Kerri Pastner’s phone rang at about 7:45 a.m. Tuesday. On the other end was Georgia Tech recruiting and compliance director Julian Swartz, who was looking for her husband Josh, the Tech basketball coach.
“He says, ‘Is Coach around?’” Josh Pastner recalled. “‘Because there’s 20 police on the floor questioning our guys.’ That’s when I knew. I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness.’”
Before long, police had detained three of Pastner’s players, guards Jose Alvarado, Jon Brown and Justin Moore, questioning them in their rooms of the Hyatt Regency Hangzhou about their possible involvement in a shoplifting case. In the early stages of the roughly four-hour process, neither Pastner nor any other coaches were able to talk with those players and waited in the hallway. Pastner said he got in scraps of conversation when their doors opened as police came in and out.
“It was a roller coaster of emotions,” assistant coach Darryl LaBarrie said.
Tech was starting its third full day in China, a trip arranged to play UCLA on Saturday in Shanghai as part of the Pac-12’s effort to expand its reach into Asia. At that moment, it would seem that Pastner’s dread of this trip was justified. However, the disruption of routine, the long travel, the thicket of logistical matters to handle and the time that team members would be away from class seemed like trifling reasons to not want to go.
“It was scary for those guys involved in it,” Pastner said. “It wasn’t fun whatsoever.”
The day was only beginning. After the team traveled by train from Hangzhou to Shanghai and had checked into its hotel, another weight fell on Pastner. The person who provided Tech players Tadric Jackson and Josh Okogie with gifts that were ruled NCAA violations identified himself in a CBS Sports report and further alleged that Pastner knew about the exchange and even tacitly encouraged it.
Welcome to China.
Before the trip, Pastner tried to look at the trip in a positive light, recalling trips to Australia as an assistant coach with Arizona and how those tours created memories that players still shared years later. Pastner’s prophecy was proving all too accurate.
No one who boarded the bus at Tech on Nov. 3 to head to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport will soon forget the trip, one that wrapped up with a 63-60 loss to the Bruins. But those who experienced it have a perspective that might differ considerably from how it might have appeared back in the U.S.
“It’s just a life-changing experience,” said Moore, one of the three players questioned and ultimately cleared by police. “I never thought in a million years I’d be here, especially playing the game I love, but this has been a great experience for me and my teammates.”
“The whole experience has been very, very fun,” center Ben Lammers said.
Cast as part of the entire preseason – in which players were waylaid by concussions, sprained knees, a campus epidemic believed to be caused by food poisoning, Okogie’s injury and the NCAA matter with Okogie and Jackson, all before leaving for China – the trip might seem one more millstone for the Jackets to bear as they try to build on the unexpected successes of Pastner’s first season.
“I think, in the end, my nature is that I see that these are all sort of growth opportunities,” assistant coach Eric Reveno said. “I really think that, when we get back to full strength, this experience will make us stronger.”
Moore, who called the police questioning “scary” but declined to say more, will regardless return home with vivid memories and a heavier suitcase. Something of a fashion plate, he may have shopped more in the black markets in Hangzhou and Shanghai more than any one on the team. He accumulated a variety of counterfeit treasures, such as a bag and backpack in the style of Gucci and Louis Vuitton, respectively.
His power shopping made him a target for aggressive sellers, including one who literally pulled him away to bring him to her store. It may have been a distasteful tactic, but not distasteful enough.
“I still bought some shoes,” he said.
Players made frequent forays into the markets, testing out their haggling skills and scoring faux designer goods. Forward Abdoulaye Gueye was a hard liner, offering five percent of the sales price and walking away when the seller didn’t come down low enough, sometimes twice.
“That’s how you do it,” he said.
Between practice, study halls and team meetings to preview UCLA, they went to Shanghai’s Disneyland and took a nighttime cruise of the Huangpu River, snapping photos of the thicket of skyscrapers, many of them whose exteriors light up with neon and LED lighting. Some players documented more than others. A reluctant photographer who thinks his last Instagram post was in 2015, Lammers dutifully followed his mother’s strict orders to take pictures.
“I think I’ve taken, like, 10,” he said Thursday, on the evening of the fifth full day of the trip.
As a gift, players were fitted for tailored suit coats, and some gleefully modeled their jackets when they arrived at the hotel late in the week, as did coaches and staff who also took advantage of the $200 price for a tailored suit.
“This is the best part of the trip,” said strength-and-conditioning coach Dan Taylor, an unrepentant clothes horse, with enthusiasm typically reserved for Christmas morning.
For many players, it was the first time out of the country. The adventure was heightened by the fact that eight Jackets are freshmen, most of them experiencing life on their own for the first time. For a coach like Reveno, who played in Japan and has traveled extensively on scouting trips, being abroad is nothing new. But he was tickled to watch players test out new food and gawk at the immensity of Shanghai.
“You get old and jaded, but it’s fun to see it through their eyes,” he said.
The rush of so many new experiences and the camaraderie built through bus rides, team meals and the re-telling of those experiences, as well as the incident in Hangzhou, had an effect. While the sporting world in the U.S. wrung its hands over the UCLA arrests and feasted on the allegations in the CBS Sports report – charges that Pastner is quite likely eager to rebut once the NCAA’s suspensions on the Okogie/Jackson violations are delivered – the Jackets drew closer, enjoying the trip of a lifetime.
“I think it’s definitely helped us just kind of bring everyone together,” Lammers said.
The impact of the police questioning?
“Honestly, the guys just kind of look at it and laugh at it,” Lammers said. “It’s one of those things that, it’s scary in the moment, but it turned out OK.”
The CBS Sports article? Reveno said he didn’t even finish it.
At a video session, Pastner spoke to the team about the players being detained in Hangzhou, the CBS Sports article and lessons learned. Regarding the report, Moore said that Pastner assured the team that “everything was OK.” Pastner declined to share more details.
“Just had a conversation,” he said.
As that morning in Hangzhou wore on, Pastner said, after police determined that the Tech players were not involved and eventually left, the tension dissipated. The players were cleared. Sighs of relief were breathed.
“I’m just glad that, at the end, our guys were vindicated, and they had nothing to do with anything,” LaBarrie said.
And, perhaps, there might be a parallel with Tech’s bumpy preseason as a whole, a storm that eventually passed. The Jackets return to the States with an 0-1 record. However, they showed encouraging signs for a young team – Pastner gave 107 of 200 minutes against the Bruins to the four freshmen and graduate transfer Brandon Alston – that is almost bound to keep improving.
Alvarado played fearlessly. Forward Evan Cole charged up his teammates by diving on the floor for loose balls. Gueye, the haggling power forward, scrapped for six rebounds and blocked four shots. Tech had defensive breakdowns, but still held the Bruins to 43.5 percent shooting, which they shot under just twice last season. Without Okogie and Jackson, they took a perennial NCAA Tournament team to the wire.
Tech didn’t leave China with a win, but did pack memories and a brighter outlook on the season to come.
“When I decided on doing this trip, I was dreading it, and I was dreading it this summer and I was dreading it even before I got here,” Pastner said. “So happy that we came. Amazing experience.”
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