By Joseph Santoliquito/CBS Sports
The first glimpse of him in the Haverford School (Haverford, PA) gym stirred chants of “Tao, Tao, Tao.” Some among the group of boys tossing around a volleyball after school weren’t exactly that familiar with Tao Xu (pronounced Towel Zoo). So they gaped at him with wide eyes, while those who have seen him around the last few days in the halls of the prestigious all-boys’ high-academic prep school pointed and playfully continued chanting his name, “Tao, Tao, Tao.”
Xu politely smiled and reluctantly lifted his large right hand to casually wave at his new classmates. He’s still getting used to all of this, this new attention from all these new curious faces in his new world. In Qingdao City, China, where Xu grew up, he became accustomed to the upward looks and the inquisitive stares. He’s a genial giant with spiked black hair, an easy smile, a great sense of humor, and a dream to master American basketball.
Before he formally set foot in the United States, the 6-foot-11, 264-pound member of the Chinese Under-19 National Team has already received scholarship offers from Georgetown and Utah — and there won’t be any surprises if another comes soon from the Big East Conference school down the street from Haverford — Jay Wright and Villanova.
For the time being, 18-year-old Xu is getting used to his new surroundings. He’s assimilated quite well, picking up English here and there in halting segments. He’s apparently not too familiar with Haverford’s basketball history. Xu says he’s here to learn, and you tend to believe him.
You believe Xu because Haverford is not exactly a Philly basketball juggernaut. In fact, it’s been the opposite for some time now. The Fords, ironically, last won an Inter-Academic League title when new Fords’ coach Henry Fairfax was a senior at the school, in 1999. Prior to that, the last time the Fords won anything was over 25 years ago. When Fairfax was a sophomore, the Fords were 0-10 in the Inter-Ac.
Last year, the Fords were 11-12 overall — considered a good season.
With Xu, that could change this year. He’s surprisingly nimble for someone his height, with long, strong, muscular legs. He takes a size 16 shoe and YouTube clips show him blocking shots and able to nail mid-range jumpers.
“This is like a new world for me, I am here to learn more knowledge; I understand [English] a little bit; I do feel very comfortable, this school made think ‘Wow’ when I first saw it in person,” Xu said. “The main thing here is to gain knowledge and grow as person. I’m grateful for opportunity to be here. Education is much more important here than China. That is why I am here.”
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His journey seems almost predestined. Xu’s father, Wei, played basketball in China and is 6-foot-8. His mother is 6-foot-2 and played volleyball. Tao grew up watching them, and then going home imitating what he saw his parents do. He was good enough to be sorted out and picked to attend sports school in China when he was around nine.
“They practice basketball six hours a day in China,” Xu said. “You do not have time to look at books in China or learn English. It’s why I am here, for basketball and knowledge; for education. I want to get an education in America. United States has best basketball in the world and best education in the world. I want to learn more education with basketball and more knowledge, I want to go to college here and one day play in the NBA. So far, everything has been very nice. A lot of kids know who I am.”
A lot more college coaches will soon find out who he is.
Fairfax is very aware of the growing interest surrounding Xu at the local and national level. It was by sheer happenstance that Fairfax and Haverford came by Xu in the first place. Charles Monroe, a Haverford assistant coach, first broached his name to Fairfax this summer. Monroe is close to Dozie Mbonu, a former Philadelphia-area player who played at Church Farms School and Lehigh Univerity, and who’s been working internationally on player development. It was Mbonu who came by Xu.
Mbonu wanted to guide Xu to basketball powerhouse Oak Hill Academy. But Monroe asked, “Why not Haverford School?”
Fairfax, a Drexel graduate with a master’s degree from Penn, pondered the thought. But he’s in a precarious spot as Haverford’s Director of Admissions from junior K to 12 — and as the school’s new basketball coach. He wanted to tread cautiously before admitting Xu. And prior to that process beginning, Fairfax needed to make sure Xu would have a place and family suitable to stay with.
“It’s an extremely fine line I walk and I’m sensitive to it as to my connection between the administration and athletic program here,” Fairfax said. “Admissions are something near and dear to my heart, because of my personal experience at this school, and the opportunity this place gave me. When we got involved with Tao, we began looking at his data.
“I knew looking at his information that we had to find the right host family. They’re very private people and wish to remain anonymous. But with someone like Tao coming in, it was a concern and an important piece to the connection. We’re keeping the host family quiet right now — but they had to okay taking him in before we began the process. Once that happened, we were able to look into Tao being a Haverford student, if he qualified from an academic standpoint, and securing a host family first. It all worked out.”
Haverford went through the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) and Xu was accepted in late-August. The paperwork squared away, the admission requirements fulfilled, there was one other major stumbling block. Xu has broken three vertebrae in his lower back. He was scheduled to begin the school year at Haverford. The injury delayed his entrance into the U.S. for two months, because doctors were fearful the 13-hour plane trip from Beijing would aggravate the injury.
“It’s interesting, it was a relatively smooth process,” Fairfax said. “We knew Tao would be arriving in the middle of the first semester, so we needed to catch him up, but he would have senior status. He stayed in contact with his teachers here via email, but what delayed everything was that he was immobile for two months recovering from the back injury [sustained while playing in China, when he fell awkwardly]. He would have been here September 7, if not for the injury.”
He didn’t arrive at JFK Airport until Friday, October 21. Fairfax was there to greet him, and quickly noticed Xu’s dogged cultural tendencies. He thanked Fairfax profusely and wouldn’t let Fairfax hold his bags or hold the door for him. Social cues that Tao wanted to do everything on his own.
“Tao absorbs everything, and fast,” Fairfax said. “In the short time he’s been here, you can tell he’s highly intelligent. He doesn’t ask for anything, except for maybe where the bathroom is. He’s low on feeling he’s entitled to anything, and high on being grateful for everything. He couldn’t thank me enough the day I picked him up for this opportunity.”
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Can Xu play?
Xu already has a nickname at Haverford, Tao Ming. Fairfax liked the reasons Xu wanted to attend Haverford, for the academics and the cultural experience. Fairfax laughs at a variety of stories that have floated around Philadelphia as to how Haverford landed Xu, one that says the school paid a six-figure sum to a roving scout to roam the Chinese countryside.
“That’s a good one,” said Fairfax, chuckling. “I’m sure there will be some talk as to why Xu is here, but he is coming here first and foremost to get an education. I should know. It’s what this school is about because it changed my life. I was a kid from West Philly who got a chance to come here. My personal world changed by coming here. My first test was a 42-page physics test that I thought it was a review packet.
“I sat there for 15 minutes, looked around, and the kids started taking out these machines that I never saw before. I had a simple calculator. I went through the first 100 questions, which were multiple choice. When I got here, I was a bright kid. I like to say I was a muscle car, a whole lot of horses but my tires were flat. I waited for 15 minutes and wrote my name on the front of the test. I didn’t try a problem. I handed the test back to the teacher. The other kids probably thought I was some sort of genius. But that was my first assessment, and realization of what Haverford was about. It took me two years to catch up and keep up after that physics test.”
Fairfax likes the fluid way Xu moves without the ball, and how well he defends. Xu is very versed in the game, with terrific footwork for a player his size. Xu’s surrounding cast will be young, though extremely talented. Freshmen Sammy Foreman and Shawn Alston could be special — with perhaps Foreman the best player on the team. Seniors Zach Thomas and Ray Hollman return, as does sophomore Eric Anderson.
And in the middle will be Xu.
“I like contact of the game,” said Xu, whose transcript from China read A’s for biology and physics. “I want to get better at everything. With language; basketball and my knowledge. Knowledge is the most important.”
The first day of practice is Friday, November 18. Fairfax can’t wait, and neither can Xu. Retired Chinese star Yao Ming is viewed as the Michael Jordan of China. Xu knows comparisons are inevitable, considering he’s 6-11 and still growing and Ming was 7-6 and the standard of Chinese basketball.
“I want to be first Tao Xu,” Xu said, a big smile creasing his friendly face. “I want to do the best I can, and be best I can be. I want to be the best me.”