NBA Hall of Fame center Yao Ming was never known for his assists. But one crucial off-the-court assist may have started a connection that could shape the next generation of international basketball.
Last month, Duke opened its doors to Limin Xu, the Chinese women’s basketball national team coach. Promoted to the highest stage in March, Xu was quick to adjust to his new role as the head of the rising women’s program. But he needed some help—that’s where the former All-Star and current Chinese Basketball Association president came into the picture.
“I was looking to study in a college in the United States, so I went through Yao Ming who then looked to the NBA, and Duke is actually recommended by the NBA,” Xu said through Duke student manager and translator Mikaela Li. “I especially liked Duke because it’s not only a good sports school, but also in academics and culture and history and just everything.”
The similarities between the national team and the Blue Devils go far beyond the hardwood. Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie noted the two coaches’ personal connections helped spark an instant connection to Xu.
“I’m 52, he’s 51. We both have a son the same age. His wife is a coach. My husband is a professor and I just felt like we had a lot in common,” McCallie said. “I have family that go to China regularly, so China is something that’s revered in my family in terms of that opportunity culturally.”
The similarities, in the minds of McCallie and Xu, enabled the relationship to grow. That connection allowed for more conversations and a greater understanding of each other.
“It was such a great thing to get that call from Carol Callan, [USA Basketball Women’s National Team director], when she said that Yao Ming made that decision and would we be willing, and it was such an interesting question,” McCallie said. “Of course, we would be willing. We were absolutely thrilled about it and it has just worked out even better than we could have expected.”
A fresh evaluator
During the three-week span that Xu was in Durham, the impact of the visit was more than merely showing up to practice every day and watching the games from afar.
“Yes, we communicated a lot of ways and occasions. One event that was especially important was after the UNC loss,” Xu said. “Coach P asked for my advice and my perspective on the team from an outside perspective. I also gave a few [pieces of] advice and suggestions, and I think Coach P also saw something that she didn’t see with the team before.”
McCallie talked about the fact that Xu is a “fresh evaluator” and how that newfound perspective aided the team in numerous ways. Although the Shanghai native was new to the college stage, that originality allowed him to see the players for who they are, not what a box score or highlight film may display.
Whether it was talking to a coach on the sidelines during practice or talking to McCallie following the North Carolina defeat, Xu left a mark that will be felt for the rest of the season.
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Overcoming the language barrier
Another coach that Xu had a strong connection to was associate head coach Hernando Planells. McCallie’s go-to coach on the bench, Planells conversed not only about Duke basketball, but also about Xu’s area of comfort—Asian basketball. Similar to Xu, Planells brings a different perspective to the college game as a result of his time coaching in Japan and around the world in different basketball environments.
“He has so much knowledge, obviously being the Olympic team coach for China, who is a very, very good program,” Planells said. “You’re talking about someone whose seen all the ups and downs, has won so many games in the professional league—the CBA—so it’s those types of things that we took away from him.”
Xu clearly learned from the Duke team, but at the same time, the Blue Devils learned from their visitor from China.
“We all got better because so much knowledge, the interaction between him and Coach P and him with us, being able to hear his stories, what he’s done, again helps us steer what we’re doing,” Planells said. “Even though they’re two different worlds, two different countries, but basketball is basketball and you’re able to do similar things.”
One of the ways that Xu was so well versed in the culture of the Blue Devils came from an individual that often gets overlooked. Li, a sophomore student manager from Shenzhen, China, took on the role of a critical translator to help to overcome the language barrier between McCallie and Xu. The Chinese coach brought along an interpreter of his own from China to aid in the translation alongside Li, who communicated McCallie’s message effectively.
“It was wonderful to have somebody from our program who does know how we do things, and Mikaela is fabulous,” McCallie said. “She was very at ease and able to translate very quickly and made it feel as if Coach Xu and I were talking just because of her ability to translate so easily. That was a special treat to have a Duke student have that capability and understanding.”
On the way up
Similar to the United States, sports fans from China will first look at the men’s team, while the women’s team is second to that. Xu said that basketball reigns supreme over the other sports. For the most part, college basketball is not popular on television, but can be streamed online. Xu hopes that it will become more popular in the future.
“I learned a lot from the basketball, especially the college basketball league here,” Xu said. “I hope to use what I’ve learned to go back to China and lead China into having a more robust college league, especially in the women’s sports too.”
The Chinese national team is on the way up after a top-10 finish at the 2016 Rio Olympics with Xu serving as an assistant coach. Currently, the national team ranks as the 10th-best team according to FIBA and second in Asia. Xu said he is still making some minor adjustments to the roster from a year ago, but he said the overall age of the team will be younger on average.
“Mainly looking at America and also Europe because I think physical characteristics are similar with European players,” Xu said. “If we can model some of the aggressive playing style and also the physical contact and training of fundamentals, China will be able to play at a world level.”
Where China differs from the United States is the development system. In China, the players lack the ability to learn fundamentals from a young age, and Xu knows of only one player that moved to the United States for high school before returning to China. For the most part, the cultural exchange is not occurring in basketball, leaving China behind other world basketball powers.
A long-term connection
In the future, that cultural exchange may be helped by this newly-formed bond between Xu and McCallie.
“It was such an honor, just such an incredible honor to work with him. I just can’t stress that enough. After 26 years of being a head coach, it was sort of like, just the most fun thing, just being able to talk to another person who is committed to basketball and has such incredible experience,” McCallie said. “I’ve been a USA [U20 and U21] coach, so we could talk about playing Russia for example. We could talk about gold medals. I could talk about coaching against China and so that whole thing, it’s hard to put into words, but it’s a highlight of my career.”
On Jan. 26, Xu traveled back to China after the three-week stint with the Blue Devils to begin the team’s training for its next tournament, the 2018 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup in September. As the CBA nears its season’s conclusion, some national team players have already begun their training for the big stage in the fall, with the players on postseason teams beginning full-time in less than two months.
“It’s memorable also because I’ve formed such good relationships with the team and the coaching staff. Everyone’s really been supporting me with everything I need and also just being really nice to me in general,” Xu said. “I feel like a part of the team now and feel an emotional connection with the team, so I’m going to miss this experience a lot.”
A growing market for women’s basketball, China provides an opportunity for players to earn a good living—even greater than the WNBA—and live in a nation with a booming economy. In a few years, it’s possible that a current Blue Devil will be roaming the streets of Beijing or Shanghai.
“China’s a place that has professional basketball. China is a place where they have contracts and opportunities for women in sport and basketball, and I think they learned a lot,” McCallie said. “At the moment, because we’re in season, they might not appreciate it as much as they will later when the season’s over, or in the future that we had this opportunity.”
Although Xu is a new name on the international stage, his experience speaks for itself as a three-time CBA league champion with his team the Beijing Great Wall. With more than two decades of head coaching experience on his resume and now an American coaching staff he can look to for advice, Xu will look toward leading China back to the top echelon of international women’s basketball.
“We will continue to have a tight connection between the national team. He’s been very gracious, invited me to go to the World Championships in Spain and sit behind the bench with his team,” McCallie said. “We just went on a tour to Italy, so we have to wait four years before we can bring the team over to China. But something to look forward to and something that we’re going to work on.”