June 9, 2010
By TOM SATKOWIAK
Skylar McBee wasn't sure how his stomach--typically stuffed with meat and potatoes--would handle a hearty helping of cow intestines washed down with a side of duck blood.
Photo: Robby Speer, Sports Reach
The Great Wall of China was among some of the stops made by rising sophomore Skylar McBee during his two-week tour with Sports Reach.
But he also knew his two-week tour of the People's Republic of China was all about new and exciting experiences. So he tried a little eel, too, just for good measure.
It was the trip of a lifetime for the rising sophomore guard, who followed up a successful season on the Tennessee basketball team with a hot-shooting exhibition as his Reach USA team posted a 6-3 record against foreign professional squads--including a 4-3 series triumph over the Bayi Army Rockets, one of the top pro teams in China.
"It was an amazing experience," McBee said. "Everyone had a great time. We were like celebrities over there."
Sports Reach, a Kentucky-based organization whose mission is reaching the world through sports, sponsored two men's basketball trips to China last month. McBee was part of the second group, the Blue Team, which was made up of 11 current NCAA Division I players and was coached by Nevada assistant Dennis Gates.
The Americans played nine games in 11 days in nine different cities. The routine was quite simple: breakfast, travel until around noon, check-in to new hotel, eat lunch, rest, Bible study, snack, gametime, eat again, get a massage, bedtime. McBee, a native of Rutledge, Tenn., roomed with Southern Illinois forward Carlton Fay.
"It couldn't have worked out any better," McBee said of his roommate. "I'm from a small town. He's from a small town. We got along really well and hung out quite a bit."
McBee wasn't the only Southeastern Conference player on the trip. Jon Hood and Josh Harrelson of the rival Kentucky Wildcats also took part.
"They're good guys," McBee said. "Every now and then I'd say something or they'd say something about (the Kentucky-Tennessee rivalry), but it never got ugly."
McBee garnered national headlines in early January after his off-balance 3-pointer against top-ranked and previously unbeaten Kansas sealed Tennessee's home win over the Wildcats. But if any of his Sports Reach teammates boarded the jet to East Asia ignorant of McBee's exploits on Rocky Top, it didn't take him long to earn their respect.
In the team's first game of the tour, an 87-75 victory over Bayi, McBee poured in a team-high 17 points on 6-of-9 shooting. He was 5-for-7 from 3-point range, and he drained a pair of treys consecutively in the first half to give Reach USA the lead for good.
After an initial flight from Beijing to Chongquing, the collection of American student-athletes traveled from town to town via bus. The group made its way through such towns as Changshou, Tongnan, Quingjiang, Pengshui, Shizhu, Shinshou and Jingmen. Many of the cities in which they played have no local pro teams, so a contest between the Bayi Army Rockets and a team of American collegians was cause for celebration.
Photo: Robby Speer, Sports Reach
Two other SEC basketball players made the trip along with McBee.
"Before some of the games they would have hour-long ceremonies with swords, flips, martial arts, dancing--even those things you see on TV where a bunch of people make a dragon that dances around," McBee said.
"A lot of us brought some gear along, and they would toss that stuff into the crowd before the games. The kids loved it. After the game everyone wanted to get autographs and get pictures made. I'd wear a sweatband and always autograph it and give it to a little kid after the game."
While McBee said he gained a lot of confidence in his shot during the tour--he shot a team-best .487 from beyond the arc--he also learned to overcome tough playing conditions.
"A lot of the gyms were really old," McBee said. "The floors were really slick, and that made it hard to plant and cut. One of the floors had water seeping up through it."
The seven-game series with Bayi was essentially a goodwill tour of various cities that have little exposure to high-level basketball. As such, the officials often felt compelled to "make it a good show" for the thousands of locals who would cram the gymnasiums. It wasn't uncommon for the Chinese team to hold a staggering advantage in free-throw attempts.
"There was one game where the free-throw attempts was something like 45 to seven. The refs would tell us they were trying to keep it close," McBee said. "But the tough conditions was one of the best things about the whole trip. If you can play in those conditions, then nothing (here in college) is going to get you rattled."
McBee analyzed the style of play in China as mechanical, with a strong emphasis on getting to the basket.
"They all had good fundamentals, and they had lots of size, too. But they weren't as smooth and fluid as players you see here."
Early on in the trip, the Reach USA team visited the Great Wall of China. That was a highlight for McBee.
"Amazing," he said. "It was one of the most amazing things I've ever seen. It wasn't that tall--maybe 15 feet. But you have to think about when it was made--without any modern tools. They just built this enormous wall over a mountain range. It's unreal."
In addition to the Great Wall, the team also visited Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, which served as home to emperors for close to 500 years from the Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty. However, it wasn't those things or places that stood out as the most impactful part of McBee's journey. Rather, it was the Chinese people themselves.
"They are the friendliest people I've ever met," McBee said. "I felt safer walking down the streets at night than I would here in America. The people we came across barely spoke any English at all, but they were so nice. I really think there were some people who had never seen Americans before."
Basketball-wise, McBee considered the trip a "confidence booster." The Reach USA team finished with a 6-3 record, including a 4-3 series triumph over Bayi (who shot more than 130 more free throws in the series than Reach USA). The Americans also posted a pair of wins over the Russia Peak All-Stars.
McBee was Reach USA's fourth-leading scorer, averaging 8.1 points per game. His 2.6 assists per game ranked second on the team, and he also averaged 1.9 rebounds and 1.0 steal.
Photo: Robby Speer, Sports Reach
Skylar McBee (right) and his teammates at the Great Wall.
He shot 42.4 percent overall and a team-best 48.7 percent from 3-point range (19-for-39). It looked as though he would return from China having shot better than 50 percent from beyond the arc, but an 0-for-4 outing in Reach USA's final game dropped his average just below that mark.
Regardless, McBee's fortnight in the Orient was overwhelmingly positive and memorable. New friends, new experiences and even some new--and perhaps bizarre--culinary tastes served to complement the happenings on the sometimes slick hardwood.
Would he do it again if given the chance?
"Definitely," he said. "And hopefully I will have another chance to make a trip like this. If not next summer, at least one more time before I graduate."