A return trek to China, 30 years later

BEIJING -- Thirty years after the Washington Wizards became the first NBA team to visit China, veterans of the team plan a return trip to the basketball-crazed country next month.

Hall of Fame center Wes Unseld, a star of the 1979 team then known as the Washington Bullets, will be joined on the Sept. 5-15 visit by current Wizards players Caron Butler and Randy Foye, the team announced in a statement.

Also joining them will be another former Bullet, towering 7-foot-7 center Gheorghe Muresan of Romania -- one of the tallest men to ever play in the NBA.

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

The visitors will travel to Beijing and the commercial center of Shanghai, along with parts of the southwestern province of Sichuan 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," Wizards owner Abe Pollin said.

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

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

Since then, basketball's popularity in China has soared. State television began showing NBA games in the late 1980s, and in 2004 the Houston Rockets and Sacramento Kings played the league's first games in China, a pair of preseason exhibitions.

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