Sheridan: Who is Kim Jong-Un’s new Neighbor? Gonzo is back on the bench

If Kim Jong-Un is wiped off the face of the earth by a thermonuclear attack from Donald Trump, coach Bobby Gonzalez — aka “Gonzo” — will likely be collateral damage.

Gonzo is back on the bench doing what he does best — coaching — after signing with the Jilin Northeast Tigers of the Chinese Basketball Association for the 2018-19 season. It is a heck of a long way from Binghamton, The Bronx, the Sweet 16 and all the bandboxes in between where the New York coaching legend had his greatest successes.

How far away?

Jilin is about 6,500 miles away from New York and 286 miles from Pyongyang, which makes it more or less equidistant from Vladivostok, Russia. If he has an extra cold winter, he can hike across the frozen Bering Strait to Alaska, global warming permitting.

Yes, sometimes the road to the NBA  — and make no mistake, that is the road Gonzo is trying to travel — takes some unlikely detours to places where palm trees are not exactly in abundance.

This summer, there was exactly one job opening for a foreign national on a coaching staff in the CBA.

Apr 9, 2017; New York, NY, USA; Former New York Knicks player Stephon Marbury (R) and his son Stephon (L) sit court side during first half of game against Toronto Raptors at Madison Square Garden. Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

And after seeing the way Gonzo worked at Stephon Marbury’s summer camp in Beijing, the administration of Jilin (the owner is Sun Jun, a Chinese basketball legend) flew him in, assigned him a translator nicknamed “Pancake,” looked him over for a week and cut a deal with the assistance of agent Grant Zhou.

Gonzo is now back for a 10-day break in New York with his wife, daughter and friends before he will travel halfway around the planet again for his fourth consecutive season of working in China, earlier with the Chinese National Basketball Federation, the NBL Pro Summer League in Guanxi Province, clinics in Shanghai and now with a CBA team  — one that had Carl Landry and Von Wafer on the roster last season and now is mulling over the relative merits of NBA castoffs Jerome Jordan and Byron Mullens.

“If this is where I have to go to realize my dream of making it to the NBA, then this is the road I am taking,” Gonzalez said. “I am not the first American to use China as a gateway, and my priority now is winning a CBA championship with Jilin.”

It will not be an easy task. The team finished 17th in the CBA last season, missing the playoffs for the fourth straight season. But turnover in the CBA can be drastic from year to year, and the Jilin roster is undergoing an offseason overhaul.

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Marbury has become a cult hero in China, and among the American NBA expats who were there last season — Brandon Jennings, Jimmer Fredette, Ty Lawson, Andray Blatche, Brandon Bass, Darius Morris, Tyler Hansbrough, MarShon Brooks, Lester Hudson, Jeremy Pargo, J.J. Hickson, Terrence Jones, Jared Sullinger, Eli Holman, Pooh Jeter and Sonny Weems.

Non-Americans playing in the CBA last season included Luis Scola, Donatas Montejunas, Andrew Nicholson, Maciej Lampe, Hamed Haddadi, Ike Diogu and Ioannis Bourousis.

Bobby Gonzalez at a coaching clinic in China, Summer 2018.

The “Import MVP” was Courtney Fortson, who played briefly in the NBA with the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers and has also made professional stops in Romania, Venezuela, Russia and Turkey. He averaged 31.1 points, 12 assists and 7.8 rebounds for the Zhejiang Guangsha Lions, who made it to the championship round before being swept by the Liaoning Flying Leopards, who had Hudson and Bass on the roster.

During his travels around China, Gonzalez has run into random Americans (Bob Donewald, who used to coach the national team) random Australians (Michele Timms of Australia is one of his friends), random historical sites and lots and lots of random weird foods.

“The strangest thing I’ve had to eat? Maybe duck feet,” Gonzalez said. “Some things I asked after the fact, because I felt I was better off not knowing. I didn’t have the snake thing, but I tried a type of mushroom called ‘ears.’ A couple things I got afraid of.”

The travel time to Jilin is 17 hours if no connecting flights are missed, and visa rules will require Gonzalez to leave the country once every 60 days for 24 hours. Possible temporary ‘vacation’ spots include Hong Kong and South Korea.

Advice: Go somewhere relatively warm.

“I’m bracing myself for a winter like I’ve never experienced. I’m going to have to get a hat and boots and gloves and a whole bunch of stuff that I haven’t needed for a long time,” Gonzalez said.

“I’m probably going to stay inside as much as I can, but my understanding is that Harbin, where they build these elaborate ice castles, is about an hour away, so I’ll take a ride up there. I’m bracing myself for a winter like I’ve never experienced.”

The CBA regular season ends in late February, so players who play well can be eligible for NBA playoff rosters or Euroleague rosters.

Many have already been to the NBA and make their decisions based on pure economics: There is often more net money to be made by spending March, April and May in Lebanon, the Philippines, Spain, Greece or a thousand other places.

And in those locales, they spend their time on the court rather than on the bench.

Towel waving? No thanks.

It has been a very long time since Gonzo took Manhattan to the Final Four, defeating a Billy Donovan-coached Florida team that had Joakim Noah on its roster. His tenure at Seton Hall ended unceremoniously, but his institutional wisdom endured.

Gonzo has known Marbury since he was growing up in the housing projects of Coney Island, and he coached Marbury’s cousin, Jamel Thomas, at Providence. (Thomas is the older brother of Sebastian Telfair.)

Coaching styles differ from the Bronx to Beijing, so when Gonzalez first arrived in China and found teams were holding three practices a day, focusing more on military-style calisthenics than basketball drills, he made a change.

“Why go at 80 percent three times a day when you can go at 110 percent twice a day?”

Makes sense, eh? Sort of the way Gonzo employs a full-court press. Most coaches use guards in the backcourt to put ball pressure on the opposing team’s ballhandler.

Gonzo uses his bigs as the first line of defense, because the extra time it takes to lob a pass over a 7-footer creates one or two extra seconds in which a defender can get himself into position to intercept a high-arching pass.

It is not rocket science. It is coaching.

Where Gonzo’s career takes him post-Jilin is anyone’s guess. He will have boots on the ground throughout the winter in a country that will play host to the 2019 World Cup, so his institutional knowledge will likely be valued by one of the teams that will be competing. It might be the United States. It might be Canada. It might be Bulgaria or Bahrain. Nobody can predict what will happen that far into the future.

Shanghai Tower, the tallest building in China’s coastal city of 35 million. Courtesy Wikipedia, Baycrest.

For now, Gonzo is getting his body and his body clock reacclimated to America. That means good restaurants, quality time with his wife and daughter, and enough calories to replace the 10-15 pounds he lost during his most recent trip to China.

He is still struggling to get people to understand what a wondrous place the world’s most populated country is.

“Seeing Shanghai, a city of 35 million people, is just wild. It’s like New York on steroids,” Gonzalez said. “There are so many people, but you get on the subway and it’s so organized and clean and regimented … just amazing to see as a New Yorker, because we kind of thrive on chaos.”

What chaos looks like in Jilin remains to be seen. With the right combination of luck and common sense, it will look like incorporating two Americans onto a roster of Chinese players.

And Kim Jung-Un will remain more of a perceived threat than an actual one … unless he takes his special train and his personal toilet across the border to watch a game.

If that happens, let’s just say Gonzo will have one more incredible story to tell that will be as truthful as it is unbelievable.

Summary
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Bobby Gonzalez Signs in China

About Chris Sheridan

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Chris Sheridan is a veteran sports journalist who previously covered the NBA for ESPN. He worked for the Associated Press for 18 years, and also served as the 76ers beat writer for NJ.com. Sheridan is the host of Sports Betting Tips, a podcast covering all things gambling.

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