Legends like John Wooden and Dean Smith can't say they're unbeaten as a men's college basketball coach.
Brainerd High School graduate Jake Zauhar guided St. John's University on a trip to China where the Johnnies won all four games they played and visited many tourist attractions. Zauhar spelled Jim Smith, the Johnnies' actual head coach, as Smith continued his recovery from colon cancer.
"The players were still in great shape from the season," Zauhar said. "I was probably more excited to be there, being on the bench. It was just great, really fun. It was at a level I would like to be at one day, the college level again."
Zauhar played two seasons for Smith. He has remained close to the program after graduating and becoming a teacher and coach in Cold Spring.
"I had been in contact with Jim about going along," Zauhar said. "Since he had colon cancer surgery last summer he was not sure if he could make the trip.
"I've been involved with their basketball camps and I've helped when the Timberwolves come to St. John's (for training camp) so I'm familiar with the way things work over there. Since the other two assistant coaches couldn't go, Jim asked if I would coach in his place."
The Johnnies defeated Beijing University 104-102 and 87-77, drubbed Shanghai University 104-51 and finished their tour with an 89-86 victory over Shanghai Jiao Tong.
They departed May 12, staying the first six days in Bejing followed by six days in Shanghai. They were accompanied at all times by a bus driver and translator.
"We ate a lot of meat that we didn't know what it was, which was probably a good thing. A couple guys actually got sick from the food, but for the most part it was pretty good."
Zauhar said Chinese players practice twice a day, even on game days, because the country is trying to catch up with the caliber of basketball played in other parts of the world.
The Johnnies and Chinese teams exchanged gifts and Zauhar had to sign a sportsmanship contract before each game that said St. John's would play fair, respect the opposition and officials and not hold arenas liable in case of injury.
Games were played under international rules, which include wider lanes, a farther three-point line and 12-minute quarters, and were extremely physical.
"One of our guys took an elbow in the face, he got a black eye, and it almost knocked him out cold," Zauhar said, "but there was no call. They didn't stop the game. They let you play."
In Beijing, the Johnnies visited the Ming Tomb (where the emperor is buried), the Forbidden City (where the emperor lived), Tiananmen Square (sight of riots in 1989), Summer Palace (the emperor's vacation home), Silk Alley (a market where consumers trade goods) and the Great Wall.
"Beijing is very modernized, very crowded," Zauhar said. "There were like eight lanes of traffic for cars, and two bike lanes on each side of the street. There are tunnels under the streets because traffic is so crazy.
"People were very friendly. A lot of people spoke broken English pretty well. We were able to find our way pretty well. The people always were willing to help us out. A couple people came up to us and wanted to try out their English on us."
The Johnnies drank only bottled water. Among the food they sampled were "delicacies" like ox tail, sheep stomach and teriyaki chicken leg, along with veal, sushi and rice.
"We ate a lot of meat that we didn't know what it was, which was probably a good thing," Zauhar said. "A couple guys actually got sick from the food, but for the most part it was pretty good.
"We had to use chop sticks. We couldn't use any silverware. It was interesting trying to get used to those if you've never used them before."
In Shanghai, the Johnnies visited the world's third-largest building. They toured a museum that was having a diamond exhibition, Yuyuan Garden (which means pleasure and happiness), a Buddhist temple, a silk factory and the Bund Area business district that runs around the Yellow River, one of China's main water sources.
Zauhar said security was visible. Guards were on duty at hotels and airports.
"Most hotels had banks attached to them where you could swap currency," he said. "There were always armed guards there. There were armed guards everywhere in sight except for the markets and gardens. At the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and Great Wall there were always armed guards.
"We were told we couldn't take pictures of any military or police because they would confiscate the film."
Having an opportunity to coach in a foreign country, and coach a different style of basketball, was an unbelievable experience that Zauhar hopes to draw upon in the future.
"I was happy I got the opportunity to go, especially as a coach, that made it more special," he said. "It was a good way to spend a trip. We won games, and the guys were happy."
Mike Bialka can be reached at email@example.com or at 855-5861.
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