- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 27, 2009

The year was 1979, and the Washington Bullets were a season removed from their only championship when owner Abe Pollin and franchise player Wes Unseld represented the first NBA team to visit China as part of both a diplomatic and basketball relations effort.

Thirty years later a contingent of Wizards players, officials and former Bullets players Unseld and Gheorghe Muresan will return to China to commemorate that groundbreaking trip. And team captain Caron Butler hopes to use the journey as a springboard for greatness - to talk to Unseld and glean some of the Hall of Famer’s knowledge.

“Whenever I’m around [Wizards assistant coach Wes Unseld Jr.], I’m always talking about [Unseld Sr.], his size and everything he was able to accomplish here in Washington,” Butler beamed. “He always went hard on and off the court, and I’m going to be like a sponge, just soaking everything up, talking to him about his experience, his road to the championship. That’s something I’m trying to re-establish, and I think it’s possible.”

But before the Wizards report for training camp Sept. 29, Butler, Randy Foye, Unseld Sr. and Unseld Jr., president of business operations Peter Biche and director of player programs Ed Tapscott will tour China. During the 10-day tour that features stops in Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu and Yingxiu, they will do basketball outreach with clinics at high schools and universities, philanthropic work and marketing.

Butler expects to return with an even greater determination to rebound from last year’s 19-63 injury-plagued season than what he already has.

“I want to use this trip to just build some momentum,” Butler said. “Take that experience and come back, talk about the old championship days and their legacy and then what we’re trying to build. We’re trying to build something special.

“I think people shouldn’t be scared to mention championship. We’ve got a lot of pieces in place, and management did a great job this summer. Now we’ve got to put it together.”

Butler called Pollin’s request that he represent the team during the return trip “an absolute honor.” And the chance to visit a country he has never before seen was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.

Unseld Sr. said he is just as honored to make the trip to China now as he was 30 years ago. But he added jokingly that he really didn’t have a choice.

“When they first asked me to go, I was scheduled to do something else and really couldn’t do it,” Unseld Sr. said, before adding that Pollin changed his mind. “Then I got a call from him. What am I gonna do? I haven’t said no yet.”

When reflecting on his first trip to China, Unseld said it was such a new adventure that he can’t pick out one aspect that stands out.

“I think everything stands out because it was a culture and a place we hadn’t traveled to. I’d been pretty much around the world, playing ball up until then. And it was a very unique place,” Unseld said.

And although China and the United States had just signed normal relations treaties, the Bullets star had no apprehension about visiting the country.

“No. I’d been to worse places,” he said. “I’ve been in Vietnam, Somalia. I’ve been in some rough places and never had any apprehensions about going anywhere. I’ve been to New York City.”

The return trip will give Unseld Sr. a chance to experience China with his son, who was only 4 years old in 1979 and was too young to go the first time. Unseld Jr. has a few recollections of stories from his father but is looking forward to experiencing China for himself.

“He had a very large photo album from the trip, and he took pictures of everything,” Unseld Jr. said. “I remember growing up as a kid and shuffling through it and seeing the Great Wall and some of the landmarks that always stick out. So to go now, it was a great opportunity, one I couldn’t pass up.”

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