High School Teams Head to China, Mixing Basketball and Business

R. J. Barrett is only 17 years old, but he is already a world traveler.

Raised in suburban Toronto, he plays basketball for a high school in Montverde, Fla. Last summer, he led Canada to the gold medal in the under-19 world championship in Egypt, and next month, he and his teammates at Montverde Academy, which has one of the nation’s top basketball programs, will travel to Beijing for a high-profile international tournament.

But before they go, Montverde Coach Kevin Boyle plans to have a long, serious talk with everyone. And after the recent incident in which three U.C.L.A. basketball players were detained in China for a week, accused of shoplifting and then freed only after the intervention of President Trump, Boyle expects to have his players’ full attention.

“It’s definitely going to be a point that we’re going to bring up,” Boyle said in a telephone interview this week. “It’s a different culture and there are expectations of your family and the school, and then, furthermore, you’re in a Communist country. If you do something dumb, you’re not in the United States.”

He added, “It’s not the American justice system, so it’s definitely going to be something that you want to point to that this is not a joke, and don’t think you can steal a pack of gum.”

In a reflection both of basketball’s increased appeal to China and the way top-tier high school basketball has become big business, Montverde Academy will be joined in Beijing by two other American high school teams: Providence Day School of Charlotte, N.C., and Chaminade College Prep of Canoga Park, Calif. The teams will play in a round-robin format against one another and six Chinese teams from Dec. 6 to 9 at various sites.

Montverde’s presence in China is only partly about basketball, though. Like U.C.L.A. and other colleges that have sent teams abroad, Montverde is using the trip to sell itself. A private school housed on a lush campus just west of Orlando, Montverde has an extensive international presence in its corridors, including more than 60 students from China. And like the American college programs that have visited China, or plan to, it hopes to attract even more.

Montverde knows its sports teams are a powerful calling card. Boyle’s nationally ranked basketball team includes a Chinese power forward, Kevin Zhang, as well as players from Canada, Russia, Serbia and France. International students also dot the rosters of teams in a handful of other sports at the school.

Montverde has a sister campus in Shanghai.

“We would love to be able to show what Montverde is to more Chinese students that have interest in going to school in the United States,” Boyle said. “So it’s also a way for us to attract kids that are not just basketball players.”

As part of the trip, the American and Chinese coaches will trade teaching techniques, and the American teams will take in cultural events and visit historic sites. Everyone involved is making every effort to ensure that the trip goes better than U.C.L.A.’s recent visit did.

The three U.C.L.A. players — LiAngelo Ball, Jalen Hill and Cody Riley — were detained by the Chinese police after they were accused of shoplifting items from several high-end stores during a trip to Hangzhou. Ball, Hill and Riley were arrested Nov. 8 and remained confined in their hotel until Nov. 14, several days after their teammates and coaches flew home after a win over Georgia Tech in which the three accused did not play.

On Wednesday, after President Trump’s personal appeal to China’s president, Xi Jinping, led to the players’ release and return to California, the players read prepared statements of contrition. U.C.L.A. has suspended them indefinitely.

Like many others, Barrett, a talented 6-foot-6 wing player who recently committed to Duke and is projected as a potential No. 1 pick in the 2019 N.B.A. draft, followed developments in the case.

“I mean that’s crazy,” Barrett said of the U.C.L.A. players’ ordeal. “It’s definitely a warning sign.”

But for the coaches and tournament organizers, it was something else: a reminder that taking any group of teenagers abroad, even talented ones with experience in the public eye, can be much more than a simple tourist adventure.

Brian Field, the coach at Providence Day, said his school had plans for a meeting with the players, including the Kansas signee Devon Dotson, “about different customs and ways of life” in China. He said he would hold another one on Nov. 27, shortly before they depart.

“From where we’re sitting,” he said of the U.C.L.A. incident, “it’s probably a good thing just to help our guys be more aware of it and maybe help them to understand — not that any of them would go over there and do that — that we need to be aware of our situation when we’re over there.”

Shane Duffy, chief executive of the North American arm of Camsing Global Entertainment, the company organizing the tournament, said he was in China when the U.C.L.A. news broke. That incident, he said, means the visiting high school teams can expect a higher level of scrutiny when they arrive next month.

“We’ve always looked at this as a friendship opportunity to say, ‘Look, basketball and sports are something that speak to everybody in the world,’ ” said Duffy, a former executive in the N.B.A.’s Los Angeles office. But now, he added, “we shine obviously a brighter light on that to say: ‘Look, this is real. The government’s involved, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Sports, everybody is looking at this event and taking notice, so you guys represent more than just your high school. You represent the country.”

Boyle, who has been to China several times, including with Montverde in 2012, said he did not expect any problems on a trip that will also take his team to a tournament in Hawaii. But he still planned to warn his players to heed his instructions by reminding them that the U.C.L.A. players surely received similar ones before they left, “and people didn’t listen.”

Barrett, the veteran of overseas travel, expects another smooth ride.

“We’re there to play basketball,” he said, “so that’s what we’re going to be focused on.”