BLUE RIVER, Ore. - After years of working with basketball players from China, the United States Basketball Academy finally got a program green light to bring some promising athletes to the United States.
The academy located on McKenzie Highway near Blue River, now houses 50 teens from China ranging from 12 to 16 years old, where they are taught English and the American way of playing basketball.
The founder, Bruce O'neil said, "Sonny Vaccaro was one of my close friends, Mr. grassroots basketball. He was with Nike at that time, and he said listen we'll sponsor you, but these Chinese aren't coming to Eugene, Oregon, especially Blue River. I won't even come up from Los Angeles, so how are you going to get it done. And after years of perseverance, ups and downs, now here we are, we're a very big influence in China."
The program is funded by the Chinese government and also receives support from a number of other sponsors. The on-court portion of the program is spearheaded by former NBA player and coach, Jay Humphries.
"If I can help them learn the game the correct way, reach their goals in being an American basketball player before going back to China to play professionally, and then being a better kid, a better student and a better person then I would feel like I've done what I'm supposed to do and they have accomplished what they came to America for," said Humphries.
The transition isn't always smooth for the kids, who are more than 6,000 miles away from home and family. However, the children embrace the challenge to fufill their dreams of becoming a hoop star.
16 year-old, Quincy Ji said, "The hardest challenge maybe, families are really far from you and I need to take care of myself and I also need to push myself to get a higher level."
The program tries to incorporate some of the comforts of home for the players to help ease their growing pains. While they are fed traditional American food, the academy has a Chinese chef on staff to cook some of their favorites meals.
"You know they're kids and so we have to understand and nature them in a way that they're away from home," Humphries said. "They're away from their parents, they're in another country learning another culture. So there's a lot of factors that come in to play when it comes to the things that they have to do outside of basketball."
All of the children have cell phones and use the facilities wifi to communicate with their families and friends back in China.
The long term plan of the program is to send some of the kids to top prep schools here in U.S. With the emergence of Kevin Zhang at Tulane University who started 16 games as a freshman for the Green Wave, the program already has a success story.
Humphries said, "It's extremely gratifying. We've worked hard, but for me being a basketball guy, I'm a basketball lifer and just to see the kids when they come here when it comes to their knowledge of the game, their knowledge of our culture, their knowledge of the english language and see what we put out after the seven to eight months and then when they are placed in high school and return, it's just a phenomenal feeling."
Next year, the program is planning to welcome in 100 teens, including some who will return for their second year.
"It's my passion, I mean i've fallen in love with the country, the people, so many friends in china," said O'neil. "Many of the kids are friends of mine, maybe not even the basketball players, sons and daughters have come to live at my home over the last 25 years. So we've got a huge chinese family now and we love these kids."
As the program continues to grow, they also plan to build another gym in the near future.
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