In China, Georgia Tech learns from a commerce giant

HANGZHOU, China – Sylvester Ogbonda sat front and center, scribbling away. Monday, the Georgia Tech forward listened with intent to a presentation from one of the wealthiest people in the world, Alibaba executive vice chairman Joe Tsai.

Alibaba is a Chinese e-commerce giant that earned $6.3 billion last year, dwarfing the profits of the company it is often compared to, Amazon ($2.4 billion). A business administration major, Ogbonda had some familiarity with Alibaba – “I just knew it was bigger than Amazon and eBay combined.”

But he did not know much about the company’s story and growth, which Tsai shared as he spoke for about an hour, the highlight of the Yellow Jackets’ visit to Alibaba headquarters as it continued its weeklong stay in China to play UCLA in Shanghai on Saturday.

Hence, Ogbonda’s notes.

“No telling when you’re going to need ’em,” he said.

It apparently even impressed the well-dressed academic seated to Ogbonda’s left, Tech president G.P. “Bud” Peterson, who arrived late Sunday as part of an economic and academic mission from Tech, Atlanta and the state of Georgia.

“He was surprised I was taking notes,” Ogbonda said.

Alibaba is the presenting sponsor of Tech’s game against UCLA, which is a venture of the Pac-12 to expand its reach into Asia. Besides a remarkably approachable demeanor for a man whose net worth is estimated at $9.4 billion – he explained Alibaba's operations using technical terms such as "stuff" and "guys" – he wowed the room by taking a picture of Ogbonda's Nike sneaker using the Alibaba app, which instantly recognized the specific model and brought it up for sale.

“I learned a lot,” Ogbonda said prior to the team’s practice at the Hangzhou International School.

Tsai, who in October reportedly bought 49 percent of the Brooklyn Nets from Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov for $2.3 billion, demonstrated more than a passing interest in basketball and Saturday’s game.

“By the way, lots of freshmen on the team,” Tsai said of Tech’s roster during his presentation. “A lot of business administration majors.”

Alibaba executive vice chairman Joe Tsai welcomes Georgia Tech and UCLA's basketball teams to his company's campus in Hangzhou, China. (AJC photo by Ken Sugiura)

Tsai, who greeted the team prior to his speech and received a personalized jersey from center Ben Lammers, was accurate on both accounts. One can imagine coach Josh Pastner incorporating Tsai's observation into his talking points about Tech being a "major rebuild" and, how, in his second season, "we're not out of the woods yet." ("Even Joe Tsai, the co-founder of Alibaba, knows how inexperienced we are...")

Tsai wasn’t the only basketball sage the Jackets encountered Monday. Hall of famer Bill Walton shared breakfast with some team members and also was part of the Alibaba visit. He is calling Saturday’s game (Friday night in the U.S.) for ESPN.

“He’s an interesting dude,” Lammers said of Walton. The two shared a few words at Alibaba; Lammers was impressed that Walton knew about his participation in engineering research at Tech and that he was the ACC defensive player of the year.

At the team hotel, Walton shared breakfast with forward Abdoulaye Gueye, assistant coach Eric Reveno and Ogbonda.

“He said, ‘Real men are made in the paint,’” Ogbonda said. “He said, ‘Pretty boys just want to be on the outside shooting jumpers.’”

Ogbonda was so taken with Walton that he looked up his highlights on his phone. So who made the bigger impression, Tsai or Walton?

“I think it’s 50/50,” Ogbonda said.

Georgia Tech forwards Abdoulaye Gueye (left) and Sylvester Ogbonda (right) take a photo with hall of famer Bill Walton at the gym on Alibaba's campus in Hangzhou, China. (AJC photo by Ken Sugiura)

Incidentally, Ogbonda required a measure of influence for Ogbonda to even be in the country for the trip. Ogbonda, a Nigerian citizen, initially had his visa application to enter China rejected, and a subsequent attempt that included a letter of endorsement from coach Josh Pastner was likewise denied. (China has apparently had trouble with Nigerian nationals overstaying visas.) A third attempt, which this time included another member of the travel party assuring his return and an additional letter from Peterson, was successful.

“There was a period of time we thought he wasn’t going to be able to go,” said Ellie Cantkier, the team’s director of program and operations.

Against UCLA, Ogbonda will bring grit and rebounding force. Monday, he brought a curious spirit. He has the notes to prove it.

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About the Author

Ken Sugiura
Ken Sugiura
Ken Sugiura covers Georgia Tech sports for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.