Georgetown University coach John Thompson III says has buried the hatchet with the coach of the Chinese basketball team whose players traded punches with their U.S. college opponents in a bench-clearing melee on Thursday.
Speaking to reporters in Shanghai on Saturday, John Thompson III said he met with the Bayi Rockets coach on Friday and they shook hands and chatted about basketball and other matters.
The Hoyas coach said he did not think the brawl in Beijing had any political connotations. The Rockets are affiliated with China's military, and the fight came on the second day of a highly publicized visit to China by Vice President Joe Biden.
What began as a goodwill trip to China for the Georgetown men’s basketball team turned violent Thursday night when its exhibition game against a Chinese professional club deteriorated into a benches-clearing melee in which players exchanged blows, chairs were thrown and spectators tossed full water bottles at Hoyas players and coaches as they headed to the locker room.
Georgetown Coach John Thompson III pulled his players off the Olympic Sports Center Stadium court with 9 minutes 32 seconds left in the game and the scored tied at 64 after a chaotic scene in which members of the Georgetown and Bayi Military Rockets teams began swinging wildly and tackling one another.
There were an estimated half-dozen individual altercations on the court, and eventually some Chinese onlookers joined the fracas, including one wielding a stanchion. As the brawl spilled beyond the baseline, an unidentified Bayi player pushed Georgetown’s Aaron Bowen through a partition to the ground before repeatedly punching the sophomore guard while sitting on his chest.
Georgetown senior center Henry Sims had a chair tossed at him by an unidentified person, and freshman forward Moses Ayegba, who was wearing a brace on his right leg, limped onto the court with a chair in his right hand. According to Georgetown officials, Ayegba had been struck, prompting him to grab a chair in self-defense.
The brawl occurred one night after Vice President Biden, who is in Beijing on a four-day visit to discuss U.S.-Chinese economic relations, attended a Georgetown game against another Chinese club at the Olympic Sports Center. That game, which was won by Georgetown, passed without incident.
The turbulent ending to Thursday night’s contest marred what had been billed as the second game of a two-day “China-U.S. Basketball Friendship Match” in Beijing. Georgetown intended for the team’s 10-day trip to China to be an athletic, cultural and educational exchange designed to promote the school internationally.
It was unclear whether the brawl would affect similar ventures in the future. The Georgetown delegation, which included university President John DeGioia, other school officials and prominent alumni and boosters, was scheduled to fly to Shanghai on Friday. Thompson said the team would continue with the remainder of its itinerary.
A State Department official and a Chinese Embassy spokesman in Washington both called the melee “unfortunate.”
“We look to these types of exchanges to promote good sportsmanship and strengthen our people-to-people contact with China,” said the U.S. official, who was not authorized to speak for attribution.
“We believe the organizers of the matches and the two teams will address the issue properly, the sportsmanship and people-to-people friendship the matches are meant to represent will prevail,” said the Chinese spokesman, Wang Baodong, in an e-mail.
Xinhua News Agency, China’s official news service, did not have an immediate account of the game, and although other prominent Chinese Web sites such as 163.com and sina.com posted stories, government censors shortly thereafter took them down.
The game-ending fracas marked the second time that both benches emptied in a rugged contest marred by fouls, an inordinate number of which went against the Hoyas. By halftime, Bayi had 11 fouls while Georgetown had 28. Bayi is a military team in the Chinese Basketball Association whose players serve in the Chinese army.
“The situations we were put in went beyond losing your cool,” Thompson said. “It went to, ‘I need to protect myself.’ That got to a level above and beyond competition and competing, and ‘Oh, this is a rough day. The calls aren’t going my way.’ At the end of the day, you have to protect yourself.”
DeGioia and Athletic Director Lee Reed were not immediately available to comment, according to a school spokesman.
Bayi did not immediately issue a statement, but as word of the brawl spread throughout Chinese social media, many citizens chided Rockets players for crossing the line between physical play and unsportsmanlike conduct.
Some Chinese fans were incredulous. “It seemed that [the referee] was eager for the Chinese team win tonight, so the Georgetown team members were very unhappy about it,” said Zhou Ting, 26, a doctoral candidate in biology at the Chinese Academy of Science who attended both games. “I can tell the Chinese players provoked the conflict. . . . The [Bayi] basketball players have got a bad habit of revenge on every small, unfair thing in the Chinese Basketball Association. It’s a hooligan’s habit.”
Immediately before the fighting began, Bayi forward-center Hu Ke was called for a foul against Georgetown’s Jason Clark. The senior guard took exception to the hard foul and said so to Hu, triggering pushing and shoving between them. At that point, players from the Georgetown and Bayi benches ran onto the court, and bedlam ensued.
A woman sitting in the Georgetown fan section directly behind the bench implored Chinese police to try to calm the situation, yelling about the risk of injuries to bystanders. Chinese authorities made no attempt to break up any of the fights, and the three officials working the game could not be seen as the melee erupted.
At that point Thompson said, “We’re outta here,” and pointed toward the tunnel behind the Hoyas’ bench leading underneath the stands.
No players or coaches on either side were seriously injured.
As Thompson and his staff began escorting their players off the court, the group had to dodge plastic water bottles being hurled from the stands. According to one Georgetown official, several bottles struck fans in the Hoyas section. Once the coaching staff and players reached the locker room, the team immediately gathered all its equipment and headed for the buses outside.
Members of the Hoyas basketball staff tried to find a police escort for the entire Georgetown contingent, including the alumni and supporters who attended the game. But rather than wait, Thompson told everyone to walk to buses together.
Among the most surreal sequences unfolded early in the third quarter, when Rockets forward Xu Zhonghao approached Thompson while he was standing near the Georgetown bench and began yelling at him at close range during the course of play. Thompson stared at Xu in disbelief before officials halted play for several minutes. Moments later, Bayi player Wang Lei was called for a technical foul after vehemently disputing a call, and play had to be stopped again.
“Once it got out of hand, I was in great fear for everyone associated with Georgetown University, because if you look at it in terms of sheer numbers, we were very much outnumbered,” Thompson said. “Once it got to that point, once all the skirmishes had ended, my only thought was to get our fans, our players, our family, our friends out of this building as soon as possible.”
Washington Post staff writer William Wan in Washington and research assistant Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.
An exhibition basketball game between Georgetown University and the Shanghai Bayi Rockets, a professional Chinese squad with ties to the People's Liberation Army, could have been the perfect occasion to celebrate the "ping-pong diplomacy" that helped resurrect relations between the U.S. and China a little more than 40 years ago.
A wild brawl forced an early end to a basketball game between Georgetown University and China's Bayi Rockets in Beijing. Video courtesy of Herald Sun.
Instead, it turned into a knock-down, drag-out brawl that only served to further complicate the already tense relationship between the world's two largest economies. The Thursday match in Beijing, which occurred during a visit to China by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and had been billed by the teams as a "goodwill" contest, was abandoned after a bench-clearing fight broke out with less than 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter. Punches and chairs flew, and the crowds hurled plastic water bottles at the Georgetown Hoyas as they left the court.
Reports from those in attendance suggest it was a physical contest from the beginning, with referees calling 28 fouls on Georgetown and 11 on Bayi by halftime. Amateur video footage, since deleted from Chinese video sites but still available on YouTube, shows multiple altercations, including one in which a Chinese player throws Georgetown's Aaron Bowen to the ground and punches him repeatedly while sitting on his chest.
While relations between China and the U.S. are certainly better than they were in 1971, when the first group of American table tennis players traveled to Beijing on an unexpected invitation from Mao Zedong, the hardcourt fisticuffs nevertheless came at a delicate time.
Perhaps as a result, state media played down the altercation—a marked contrast to their coverage of a similar brawl last year between the Chinese and Brazilian national teams, after which a number of commentators defended the Chinese team's right to fight.
But users of Twitter-like service Sina Weibo had plenty to say. Among the thousands who commented on the fight, most seemed to feel that Bayi had brought shame on the country.
"China's players may fight well, but this is still a loss of face," wrote a Weibo user going by the name of Liu Zhe.
Another Weibo user, Zhu Yaozhong, wrote: "What I don't understand is, if the opponent is a college basketball team, does China really have to send in the army team to meet them on the battlefield?"
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Players from Georgetown University and China's Bayi men's basketball team fight during a game at the Beijing Olympic Basketball Arena.
Richard Buangan, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, called the fight "unfortunate," saying the U.S. looks to these games to "strengthen our people-to-people contact with China." Mr. Biden had watched Georgetown defeat the Shanxi Dragons, another professional Chinese team, in Beijing the previous evening.
Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai told reporters Friday that the Chinese team went to the airport in Beijing to bid farewell to the Georgetown players as they left
Georgetown said the two teams met Friday to smooth over the incident, each side presenting the other an autographed ball as a gift. Georgetown said it would continue playing in the Nike Sports Festival in Shanghai this weekend.