June 30, 2013

Basketball Traveller - NBA’s Greg Stolt: “Our purpose in China is to have people go out to play and enjoy basketball!”

This feature was first published in the 109th edition (2013 - No. 12) of SLAM China Magazine. Here is my original English version of the story. 

Things change. From running alongside Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem and Florida, to playing in the sunny seaside of Spain. From feasting on sushi in Japan to hanging with the surfers in Australia. The smell of spicy curries in India and the taste of spicy Hot-Pot in Beijing. Basketball has taken Greg Stolt all across the world. And as NBA China’s Associate Vice President of Basketball Operations, Stolt is now bringing that wealth of experience to help develop the future of hoops in China.

Things change. But throughout the changes, through the different languages, cultures, continents and lifestyles, one thing brought them all together: basketball.

A former college star with the NCAA Division 1 side Florida in his college years, Stolt has played professionally across the world. But now, he is concentrating on a different role. The NBA has had a formal presence in China for several years now: they opened their first office in 1992 and the NBA has been on air on CCTV since 1987. The league has 300 million fans in China and NBA’s social media accounts in Sina and Tencent have 53 million followers. Their relationship with the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) dates back nearly three decades ago. Today, the NBA helps run a state-of-the-art CBA Basketball School in Dongguan which has trained over a 1000 Chinese youth players. Stolt, who is now based in China full-time, has been involved in various different NBA-China activities which includes the school in Dongguan, coaches’ training programmes, and in promoting the NBA’s presence in China with events such as NBA’s preseason ‘China Games’ in the country.

Recently, Stolt – the head of NBA China’s Basketball Operations department – spoke to SLAM discussing his past journeys with basketball, his present involvement with the game in China, and his optimistic outlook about the future of basketball in the Middle Kingdom!

Things change. But the basketball remained the same.

SLAM: How long have you been working in China, and how has your experience been in the country so far?

Stolt: I’ve been here since August 2012. Prior to that, I was working with the NBA in New York for three years, and over those years, I made several visits abroad to places like China and India to work with basketball operations.

China has been fantastic. There have been great opportunities here because basketball is so integral to the culture here. China has good basketball fans and I’ve been able to learn many new things.

SLAM: Talk a little about your role with the NBA in China.

I work with the department of basketball operations with NBA China, and it has a different structure here than in the US. Our product – the NBA – is in the USA. Here, the aim is to support the passionate development of the game. We do that by collaborating with the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) in various parts of the country.

SLAM: How do you feel that your background as a college star and your experience playing internationally helps to work with younger players now in China?

Stolt: Yes, I have had quite a unique background with basketball. I’ve been quite fortunate because I was surrounded by great coaches all my life. My father was a coach and player and he played with many great players himself. I had a great coach in college. I lived and played in Europe, Australia, Japan, and back in the USA with the D-League. The experience helped me truly broaden my horizons and show me a world that was very different to my upbringing.

When it comes to working with young players here, I’ve discovered that, up to a certain stage, kids learning basketball around the world are pretty much the same. They want to play, and they love the game, whether they are in China, India, or in the USA. That is the common denominator. Playing around the world has indeed given me an idea on how things in other countries work or don’t work. I’ve had experiences that you can’t get from books. It has given me great practical opportunities and prepared me to have more insight into the basketball world.

SLAM: You had quite a memorable career with the Florida Gators. How did that team prove to be such a good fit for your talents?

Stolt: I have to give credits to my coaches, who were both able to help my development. In my freshman year (1995-96), we had Coach Lon Kruger at the helm. After that, we had coach Billy Donovan – who is still the team’s Head Coach now. Coach Donovan let it be known that I could really get better and move on to the next level. With him, I saw new opportunities in a new system. The three years I spent with him (1996-99) were great. He was a phenomenal coach. He taught me about how to carry myself on and off the court, about conditioning, nutrition, and that teaching helped me be prepared with the building blocks to eventually play professionally in Europe.

1999 was my most successful season there, when we reached the Sweet 16 stage in the NCAA tournament – the only time I got to play in the tournament. We got some good players in my sophomore year like Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem, and we developed together to our full potential by the time I was a Senior. It was a nice nucleus of players and good teammates. The Coach stressed on improving our conditioning. A lot of us could play multiple positions and we shot a lot of threes – it made difficult for opponents to keep up with us!

SLAM: After College, you were an international basketball journeyman. In which countries have you played professionally?

Stolt: I played in the Dominican Republic, Spain, Belgium, then back in the USA during the first year of the NBA’s D-League, in the old CBA (Continental Basketball Association) in the States, France, Japan, Australia, and I ended my playing career in Japan. Those who play basketball internationally can play in different countries over a 12-month calendar – for example, I was in Australia during their season and back in Japan the same year. 2003-04 was my last playing season.

I didn’t have a chance to play in China, although I would have loved to do so!

SLAM: So what was your most interesting international basketball experience?

Stolt: They are all very unique, and all were phenomenal. And it is only when you leave a country that you realize how great the experience there was! In France, the level of play is phenomenal – they have the best athletes outside of the NBA. I had some great experiences in Japan, which is a country that I never expected to visit otherwise. They have hardworking players there and an interesting culture. Australia is another unique place to play and to live.

The bottom line is that these experiences are all about the people you meet and work with. And in each place, I met some great people.

SLAM: You have a unique vantage point towards basketball, from the perspective of having played or worked with the NCAA, the NBA, in Europe, in Australia, and in Asia. How do they all differ?

Stolt: For me, there was a little bit of a learning curve required after playing in the NCAA system. In the NCAA, a player is very well taken care of, and there, I didn’t have to worry about little things like where to eat, where to do my laundry, etc. On the professional level, you don’t have the same type of support system. Playing internationally, the general theme was to find one other American in every team, where (like China) usually two foreign players are allowed per team. In most cases, the foreign players stick with each other, but I made it a commitment to get to know my local teammates and coaches too. It helped my understanding of the local culture wherever I was and helped me get the most out of my experience.

The on-court learning curve was different, too. In Europe, for example, teams play a lot of preseason games, so there is a lot of opportunity to learn their style of play together. But in Japan, I had to find my place in the offense on the fly.

Foreign players like me had to do whatever the team asked us to do: in most cases, the focus was on getting statistics and scoring as much as possible. And at the same time, I had to ensure that the team was successful. There is more concern internationally than in the USA for foreign players to find a balance between big stats and winning games.

SLAM: From what you have seen here, how does basketball in China differ from your previous experiences?

Stolt: China is right there with the rest of the world in the level of basketball played and coaching. The CBA as made many great initiatives in recent years. Most importantly, people in China can’t get enough of basketball and are passionate about it! The country has the resources, the interest of the community, which is the total equation to help the game develop further here. In whichever country there is a passion in the people to learn and play more, then basketball will surely become better there.

SLAM: What are the NBA’s future plans in continuing to grow the game here?

Stolt: Our number one goal is to grow and develop the game alongside the CBA. The unique thing about China is that it is the only place in the world where we have a basketball academy – in Dongguan. 130 kids were admitted there this year! Our hope is that the players from the academy can play in the CBA one day or even in the USA.

Growing our relationship with the CBA also helps us to help develop coaches in China. We have an annual CBA Coaches Programme where we work with numerous CBA coaches. In late October or early November, we host 15 CBA coaches in the USA to provide them a look at how basketball coaching and operations works over there. Many of the top CBA coaches like Cui Wan Jun (Xinjiang), Min Lulei (Beijing), Gong Xiaobin (Shandong), and Qu Shaobin (Guangdong) have been part of our Coaches Programme in the past. We are also bringing eight coaches from the USA to China this summer to conduct clinics and camps. We’ve already done such clinics over the years across the country. We are reaching out to college/high school level coaches in our various grassroots programmes.

We will continue to look at opportunities to team up with local basketball stakeholders. Hopefully more exposure to the Chinese people to the NBA can continue to help grow the game here. The NBA’s purpose in China is to have people go out to play and enjoy basketball.

SLAM: Talk about the training Center in Dongguan and how it is benefiting young Chinese players.

Stolt: The CBA Dongguan Basketball School – An NBA Training Center, opened in 2011. It is very much like a full-fledged High-School for kids aged between 8-17. We have academic staff there to handle 130 children in five different grades. We have split them up by their basketball skill level. The whole curriculum has been brought together by Bruce Palmer, who is the technical director at the school. We have also been able to run numerous clinics for national and international teams over there.

It is a special place. Anyone who enters will feel like picking up a basketball and start playing!

The NBA’ basketball operations work to select kids for this training center with camps all across the country. We have camps in eight Chinese cities last year, and pick kids not only on their potential basketball skills, but also on their academic strengths and personality.

SLAM: And finally: what do you foresee for the future of Chinese Basketball?

Stolt: I think that the sky is the limit for basketball in China. China has enthusiasm and interest in playing the game amongst the fans. I think we will surely see more success stories of Chinese players who eventually make it to the NBA and the WNBA. And back here, we will see more Chinese who will become interested in playing basketball. It won’t be long before more young players from China can take help take the game to the next level.

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