows played exhibition games against professional teams, four in China and one in Japan, and won three. “We have freshmen who were thrown in against pro teams, really good pro teams” at a level of play other first-year players don’t experience, Arnold says.
But perhaps the educational value outweighs the athletic benefit. In addition to the Great Wall, the team visited numerous landmarks, other tourist sites and shopping malls in both countries. They ate at authentic Chinese and Japanese restaurants and walked among the common people along the streets, drawing upward stares all the way.
“You can’t put a price on the educational value this trip provided,” Arnold says. “There’s no way you can teach that stuff from a book. For them to experience it firsthand is worth more than what anybody can teach in a classroom.”
There were also interesting, even comical, moments arising from differences in language and culture. Only two players sampled the roasted bugs served during one late-night dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Latvian sophomore center Davis Rozitis described the taste as “kind of like popcorn.”
Freshman guard Shaquille Stokes calls the trip life-changing. “Best experience of my life,” says Stokes, who grew up in Harlem. “I saw things and did things I’ll never forget.”
The feeling is mutual. Gao Zhong Jie, director of the sports federation for the city of Gaomi, attended a game between Hawaiʻi and the Qingdao Eagles. Basketball is becoming one of the most popular sports in China, and he said it was the first time that the people of Gaomi got to see American basketball players.
“This game can provide a very great chance for us to learn more, and our local basketball games will become better,” he says.
That’s good news to Arnold, who has said he would like to recruit players out of China. The underlying mission of the tour was to make UH athletics a known commodity in China and Japan. “Eventually this is going to pay very good dividends for the University of Hawaiʻi,” says Athletics Director Jim Donovan, who attended the game in Osaka. “Everybody is starting to recognize our (H) logo and the University of Hawaiʻi.”
As a presence in seven hotels and traveling to more than 10 cities via planes, trains and buses, the basketball ’Bows did their part to spread the aloha. And they found camaraderie. “It’s about coming together and having fun, enjoying each other, being on buses for a long time, shopping and eating crazy food and playing in hostile environments.
“You can’t mimic that in practice,” Arnold commented as the tour came to a close. “When we left home, I didn’t know what to expect. Going back home, I feel like we’re a team.”