Men's Hoops: A Tradition of International Engagement
July 12, 2011 – When then-men’s basketball coach John Thompson Jr. decided to take his team abroad for the first time in the program’s history in fall 1976, he told the Washington Post that it was because he wanted his players to “learn to give importance to how other people live.”
Thompson had just served as assistant coach of the gold medal-winning U.S. basketball team at the Montreal Olympics that summer, an experience that opened his eyes to “the easy way [American] athletes fall into a narrow education,” he continued.
“Athletes from other countries spoke English, but we didn’t know a word of their language,” he told the Post in the same article. “They seemed to know about our customs, but we stared at them if they ate a big bowl of berries for dinner instead of a steak.”
“If you don’t have at least enough sensitivity not to look at a man funny just because his dinner is a bowl of berries … at what point are you ever going to be able to sit down with him – and start to talk about really serious problems?” he explained to the newspaper.
Thompson’s adamant desire to ensure both the breadth and depth of his players’ education led to a series of international engagements, beginning with the team’s two-week trip to Taiwan in September 1976.
The team played seven games, toured numerous cultural locations and tried to get the hang of using chopsticks.
“After being exposed to a totally different culture, I realize there is no absolute standard in the world by which people live,” a sophomore forward, Ed Hopkins, said in an October 1976 follow-up article with the Washington Post.
The Great Wall
The Hoyas expanded this new emphasis on international engagement November 1978, when the national basketball team of the People’s Republic of China visited Washington, D.C., and faced off against Georgetown at Armory Stadium.
The game, an athletic and cultural milestone, marked one of the first-ever basketball competitions between American and Chinese players on U.S. soil.
During the game, the Chinese national team took the Hoyas by surprise, pulling into the lead after Georgetown missed 13 straight shots.
The Hoyas never recovered, losing the contest 75-69, after being shut down offensively due to the skill and height of Chinese player Mu Tiezhu, who, at 7’6” was dubbed the “Great Wall of China.”
When asked about his team's performance after the game by a Washington Post reporter, Thompson said, “The game program had a saying, 'friendship first, competition second,' and we took it literally.”
In the summer of 1993, Thompson expanded the scope of the team’s international engagement by leading his team on a 12-day trip to Israel.
They played five exhibition games and explored the history and culture of Israel and the Jewish people.
The same spirit that motivated Thompson Jr. inspired his son, John Thompson III, the current head coach of the team, to pursue a 10-day tour of Beijing and Shanghai, China with the Hoyas this August.
“We are very excited at the opportunity for our team to experience a different culture and to use the vehicle of our sport to help build relationships in an international setting,” Thompson III said in a March press release announcing the trip. “This a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our team and … will allow the members of our program to experience the history of China. We are honored to have the opportunity to represent Georgetown University.”
As with prior tours, the team will combine cultural events and activities during the day with evening exhibition games, two in Beijing and two in Shanghai. They also will join senior leaders, alumni and friends of the university for two receptions, one in each city.