- By Ken Sugiura
A journey to a city 7,650 miles from Atlanta began with a phone call. A little more than a year ago, Georgia Tech assistant coach Eric Reveno took a call from a friend who has an association with the Pac-12 gauging his team’s interest in playing a game in Shanghai to open the 2017-18 season.
Gears began to turn – among Reveno’s first inquiries was to the athletic department’s academic advising office to see if it would be feasible to leave campus for a week in the middle of the semester to play a basketball game halfway across the world – and plans took shape. On Friday, those designs finally came to fruition as the Yellow Jackets boarded a charter bus that took them from campus to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Two flights and a bus ride later, they were scheduled to arrive at their hotel in Hangzhou, China, some 25 ½ hours later.
While college basketball won’t command the attention of most Atlanta sports fans until January (or possibly March), Tech is undertaking a historic trip, its first game on international soil since 1986. Tech will be the guest of the Pac-12 and will play UCLA on Nov. 10 (Nov. 11 in Shanghai) to open the 2017-18 season.
Organizing the trip has been an undertaking.
“It’s been just thinking of a lot of small things,” said Ellie Cantkier, team program and operations manager. “How to get everyone in the country, how to keep ’em healthy and how to get ’em back out. And then win a game in the process.”
Since the end of last season, Tech athletic department staff, including Reveno, Cantkier, associate athletic director Marvin Lewis and scouting director Tyler Benson and others – have taken on the added tasks of planning the trip. That’s included obtaining visas (and passports in the cases of a few first-time international travelers), arranging meals, scheduling vaccinations, picking out gifts to present to hosts, packing up extra sneakers and setting up a class for team and staff about do’s and don’ts in China (do use bottled water to brush your teeth; don’t be surprised if you are treated like a celebrity from selfie-seeking locals).
“It’s a full-time job focusing on that trip with the amount of stuff that you have to do to be organized,” coach Josh Pastner said.
There’s an additional layer of complexity in that Tech president G.P. “Bud” Peterson also will lead a delegation to China. As was the case with the football team’s trip last year to Dublin, there are peripheral events scheduled that are only tangentially related to the game.
“I think the biggest challenge is making sure that all the various parties understand who’s doing what and trying to address everyone’s needs,” Lewis said.
Traveling in a party of about 35, the Jackets are not traveling light. As they’re to arrive seven days before game day, they had to pack for practice and game preparation. They checked in 22 equipment bags stuffed with balls, sneakers, uniforms, practice gear and more. The coaching staff brought along its own video equipment, including laptops and a projector.
The team is bringing medication, supplies for injury treatment and rehabilitation, and electric stimulation devices to activate muscles during the 14-hour flight from Detroit to Shanghai. (There are no direct flights from Atlanta to Shanghai, although Delta will begin that route in July 2018.) Trainer Richard Stewart prepared bags for the travel party that included everything from trail mix to hand sanitizer to toothpaste. The team ordered 40 electrical converters.
“You kind of try and overthink and think about what could be the one thing we’re missing or what are we forgetting?” Benson said.
Beyond practice, weightlifting and study hall, the team has a visit planned for the campus of Alibaba (a company often described as the Amazon of China), a trip to Shanghai Disneyland, a river cruise and a clinic for children supported by the foundation of former NBA star Yao Ming.
“More than anything else, it’s one of those cultural experiences that everyone involved will be impacted in a positive way,” Lewis said.
As the Pac-12 is picking up most of the tab for Tech, the trip will cost between $60,000 to $70,000, Lewis said. That’s a roughly the cost of a standard road trip.
In a basketball sense, the reality is that this trip likely will not help Tech become a better team. The travel disrupts the routines of practice for a young team that needs as much training time as possible, particularly with guards Josh Okogie and Tadric Jackson being held out for NCAA rules violations. The time that staff members have spent on lining up details could have been spent on basketball matters. The disruption from class time and sleep could come with a cost of players’ time and energy later in the semester.
“Someone should have punched me in the nose when I said yes about agreeing to the trip,” Pastner said jokingly.
He then went on to recount two summer tours to Australia that he took with teams as an assistant coach with Arizona. At the time, he dreaded the trips, but saw later how players shared a valuable and memorable experience.
“It’ll be the same thing with these guys,” he said. “It’ll be the trip of a lifetime.”