Bob Ryan

McCarthy's still a fan from afar

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / August 18, 2008
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BEIJING - For a visitor from Boston, there is nothing out of the ordinary.

It is the kind of office you might expect to find for a guy running a sports enterprise. Pictures of him with local and international sports dignitaries. Sports paraphernalia of all sorts. Sports magazines and pamphlets on the coffee table. And a Boston Celtics 2008 world championship blanket covering the couch.

Got to be the only office like it in Beijing.

This is Tom McCarthy's office. That would be the Tom McCarthy of the Heath Street projects; Tom McCarthy of Boston Latin and Boston College. The Tom McCarthy who cut his managerial teeth with the old Ebony and Ivory summer league; and the Tom McCarthy, one-time coach (assistant or head) at Boston Latin, St. Mary's of Brookline, Brookline High, BC, and the Pine Manor women. In fact, he proudly displays a plaque he was given, the inscription reading, "Presented To Pine Manor College For Recognition Of Leading The Nation In Team Scoring Defense (All Divisions). In The NCAA's Women's Divisions During The 1983-84 Season."

That was his other life. Since 1987 his life has been here in China, first in Hong Kong and for the past decade and a half in Beijing, where he has been on the ground floor of every major development in basketball, baseball, and tennis in this country.

And all he ever wanted to be was a coach. He still does, in fact. "High school, CYO, anything," he says. "I guess I'd have to buy a team in order to get on the bench in the NBA. It would be nice to be an assistant with the Celtics. I guess that isn't going to happen."

A man has to eat, however, and provide for his family. When he was pushed off the coaching carousel back home, he wound up going to work for Etonic, which would wind up sending him to Hong Kong as its "sourcing director." From that point on, Tom McCarthy has spent all his time coaching, promoting, and marketing first basketball, then baseball, and finally tennis, where his Beijing International Group (BIG, got to love that) now handles the top Chinese tennis players, male and female.

That doesn't mean he's forgotten about basketball or stopped caring about basketball. It means he's always ready to go wherever he needs to go.

Yao Ming? McCarthy's known him since he was 13 and 6 feet 9 inches. He knows more about Chinese basketball players than the Chinese do. He was once the CEO of the Asia Basketball Confederation, which since has morphed into FIBA Asia. As such, he supervised the affairs of 44 countries. He logged his time as a broadcaster and magazine publisher. He had the first TV show on Asian basketball and put out the first Asian basketball magazine. He put on the first Asian All-Star Game of any type in Seoul (1997).

At the 1997 NBA All-Star Game 11 years ago in Cleveland a conversation with Dave Cowens eventually led to a Chinese tour of such retired NBA luminaries as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Alex English, Walter Davis, and Adrian Dantley, who played four games against the Chinese national team and put on clinics. McCarthy was billing them as "Ex-NBA Legends," and the NBA, as it turns out, was not pleased, claiming a trademark violation. Things finally were resolved, but the fact is that for the NBA it was a blessing.

"At that time," McCarthy says, "the NBA was in Hong Kong, but not mainland China." A good case can be made that McCarthy's vision and moxie alerted the NBA to the vast China market it exploits so well today.

Perhaps this is a good time to point out that McCarthy has managed all this without ever learning to speak Chinese.

"Unfortunately, I had the lazy American's approach to learning the language," he says. He gets by because he always has surrounded himself with the right people, most notably a woman named Li Xixao, who has worked with him since 1995. She is the communications liaison for McCarthy, who understands a great deal of the language but still doesn't speak it aside from the basics.

Li Xixao is also indispensable because when it's all said and done, he's Tom McCarthy, and no matter how much the Chinese have come to value his expertise in matters of sports and business related to sports, he is not one of them. Li has further utility because she is a Communist Party member, and there is no end run possible around the authorities in this country. In the end, you need someone with a little clout on your side.

"I can never forget that I am a foreigner, and not Chinese," he explains.

Aside from that, there are the subtleties a newcomer must absorb. "The Chinese are a wonderful people," he says. "But there is a lot of work involved in building a relationship. Sometimes they look for ways for you to do the right thing. That doesn't necessarily mean bags of money. It may mean helping out a friend with something."

There is a right way and a wrong way to present yourself. " 'Face' is much more important than back home," he says. "I learned many years ago you can't talk to someone in a high voice or imply that are at fault. If you don't handle this correctly with someone, you're dead, and not just with him but with everyone he knows."

From basketball, McCarthy got involved in Chinese baseball, helping to organize the first Chinese Baseball League. "The players who just beat Chinese Taipei? All ours," he points out. He ran interference for Jim Lefebvre, whom the Chinese authorities did not want to coach their team. He was too old (63), they thought, and, anyway, who was Jim Lefebvre?

"I told them he was a Dodger, he had played on a World Series winner, he was an experienced manager, and he really knew what he was doing," McCarthy says. When China beat Chinese Taipei to win its first Olympic baseball game last week, who was the Chinese manager? Jim Lefebvre.

Baseball is a bit of sore spot with McCarthy right now because he had hoped his company would get the development and managerial rights to the Wukesong Stadium that houses the Olympic baseball competition. His grand vision for what he hoped would be a permanent stadium included a replica of the Great Wall atop the left-field fence, a replica of the Temple of Heaven Summer atop the center-field fence, and a replica of the Summer Palace atop the right-field fence.

"Can you imagine hitting one out over the Great Wall?" he says.

But he was outmaneuvered by various forces, and the grand baseball vision was not realized. They built a sterile, functional stadium that will be torn down the minute the Olympics are over. "I promise you the stadium would not have been torn down if we had gotten it," he declares.

He insists he is not a Chinese lifer, that he will do this tennis thing in partnership with Mercedes for a few more years and then see about returning home. "It's been a terrific ride," he says. "I've made a living. I've made enough to put my kids through school and put some away. I'm not a big player, but I might be a little bit bigger than people would think."

At 58, he's still an American sports junkie; that never will change. "Each time I go back it gets more difficult to leave," he says. "I sit in front of the TV set and watch games. I'm able to go to games. I do miss it."

Where did all this managerial savvy come from? "It's hard to say," he says. "I graduated from the School of Management at BC, but all I wanted to do was coach. When Tom Davis got the BC job, I went up to him at the Boston Shootout and said, 'I'm your man.' I started as an unpaid assistant. I slept under my desk, and that's how we recruited Ron Crevier [a Canadian 7-footer who actually had a cup of coffee in the NBA]. "It was a Sunday and the phone rang. No one else was around."

This is Tom McCarthy from 130 Heath Street, Roxbury. This is Tom McCarthy, "The 16th man on a 15-man BC freshman team." This is Tom McCarthy, who did the hiring for Tom Davis's basketball camp ("Rick Pitino. All of them. They all worked for me - for a day.").

What the Tom McCarthy Story proves is that America is not the only land of opportunity in this world.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

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