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Around the time MVP LeBron James began schooling new Miami Heat teammate Ray Allen on the finer points of deep 3-pointers, it hit home that the NBA was in town.
Around the time Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin flattened teammate Lamar Odom on a shot block, it hit home that the NBA was not in town to mess around.
In China to play two exhibition games - one in Beijing on Thursday, the other in Shanghai on Sunday - the Heat and Clippers opened their practices at the MasterCard Center to the media on Wednesday.
The session fluctuated between festive and intense, but nobody involved was doing the going-through-the-motions sleepwalk that usually defines the exhibition season. After watching both sides hustle through practice, even a quote that might seem like a throwaway in a normal setting had the ring of truth to it.
Like this one, for instance: "It's important to us to play well because we want to put on a show for you guys," said Clippers forward Lamar Odom. "You know, we don't get to see you very often."
It's probably a function of the athletes being as intrigued by the city as the city is by the athletes. Any time the players are taking more pictures than the fans, it's going to change the dynamic somewhat.
"It's funny, just people taking pictures of each other," said Heat forward Chris Bosh. "I kind of just wanted to show my friends back home how warm the reception is out here. I'm sure they're doing the same thing with their videos too."
Beijing being what it is, even millionaire athletes are reduced to wide-eyed tourists.
Of course, in any big group of travelers, there's going to be that one smug guy who's been there before and just has to let you know it. James, Bosh and teammate Dwyane Wade, as well as Clippers guard Chris Paul, were members of the 2008 gold-medal-winning US Olympic team.
Paul couldn't help but show off his knowledge a little.
"This is my first time in this gym since the '08 Olympics - it don't even look like the same place," he said. "I don't think the seats were this color for the Olympics. They renovated it, huh? It looks a lot different."
There was the usual touristy gushing from all sides about roast duck and the Great Wall - "If I had more time, I would take our whole team over there and do conditioning on those steps," said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra - which, in this instance, doubles as an exercise in chemistry-building. The Clippers added Odom, Grant Hill, Jamal Crawford, and Matt Barnes in the offseason, and the defending champion Heat are trying to incorporate Allen and Rashard Lewis.
"To be able to come take this trip and get to experience all these things together and spend this much time together as a group - I think it'll be great for us," said Griffin, who practiced like the guy in a pick-up game who's going way too hard for anyone's liking.
Of course, chemistry gets built on the court too, and James did his part to bring Allen into the fold by way of a surreal little competition during shoot-around.
A few minutes after grumping his way through a session with the media, a suddenly animated James coaxed Allen - the NBA's career leader in 3-pointers made, mind you - into shooting 3s out near half-court.
"This is what we call home-run plays here, Ray," James said, casually hitting a 40-foot jumper.
Looking unsure of what was going on, Allen wandered out and drained one of his own.
The two exchanged jumpers, Allen growing increasingly disinterested as he continued to miss, and James growing visibly excited as he hit three more from deep beyond the arc before yelling "home-run plays!" and dancing off the court, leaving a dazed Allen in his wake.
James wasn't ready to grade his trip just yet, but said it'll be hard to top his 2008 visit.
"I don't know yet, we haven't started playing yet," he said. "It was a great experience last time I was here playing against Orlando (in 2007), and it's gonna be a good time again."
A little hard work, a little fun, two stadiums full of rabid fans - of course it's going to be a good time.
Sports copy editor Dusty Lane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(China Daily 10/11/2012 page22)