The Los Angeles Lakers departed Friday for their trip to China for a pair of exhibition games, and it will be an exotic first for several players who have never traversed the Great Wall or navigated a heavily censored Internet.
But for Kobe Bryant, it's eight more days in familiar territory.
Make that frighteningly familiar territory.
The Lakers superstar is mobbed by basketball-crazed fans every time he visits China, which has become an annual summer stop on his Nike promotional tour.
He also created a stir five years ago while winning a gold medal with Team USA in the Beijing Olympics. Lakers Coach Mike D'Antoni said fans loudly chanted Bryant's first name during the opening ceremony, and center Chris Kaman recalled hundreds of volunteer workers swarming their favorite player.
"All these people in these blue shirts are just running toward him and you're like, 'Oh, my gosh, what are we going to do?'" said Kaman, who played in 2008 for the German national team. "They are all like little puppy dogs just like holding a picture out for an autograph. And they don't know how to say it (in English), so they're like, 'Photo! Photo! Sign! Sign!'"
Bryant should have plenty of time for signatures because he will sit out the preseason games against the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday in Beijing and Friday in Shanghai as he continues to recover from a torn left Achilles' tendon.
His mere presence will be enough to help the NBA complete its mission for the trip: to continue expanding its brand globally. "He's probably the most popular and loved athlete in the world," Lakers forward Pau Gasol said.
Bryant has seen more than a few corners of it in recent weeks.
By the time the Lakers' charter flight lands in Beijing on Saturday evening, Bryant will have touched down in the United Arab Emirates, Germany and China in a 16-day span. He visited the UAE as part of a health initiative and traveled to Germany to undergo a procedure designed to strengthen his right knee.
The Lakers hope their China trip can fortify the bonds of a team with nine first-year players on its training camp roster.
"Usually when you travel that far and you go through something like that," veteran guard Steve Nash said, "it can bring people together."
Special precautions have been taken to ensure that international flights, expected to last about 13 hours each, don't make the players want to tear each other apart. Kaman can stretch his 7-foot frame in a special sleeping berth, and players will wear compression socks that come up to the thighs and aid in circulation, preventing feet from becoming swollen.
"We're going to get them up every few hours and make them walk around the plane," longtime Lakers trainer Gary Vitti said.
To prevent dehydration, there will be no alcohol or caffeine on the flight.
The Lakers are scheduled to arrive at 5:45 p.m. local time on Saturday, but exhaustion isn't expected to set in until the following day, Vitti said. To counteract it, there will be a two-hour practice at 9 a.m. Sunday, which is 6 p.m. Saturday Los Angeles time.
"We've been told that we'll be wide awake at that time," Vitti said.
Then the team will visit the Great Wall, which is a 90-minute bus ride each way from the practice facility. When the team returns to its five-star hotel, it will be 3:30 p.m. local time but after midnight L.A. time.
"Our tendency will be to want to go to sleep," Vitti said. "The key is to try to stay awake as long as possible into the evening, 10, 11, whatever the normal bedtime is. If we can get that accomplished, we should be pretty much in rhythm the next morning."
Nash, who has already visited China several times, didn't sound thrilled about every stop on the itinerary.
"I have a feeling that I will be dragged to the Great Wall again," Nash deadpanned. "But it's OK. It will be an honor."
D'Antoni's primary agenda involves getting Nash, Jordan Farmar and Wesley Johnson back from minor injuries, which have sidelined them in recent games, and extending the playing time of Kaman and Gasol.
No one needs to worry about what to eat. There will be three Americanized meals at the hotel or boxed meals provided during daily excursions.
The team has been advised to avoid tap water and ice cubes in China because bacteria levels in the water supply are higher than in the U.S. Players also have been told to avoid uncooked food and even salads because the vegetables have been washed in the water.
There will be bottled water in players' rooms and at practices.
Several Lakers said they wished the trip had been scheduled for earlier in the preseason because once the players return, they will have only 11 days to re-acclimatize themselves before the season opener Oct. 29 against the Los Angeles Clippers.
"Basically, what's going to happen is we're going to get back and everybody's going to be all off-kilter with their time schedules, and sleep schedules are going to be all over the place," Kaman said.
In other words, it should be like any other recent day for Bryant.
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