- Ken Sugiura The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
A deluxe hotel and New York strip steaks welcomed Georgia Tech’s basketball team at the finish line of a 26-hour journey that began Friday morning at Tech and ended late Saturday evening in a city of 9 million near the eastern central coast of China. The Yellow Jackets, in China to play No. 21 UCLA in Shanghai next Saturday, flew from Atlanta to Detroit and onto Shanghai, the second leg a 14-hour flight that arced north through Canadian air space and descended over snow-covered plateaus of Siberian Russia.
The travel party and cargo reached its destination safely and intact, including a taped-up cardboard box that appeared on the verge of rupturing.
The trip began with an arrival at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport that bordered on comedy. The two charter buses unloaded team and accompanying staff at the airport’s international terminal. Upon walking in the building, they were told that they needed to be at the main domestic terminal as they were flying through Detroit, so the group began shuffling back to the buses. However, a cheerful Delta employee told them that, no, they could actually check in there, and the group reversed again. Finally, the determination was made that the international terminal was indeed wrong. Back to the drop-off, where the buses were still in place.
“That’s why we always wait,” one of the drivers said.
For the trans-Pacific leg, the team and coaches flew first class aboard a Delta Boeing 777, which features self-contained berths long enough even for the tallest Jackets to put their feet up. Coaches and players passed the time of the 7,100-mile flight – six round trips between Atlanta and Chicago or 111 times around I-285 – watching movies, sleeping and bragging in a group text with staff members stuffed in economy seating about the accommodations in first class.
Center Ben Lammers slept, watched “Despicable Me 3” and read “Blitzed,” an acclaimed book about the use of mood-altering drugs by the German military in World War II. Alas, even first-class travel has its limits. The wifi signal didn’t meet the standards of the reigning ACC defensive player of the year.
“I couldn’t even get Netflix to open up,” he said.
A new world awaited them upon disembarking, though they didn’t see much of it Saturday. Shanghai, where Tech will be most of the coming week, has a population of 24 million, making it, at least by some accounting methods, the largest city in the world. As such, freshman walk-on Evan Jester left home – his first trip outside the U.S. – with solid advice.
“Just be careful of what you do and stay with the team,” said Jester, from Fayetteville. “Don’t venture off.”
On Sunday, the team’s schedule was to be relatively light. Players were to take a walk in the morning to get their bodies moving and then practice in the afternoon. On Monday, Tech is scheduled to visit the headquarters of Alibaba in Hangzhou. Alibaba is the world’s largest e-commerce company and a sponsor of the Tech-UCLA game.
Lammers spoke in the team’s dining room at the Hyatt Regency Hangzhou, awaiting the distribution of his room key. The team had been in China only a few hours, but he already was attempting to gain from the experience. On the three-hour bus ride from Shanghai to Hangzhou, he had noticed with interest the Chinese characters on buildings and signs. In the dining room, he and a teammate studied the label of a bottle of water, trying to figure out which character represented the word for water.
He was even feeling OK at the end of a 26-hour day, perhaps not a surprise for someone who combines college basketball and the pursuit of a mechanical engineering degree.
“I don’t feel too bad,” he said. “I’m used to sporadic sleeping schedules.”