Tao Xu’s basketball career at San Francisco may be just beginning, but the native of Qingdao City, China has already become quite popular in the Bay Area.
Head coach Rex Walters was recruiting another player when he heard about Xu — a 6-foot-11 post player — who was attending the Haverford School near Philadelphia for his senior year of high school.
Xu was turning heads at the prep level, and already had international experience as a member of the Chinese National Team at the 2010 U-18 Championships and the 2011 U-19 World Championships. When Walters had a player leave unexpectedly last spring, he recruited Xu to fill the roster spot.
“We had a big need for a post player,” Walters said. “I watched a lot of tape of Tao playing for the Chinese U-18 National Team, and I was impressed with what he did.”
Xu had taken the opportunity to play high school basketball in the U.S., because of the educational opportunity, and jumped at the chance to be a collegiate student-athlete.
“In China, basketball players couldn’t get a really good education, and I thought many of the Chinese professional basketball players had no job skills when they were done playing,” Xu said. “I wanted to get a good education so I could find a better job after my basketball life was over.”
Xu and his heritage were also a great fit for the school and the community. USF Athletic Director Scott Sidwell believed the youngster would appeal to the large Chinese population (1.4 million) in the Bay Area. He had seen the popularity of NBA players like Yao Ming and Jeremy Lin in recent years, and believed Xu and basketball were a way to make a connection to the Asian community.
“It sparked a little something, and we’ve been able to connect ourselves to the Chinese community in the Bay Area and it is something we want to continue to grow,” Sidwell said. “We have a very vibrant international student population, and the majority of our international students are from China. I reached out to KTSF-TV, which is the oldest Mandarin Chinese station in the United States, and started to them about ways to market the school beyond athletics, but with athletics being at the forefront of that.”
The athletics staff began working with a couple of Chinese-American students in the school’s sports management program, specifically to deal with ticket sales and media relations for Xu.
“We have a web site dedicated to the Mandarin and Cantonese languages and a dedicated phone line, and we have done some promotions in the surrounding Asian communities,” Sidwell said.
But by far the biggest undertaking was the live broadcast of the USF vs. Gonzaga game on Feb. 16 on San Francisco’s KTSF Television — in Mandarin Chinese.
“The culmination of those efforts was a Mandarin broadcast, which we think is really, really cool,” Sidwell said. “As far as we know, it’s the first in the history of NCAA Division I Basketball.”
Sidwell had reached out to Mike Sherman, the general manager of KTSF, originally to find ways to promote USF basketball through advertisement, and eventually the idea for a live broadcast in Chinese was born.
“We worked with the Golden State Warriors a lot when Yao Ming was playing for the Houston Rockets,” Sherman said. “He was a big name in the NBA and Chinese community. That’s when our interest [in basketball] started. We started the first Chinese newscast in the United States 23 years ago, and sports were not a big part of it, but over the years we’ve seen a greater interest in the sport, especially in basketball. Broadcasting a game in Chinese was something I’d wanted to do for a long time.”
With the Asian population at 23-percent in the San Francisco television market, it was truly a way to reach a large fan base. The interest from sponsors like Toyota and McDonald’s was immediate, but the challenge was finding Chinese-speaking basketball play-by-play announcers. Sherman called on KTSF news reporter John Lee, a veteran Chinese sportscaster, and Job Hung, a former Taiwan National Team player.
“I’m an Asian-American, and I do understand San Francisco and the Asian population we have here,” Rex Walters said. “It’s great for our Asian community to see someone like Tao out there, and Tao is only going to get better with time and hard work. He’s having a decent freshman year for a guy who speaks English as his second language and loses some things in translation. He’s a really good kid, and does have the opportunity and the upside to be a heck of a player for us. As a freshman, it’s a lot for a kid to handle and he’s handled it well.”
Xu is averaging 14.3 minutes per game, and has started 16 times this season. While he has contributed only 3.3 points per game, Walters feels Xu has great potential.
“I think post players develop late, and the speed of the game for all of our post players is really fast,” Walters said. “I think it will come down to working to get the strength he needs to finish the post moves he’s making. He’s making good moves, but he’s not strong enough to finish the play. I think he can get stronger with some work in our strength and conditioning program.”
“There is a really big difference between high school and college,” Xu said. “College players are more aggressive. In high school, they just shoot and run up and down the court. College is much more aggressive.”
Sidwell is hoping to plan future Chinese-language game broadcasts, especially as Xu develops as a player.
“We’re committed to working with KTSF and Mike Sherman to look at a segment of the market that we, quite frankly, haven’t ever marketed to from an athletic standpoint.”
The humble Xu is happy to oblige media requests, and realizes it is for the greater good for the program, rather than individual attention.
“I just want to try to help my team,” Xu said.