The NBA’s China Games last week featured an unusual homecoming for Milwaukee Bucks rookie Joe Alexander, an American who grew up as an expat in Beijing, where his family still lives.
The 21-year-old Mr. Alexander is an anomaly: an expat international school student who has made it as a professional athlete. His path wasn’t easy — he had to leave his family and friends behind in Beijing to attend three years of high school in the U.S. before he could get a scholarship to play top-tier college ball. There does not seem to be any precedent for an international student making it as an NBA player. (Kobe Bryant and former Bull and Spur Steve Kerr both lived abroad but returned to the U.S. for high school.)
“To my knowledge Joe Alexander is the only athlete from any of the international schools around the world I have known in over 21 years to rise to the pro ranks in any sport,” says Jeffrey Johanson, Athletic Director of the International School of Beijing, which Joe Alexander attended from 1996-2002. “In fact, only occasionally will we produce athletes that compete at the [National Collegiate Athletic Association] Division I level.”
When Mr. Alexander finally made it to the NBA, his first extended action was in China, where his Bucks played the Golden State Warriors in preseason exhibition games in Guangzhou and Beijing in front of a combined 28,000 fans. The NBA is trying to capitalize on its popularity in China, and the Bucks were chosen to highlight Yi Jianlin, one of three Chinese players in the NBA. When he was traded in the off-season, Mr. Alexander became the focus of attention. It could have been an overwhelming experience, but he appeared to handle it all with calm.
“This has been incredible,” Mr. Alexander said in Beijing the day before the game. The Bucks had just finished a media session where he was the most sought-after player, surrounded by Chinese reporters and camera crews long after his teammates had been left alone. “It was always my dream to play in the NBA and I always believed I would. But I never thought that I would be able to virtually start my career back in China,” he said.
The NBA took full advantage of Mr. Alexander’s background, having him address the fans in Mandarin before each game. The crowds loved it, cheering wildly when he said a few simple lines with an excellent accent.
Joe Alexander was born in Taiwan in 1986. His family returned to Maryland two years later but his father Steve was posted to Beijing by Nestle when Joe was nine. He began fourth grade at ISB and was soon obsessive about basketball, watching his older brothers John and Jeremy become the first foreigners to win the city-wide Beijing High School basketball MVP award.
Despite their success, neither John nor Jeremy attracted any interest from D-I college basketball programs, going on to play at D-III Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. (All major collegiate athletic powers in the U.S. are “D-I” schools; they have larger budgets, better facilities, and more athletic scholarships.) Keenly aware of their disappointments, Joe decided that to avoid the same fate he would have to finish high school in the U.S. Longtime ISB coach Tim Callahan says international school players have difficulty reaching the highest college levels due to lack of intense competition, less practice time and a dearth of the powerful independent summer programs which are central to the development of elite American players.
“Basketball is the only reason I wanted to go back [to the U.S.],” says Mr. Alexander. “I loved Beijing and didn’t want to leave, but I knew I would never play D-I ball much less make it to the NBA coming out of ISB. My brothers were really good and they didn’t get that chance.”
For years, Joe Alexander was the only one who thought he could make the NBA. His family, friends, coaches and teammates all thought he was a bit delusional. Still, while he was rarely even a starter before his senior year in high school, Mr. Alexander always displayed an intense work ethic, staying in the gym as many hours as possible and, in college, spending many nights on a couch in the locker room.
“I was hesitant about letting him go back, as any parent would be,” says Steve Alexander. “But Joe has always exhibited an absolutely intense focus on basketball and I understood that this was his real motivation.”
At the age of 16, Joe moved in with his mother in Mt. Airy, Maryland, after living with his father and stepmother most of his life. The two years he spent there allowed him to deepen his relationship with her and to begin realizing his hoop dreams, but the move also required a lot of adjustments.
“You have no idea how different I felt when I got to an American high school,” he says. “Some people say kids who grow up abroad are more mature but I can’t really say I felt that way. I just felt…different. I didn’t understand a lot of the popular culture references kids were always making and I felt like an outsider. It was really hard to fit in.”
Though Mr. Alexander blossomed as a senior, he still had no D-I scholarship offers, and so decided to attend Virginia’s Hargrave Military Academy for a year. Many players come to the basketball powerhouse to improve their grades to qualify for college, but he enrolled to burnish his basketball credentials.
“That was much to my dismay. I wanted him to go to college, but he knew what he wanted and I didn’t think that Joe’s dreams should be the victim of my decision to live abroad,” says Steve Alexander. “Growing up in China was a great experience for my kids, which greatly expanded their world views, but you also miss out on things.”
And Joe’s range of experience may have been an asset. He says that growing up in China “made me much more adaptable to new situations. I remember how moving to the tiny town of Chatham, Virginia, all by myself to attend my military prep school did not bother me at all, but it seemed to really bother all the other kids who were there. Most of those kids had probably not spent much time away from home, or lived in strange environments.”
Joe got the last spot on the Hargrave team. Though he barely played, he showed enough athleticism at practices to be offered a scholarship to West Virginia University. Part One of his dream had been realized. As a freshman, he again barely played, but he became a solid contributor as a sophomore and exploded as a junior, scoring 32 points each in back-to-back games at the end of the regular season and leading WVU to the third round of the NCAA Tournament in March. Afterwards, he left school early and entered the NBA Draft. In June, the Bucks selected him in the first round and signed him to a two-year, $4.15 million contract. A few months later he was back in Beijing, a conquering hero.
He addressed two assemblies at ISB, speaking to almost 1,500 students. He told them how lucky they were to be at an international school and how happy he was to be back. Huge posters featuring his picture and the slogan “A Boy, A Ball and A Dream” adorned the walls. The students hung on his every word and when he finished they surrounded him, asking for autographs. It was an expat version of local boy makes good.
The next day, he looked more comfortable with a ball in his hand than he had with a microphone. He dazzled the crowd with some pregame dunks and appeared poised throughout the game, finishing with 14 points. Steve Alexander and his wife Li Lin took it all in from the stands, proud parents equally surprised to be watching their son play in an NBA game and that they were doing so right here in Beijing. * * *
Write to me and I’ll post selected comments in a future column. Please let me know if you want to share your thoughts but don’t want your letter published. Read comments by readers on my last column about traveling with my kids in India.
I thoroughly enjoyed your article about travel with children. I can also predict the influence this experience will have on their future.
In 1961, we moved to Colombia with three small children. Six years later, we returned to the States. This early experience imbued them with a desire to travel the world.
My daughter Suzanna has visited 97 countries. Next April, she heads for India, Nepal and Tibet. The other two children have traveled throughout Europe, Israel and Jordan as well as China.
We once traveled through Mexico and every country in Central America with three small children and sixteen pieces of luggage so I can feel your pain. Trust me, you are providing your family with a wonderful foundation for their creativity and intellectual development. They are indeed fortunate that you and your wife are providing this gift.
— Milt Morris
Thank you for the encouragement. Only time will tell if our travels will have a similar impact on our children. * * *
Last year I made a similar trip to Delhi, though without my three-year-old son. The whole time I was wondering if he would’ve been able to handle it. I look forward to trying as he gets a little older. How old were your children when you went? Were they able to find things to eat?
— Kori Smith My youngest is five. A three-year-old can do it as long as you maintain a good attitude but you have to weigh the returns. Food was no problem; endless butter nan and tandoori chicken. We defensively brought a suitcase full of cereal, Pop Tarts and other goodies and left most of it with our friends in Dehli.