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Burmese teens seize opportunity to learn

By Tom Sorensen
tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com

Marty Conlin of NBA International talks coach-loud to 12 teenagers from Burma (also known as Myanmar), few of whom speak English.

He demonstrates on the practice court at Time Warner Cable Arena Friday as he talks. Play defense. Move your feet. Dribble with your right hand. No, your left.

The six boys and girls have been on the court 20 minutes. Yet, remarkably, they understand.

The key, perhaps, is the whistle. Conlin, who played with eight NBA teams and was a Charlotte Hornet in 1994, wears a whistle around his neck and is not afraid to use it. When a 6-foot-10 man blows a whistle, even spectators tend to respond appropriately.

Five months ago Rich Cho, the general manager of the Charlotte Bobcats, went to Burma to help conduct a series of basketball clinics. Cho, 47, was born in Burma, a country of more than 60 million bordered by China, Thailand, India, Laos and Bangladesh. His family emigrated to the U.S. when he was 3.

It’s the second time Cho returned to Burma since he left. Among those who made the trip with him were Conlin and Allison Feaster, a Chester, S.C., native and former WNBA star.

Only in recent years has secretive and shrouded Burma opened to outsiders. President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited in November. Obama is the first sitting U.S. President to visit.

The teenagers on the practice court applied for the trip through the U.S. embassy and were chosen not for their basketball prowess but for other qualities, among them leadership.

They’re sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s SportsUnited program, which brings together amateur and professional athletes. The goal is diplomacy through sports.

The group arrived in Washington on Jan. 7. Although SportsUnited and the NBA have visited more than 30 countries and hosted athletes from more than 20, the August clinics were their first brush with Burma.

“Burma is so different,” says Conlin, 45, who also played for eight foreign teams. “It’s a very Buddhist country. So it’s very common to see monks dressed like the Dali Lama. Robes. No credit cards. Basketball isn’t as popular as it is in China, but they do play.”

The Burmese, who range in age from 15 to 17, are interesting to watch. They desperately want to please.

“They’re like basketball sponges,” says Becky Bonner of NBA International, who works with Conlin. “So you get this inflated sense of your coaching ability because you give them instructions and they don’t get it and you tweak something and they understand.”

Watching from the side of the court in his trademark Jordan Brand gear is Cho.

“This means a lot to me,” he says. “The hope is to have them take this home with them, the experience, and share it.”

Will they?

“Of course,” says Burmese point guard Tony Lin, 17, whose English is impeccable.

Who’s your favorite player?

“Jeremy Lin,” Tony says.

They aren’t related. But Jeremy Lin, whose parents emigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan, also is point guard. He scored four points and added three assists Monday in Houston’s 100-94 victory against Charlotte.

“I like the way he plays because it’s unpredictable and he plays like it’s a college game,” says Tony. “He’s a pro but he has passion for basketball.”

While in Charlotte the Burmese spent time with the Charlotte 49ers and with Special Olympians. They scrimmaged at Ivory Baker Recreation Center, both teams always including a mix of visitors and local players.

On Friday Cho invites the group, which includes two coaches and an interpreter, to his house to watch the Bobcats play the Orlando Magic on his flat screen TV.

The boys, who sit closest to the TV, wear jeans. The girls, who sit together behind them, wear ornate jewelry and silk and bright reds and maroons and greens.

When Rufus, the Bobcats’ mascot, appears on the screen the girls laugh and pull out their cell phones to take a picture. When Lin appears in a promotion for Monday’s game, everybody pauses to look.

When Charlotte’s Kemba Walker uses a crossover dribble to absolutely ditch Orlando’s DeQuan Jones, many of the teenagers gasp.

A Burma native and a friend of Cho’s pulls out his phone and shows me pictures he took on his most recent trip there. The buildings, temples and pagodas are ancient and stunning. I tell him I’m going. He tells me I need to.

Cho is the genial host, making sure everybody gets enough food. But as the Magic cuts into what was a large Charlotte lead, Cho becomes less the host and more the nervous general manager. When Charlotte wins 106-100 Cho relaxes and turns genial again.

Everyone claps, including Tony Lin. The trip is his first to the U.S. He knew the country only through what he’d read and the TV shows and movies he’d watched.

“I can say I’ve seen the real U.S.,” Tony says.

What surprised you?

“Everybody is so nice,” he says. “The people are so nice.”

After the game Cho answers questions from players. He understands the language better than he speaks it so he relies on the interpreter.

Cho is asked if players live together in camp during the season, how many set plays the Bobcats run, are they evaluated after every game, how they’re selected, why their upper bodies are muscled but their legs are skinny, if they lift weights and how often and for how long.

One girl says when NBA players put up shots they tend to go in. (She did not watch the Bobcats last season.) How long do they train to enable them to do this?

The Burmese attend the Bobcats-Sacramento game in Charlotte on Saturday and leave for home Sunday. Friday is their next to last evening. We show them a little of our world. They show us a little of theirs.

Cho concludes the question and answer session by addressing the Burmese in their language, and when he finishes the teenagers applaud.

I don’t understand a word. But even without a whistle I know what he means.

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com
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