Legion, Keller have experiences of a lifetime during trip to China

Alex Legion and Dominique Keller had some unique experiences, to say the least, during their 13-day, eight-game exhibition basketball tour to China from May 23 to June 4.

From sightseeing to smoke-filled gyms, roasted duck to a game-ending tie, the two Illinois basketball players — along with Sean Harrington, the Illinois director of basketball operations who acted as head coach during the trip — experienced a little bit of everything in China. They traveled as members of a Sports Reach ministry team, comprised of fellow college basketball players, to compete against semi-professional teams on the other side of the globe.

The Sports Reach team finished 4-3-1 on the trip — “They call the game, the fans kind of boo, and the refs kind of decide that’s enough,” Harrington said of the tie — and Keller and Legion were key contributors on the eight-man squad.

Keller averaged 13.8 points and 7.5 rebounds while shooting 40 percent from the field. Legion averaged 15.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and shot 38 percent from three-point range. However, Legion did not play much in the fourth game of the trip because of respiratory problems, which he encountered because fans are allowed to smoke in the gyms, just feet from the bench.

“You know those doctor masks? I had to walk around with that on the bench,’ Legion said. “I just can’t take smoke.”

Despite Legion’s occasional health struggle, Harrington was pleased with his guard’s play.

“Alex shot it pretty well,” Harrington said. “He did a little better job of guarding in a few games. But still, he needs to guard a little better, and he knows that. He had 15 rebounds in one game, and that was good to see, he was pretty aggressive going to the glass.”

Harrington said Keller was “more up and down” but thought he played well, especially considering the officiating circumstances that put the big man in foul trouble. Harrington thought Keller was whistled for “a lot of ticky-tack fouls” that typically wouldn’t be called in the Big Ten.

For that reason, Keller said the team figured out a new strategy to deal with the referees by the end of the trip.

“They just call a bunch of flopping and screaming … We were just going up strong and getting hit, and they wouldn’t call anything. So we started acting toward the end,” Keller said.

Some of the more humorous moments on the trip came when Keller was constantly called “Kobe” by the Chinese fans.

The explanation, Keller said, came when an interpreter finally told the team that its exhibition game advertisements included pictures of NBA stars Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

In a country where basketball is already extremely popular and continues to grow, members of the Sports Reach team were treated like celebrities.

“It was crazy … We’ll go in towns of like 700,000, 800,000. I’ll walk the streets, and like 5,000 people would follow us around the streets, just take pictures of us, just surround us everywhere,” Keller said. “It was like that pretty much everywhere we went. It was kind of cool.”

The food was quite an experience as well. Harrington thought the roasted duck was the best meal of the trip, saying the team “went through like three ducks.” Legion, though, “survived off rice and fruit.” Keller was a little braver in his tastes.

“It was different. I’m not going to say it was bad, but I wouldn’t be too fond of it too much. I enjoyed the shrimp-fried rice,” Keller said.