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August 27, 2009

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30 years on, ex-Wizards return to China

THIRTY years after Washington became the first National Basketball Association side to visit China, veterans of the team plan a return trip to the basketball-crazy country next month.

Hall of Famer Wes Unseld, a star of the 1979 team then known as the Bullets, will be joined on the September 5-15 visit by current Washington Wizards players Caron Butler and Randy Foye, along with another former Bullet, the towering Gheorghe Muresan of Romania, the team said in a news release.

The trip will include a series of basketball clinics, including one with last season's China Basketball Association champion Guangdong Hongyuan.

The team will visit Beijing and Shanghai, along with parts of southwestern Sichuan Province that were devastated by last year's massive earthquake.

"We thought the best way to pay homage to the anniversary of our historic trip in 1979 was to return to China, because 30 years ago it was unheard of to travel overseas with an NBA team," former coach Abe Pollin said.

The 1979 visit came at the invitation of former Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping as part of celebrations of the forging of diplomatic ties between Washington and Beijing earlier that year.

The team, led by center Unseld and fellow future Hall of Famer Elvin Hayes, played exhibition games against the Chinese national squad and the People's Liberation Army's Bayi team. The Americans were also shown historic sites, including Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and the Great Wall of China.

Since then, basketball's popularity in China has soared, with Houston Rockets center Yao Ming, a Shanghai native, ensuring top ratings for the NBA. State television began showing NBA games in the late 1980s, and in 2004 the Rockets and the Sacramento Kings played the league's first games ever in China, a pair of preseason exhibition matches.

Teams and sponsors have also found a lucrative market for their merchandise in China's booming economy, and current NBA stars, such as LeBron James, currently in the country, Kobe Bryant, and Dwight Howard, receive rapturous receptions from fans during their regular offseason visits.


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