By Jon Cooper | The Good Word -
A Chinese proverb states: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”
That’s profound advice for college basketball teams to keep in mind as they begin their arduous journey to March, better known as their regular season.
For Georgia Tech men’s basketball, its proverbial journey of 1,000 miles and literal one of 31 regular-season games (then postseason) began Friday morning with a first step of more than 7,600 miles and a flight nearly 16 hours in duration, ending up in Shanghai, China.
The game is next Friday at Baoshan Arena, against No. 21/18 UCLA, but that, comparatively, is the EASY part.
If the players show the kind of teamwork on the court that the staff showed behind the scenes in getting them to it, then the game should be a memorable one.
“You’re not just flying to the Bahamas. You’re going to China. So it’s a lot of stuff. They’ve done a great job,” raved head coach Josh Pastner. “Of course, we want to win the game, but win or lose, it’s a tremendous experience for everybody. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime deal, there are a lot of great opportunities, doors that will have opened for these guys that they wouldn’t have elsewhere. So it’s going to be a real positive trip.”
This trip across the world began last fall with a phone call from across the U.S., to Georgia Tech assistant coach Eric Reveno from Pac-12 Deputy Commissioner/CEO and longtime friend Jamie Zaninovich.
“He mentioned it to me and we talked about it,” recalled Reveno. “The first people you ask at Georgia Tech if something like that is possible mid-semester is academic folks. I give them credit for recognizing the educational opportunity for the student-athletes. To take a week off in mid-semester is pretty challenging. They planned and figured out how to make that work and realized that for the student-athletes it will be great. Given that Georgia Tech has a campus in China and one of the main sponsors is Alibaba, the Amazon of China, It just seemed like a natural fit.”
Once the initiative was green-lighted academically, then-graduate assistant Taj Finger started the organizational process. When Finger was hired by the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder as an assistant coach for their G-League affiliate, associate AD/administration and Finance Marvin Lewis and program and operations manager Ellie Cantkier took over and handled the behind-the-scenes business.
“I kind of subbed in. That was probably last September or October. I jumped in and got the contract done and made sure that it made sense for us to do it.” said Lewis, a two-year captain, two-time ACC All-Academic teamer and three-time ACC Academic Honor Roll member, who took the reins when then-senior associate AD/operations John David Wicker left to become AD at San Diego State. “I feel like I’ve served as the quarterback, so to speak, because there are so many different individuals and units that are going over there. I’ve been the lead with talking with the Pac-12 and making sure that travel logistics and visas, passports, and, obviously, worked with Ellie to manage that. I’ve also been the main point of contact with the Institute in the Pac-12, because the Institute, our president (Dr. “Bud” Peterson) and Georgia Economic Development are going to have a contingent of 10-to-15 folks going over there as well. So I’m kind of the quarterback of making sure that everybody’s doing what they need to and have all the travel logistics and the communication is there for all parties.”
“A lot of it for me was kind of the behind-the-scenes. It’s been challenging. I do handle all of our travel coordination during the regular season but going to a foreign country for nine days is definitely different,” said Cantkier, with a laugh. “It was getting everybody a passport, getting Chinese visas, setting up meals, making sure that we have all of our transportation set, the itineraries set. With the itinerary, getting the bus lined up, making sure that we get to the airport on time, making sure that we have lunch at the Detroit airport, because it’s kind of a long layover between breakfast and lunch, making sure that we have our practice schedules at the right time, that people are eating at the right times, that they’ve got study hall. So there were a lot of little moving pieces. Luckily, we’ve been working with Anthony Travel, who has been fantastic to work with. They’re basically going to be like our concierge when we’re there. They do the big activities but I do the minute-by-minute itinerary.”
Attention to detail was paramount for the equipment staff in making sure the team, the staff, the medical staff and everyone making the trip -- a number Cantkier estimates at 41 people -- were properly equipped.
“We’ve had cultural seminar meetings for the players, we’ve done IT, internet, VPN access for all staff and players for their laptops and their phones, international plans, electrical adaptors and converters, on top of the team equipment,” said director of scouting Tyler Benson. “I think we end up with between 20 and 25 team bags and then everybody has an individual suitcase and backpack. So we’re going to have a lot of stuff. That’s for sure.”
Once the plane took off, it was the responsibility of player development coach Dan Taylor and athletic trainer Richard Stewart to do their best to make keep the athletes adjust to the flight then the time difference -- China is 12 hours ahead of the U.S.
“Obviously, your body’s gone through a stressful situation by virtue of just travel,” said Taylor. “Even though we’re in really good seats and so on, we’re still big people on the aircraft. Then the time changing, it’s not your place, people haven’t traveled that far before. So with those stresses in mind we have to train, help them smoothly transfer. Some of the ideas on how to combat that is where we’re at right now. By mid-week we should be fine, then the game comes then we do the reverse when we first get back here.”
“Normally when we travel, we’re chartering to Charlottesville or South Bend. It’s a two-hour flight. Getting on the plane for 15-or-so hours, that is a challenge,” Stewart said. “That’s going to be the bulk of just trying to get the guys, making sure they’re comfortable and well-rested. Once we get there try to get them acclimated to the new time change. You’re not only traveling 15 hours, 17 hours, but you’re also 12 hours ahead. So getting adjusted to all that with the travel is going to be a significant challenge for us. The main thing is we’ve been trying to preach to the guys to try to go to bed a little bit earlier every night. That’s also a challenge that presents itself as you’re talking about 18-to-22-year-old kids that go to Georgia Tech. So they already don’t sleep well because they’re working on projects and papers and homework. Just trying to get them acclimated to going to bed at a normal time is definitely a challenge.
“On the plane trip over we’re going to have guys do recovery so everybody’s going to have a pair of recovery tights, recovery socks, basically compression garments to assist with muscle-relaxation and blood flow,” Stewart added. “We’re going to be utilizing our Marc Pro modalities, basically it’s an electrical stimulation device that contracts the muscles and stimulates the muscles just to make sure that they don’t get fatigued and atrophied while they’re just sitting there on the plane for 15-plus hours.”
Stewart said he made sure he had a couple of little things in his team bags.
“Things as simple as over-the-counter medications, things that you may not think about, make sure you have ample amounts of hand-sanitizer,” he said. “We have travel bags for everybody that are going to have snacks because, obviously, you can’t eat just everything from a street vendor. We’re trying to make sure that we try to eat most of our meals in the hotel, try to provide them with snacks throughout the week that they can take. Trying to avoid eating things outside the hotel because the food restrictions and regulations aren’t the same as they are in the States.”
“The water there is not potable so you can’t drink it,” noted Cantkier. “So everything will have to be bottled water -- brushing your teeth with bottled water, making sure that all food preparation is thoroughly cooked, no raw vegetables, only eat fruit that can be peeled, like bananas and oranges. A lot of the meal planning was kind of challenging. Like the players can’t have a salad because you just don’t know what kind of pesticides and chemicals are on the vegetables or how they were grown. So making sure that nutritionally the players are getting what they need right before they’re playing a game.”
With snacks and meals taken care of, the players needn’t worry about anything more than preparing for the game and seeing China on the unique tours and sight-seeing adventures set up.
“For the student-athletes, it’s not just playing a game in China,” said Lewis. “We’ll have the opportunity to go do a site visit to Alibaba, also going to Shanghai Disney, doing the (Yangtze) riverboat cruises and some of the cultural experiences, I think that’s tremendous.
“From an Institute perspective, we have a campus in Shenzhen. Because we have a campus there, this is a really good opportunity to enhance our brand and continue to build our brand in China,” he added. “Our main priority since (director of athletics) Todd (Stansbury) came on board, is telling our story and enhancing the brand. A lot of times people see the GT but they don’t know what it means. So this is a great opportunity for us to expand that brand, tell that story and do it in a way that is not just unique to us but an opportunity that we can truly capitalize on.”
Reveno believes the student-athletes will capitalize on all the moments they experience -- moments that will outlast next Friday night’s result.
“It’s a great basketball experience, but the other stuff is pretty interesting,” he said. “Having travelled a lot -- I’ve been to China, I’ve been to Asia, Australia, and all has been basketball-related. It’s an eye-opening experience. Especially with all the things going on in the world, it gives them a good global perspective on what’s going on out there. These are our future leaders. For them to have this experience, it’s going to be the trip of a lifetime.”