FEATURE: Wang’s Basketball Career Plays Out Across Three Continents

Johnny Wang. Credit Matt Brown
Johnny Wang. Credit Matt Brown

By Bill Sheehan

While growing up in southern Beijing, Yixiong "Johnny" Wang made a commitment to become the best basketball player he could be. He left home at age 15 and began an odyssey that took him first to Spain, where he attended a basketball academy, and then to the United States, where he spent two years as a high school player.
Now, his sacrifices are beginning to pay off. Wang (pronounced Wong), a sophomore forward for Cal State Fullerton's men's basketball team, has started the last four games and is making strong contributions, especially on defense.
"I struggled a lot last year. I thought I was ready, but I wasn't. My aggressiveness and concentration weren't there," said Wang, who began calling himself Johnny while in Europe. "This year, I'm focusing on what I can do to help my team win and get on the floor."
The Titans, 3-8, will try to snap a three-game losing streak Saturday at 1 p.m. CST when they play Nebraska, 9-2, at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln. Wang said the Titans, who have played on the road or at a neutral site for all but three games this season, have the ingredients needed to turn things around.
"We have struggled a little bit because we have let ourselves slip. We need to fight for ourselves and figure things out," said Wang, who is averaging 2.2 rebounds and 3.5 point while shooting 57.7% from the floor. "We have talent, and we're working hard as a team. We'll find a way to win games by the conference season."
"Coach [Dedrique] Taylor has given me a lot of minutes," said the 6-foot-10, 245-pound Wang. "All the work in the summer and the preseason has prepared me. I just want to keep working hard and going forward."
Taylor, the sixth-year Titan head coach, said Wang strengthens the team on many levels.
"Johnny brings a different level of work ethic and professionalism," said Taylor. "He is a high-energy person who really cares about the team and winning. He is good around the rim and not afraid to bang inside. And he's a skilled outside player."
Winning respect of teammates
Titan senior guard Kyle Allman Jr. said Wang, 20, has gained the respect of his older teammates. "He stands out because of his dedication. He's become a real leader as a sophomore. It's really good to see a 19- or 20-year-old, let alone someone from another country, be comfortable enough to speak out to older players and take a bigger role.
"He brings a bunch of positivity, a lot of energy. He knows everything about scouting reports and the opposition's mindset," said Allman, who sometimes rooms with Wang on road trip. "We talk about life or basketball, whatever the case may be. I tell him what I've been through and try to show him the ropes of life. He's my boy."
Basketball is in Wang's genes. His father, Wei Wang, was a 6-foot-4 shooting guard who played for the Bayi Rockets of the Chinese Basketball Association while serving in the nation's armed forces. His mother, Li Lui, also played professionally in China as a 5-foot-10 point guard.
"My dad has been a big influence on how I should play and develop," said Wang, who began playing basketball around age 10. "He has always stayed on my side, and I call him every weekend."
Wei Wang, who coaches basketball at an elementary school after retiring from the military, logs into a website to watch Fullerton games. He has visited California twice to see his son.
Basketball academy in Canary Islands
The younger Wang's journey began as a teenager when he traveled to Spain to enroll in the Canarias Basketball Academy in Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands.
"It was a good experience," he said. "We played games across Europe – in the Netherlands, Slovakia, Belgium, Serbia. I like traveling around the world and seeing what different cities and cultures are like."
English, not Spanish, was the most frequently spoken language at the academy. Wang began using Johnny as a first name, to make it easier on his teammates.
"I had studied English in China, but I didn't have the opportunity to speak it," said Wang. Now he is fairly fluent and can easily conduct interviews.
After one year in Spain, Wang was ready for his next challenge. The academy helped connect him with Rancho Santa Margarita Catholic High School in south Orange County. "My parents and I decided that going to America would be a good move," he said.
Wang arrived at Santa Margarita in fall 2015. Although he played sparingly during his junior and senior years, Wang said the exposure to American-style basketball was critical for his development on the court. "The main difference with Europe is that the U.S. features a stronger skill set, with physicality, athleticism and an aggressive style of playing," said Wang.
Jeff Reinert, the Rancho Santa Margarita head coach, said Wang wasn't discouraged by his reserve role. "We're in the CIF Open Division, and we had a lot of good bigs. He faced a lot of competition. We were pleased to have him. He's the best human being in the world. He's a real team player who cares about his teammates.
"He's worked so hard at defending, rebounding and running the floor. He is continually improving," said Reinert. "His best basketball is clearly ahead of him."
A warm welcome from Orange County family
During his two years at the south Orange County school, Wang lived with the McGregor family. Derek McGregor, who owns Irvine-based DMc Engineering, and his wife Debbie were asked if they would be interested in hosting a foreign exchange student. "We told our son AJ, who was a sophomore at the time, it's your choice. He said, 'Let's try it,' and he gave up his room for Johnny.
"We said, 'OK. We'll go six months and see how it goes.' Then he was there for another six months. And two years went by. Johnny is a great kid and became a de facto member of the family. And AJ and Johnny have become good friends," said McGregor, who said Wang still pops in at their home to visit or do laundry.
McGregor said Wang's determination to succeed in basketball is inspiring. "There is nobody who works harder than Johnny. He has a work ethic beyond imagination. When he's not playing, he's watching basketball on TV. His focus is laser sharp."
Wang's appetite for basketball may only be exceeded by his taste for food. "I've never seen a human eat as much as Johnny. Debbie had to double the amount of food for the entire family when Johnny lived with us," said McGregor. Two of their three children were living at home at the time.
"He likes a wide variety of food," McGregor said. "One night we had tacos. We asked him, 'How many would you like?' He ate ten."
Wang was pleasantly surprised with the variety of cuisine in the U.S. "No offense, but when I learned English in China, every story had Americans eating hamburgers. I've been trying different dishes – Mexican, Italian, American.
He estimates that he needs to consume 4500 calories a day to maintain his weight. "I eat a lot. Food and nutrition are big for me. I'm not a picky eater – I eat a lot of things. But seafood and steak are my favorites."
Wang is 'finding his niche'
His lack of playing time in high school didn't deter the Titans from pursuing him as a recruit. Taylor was impressed by Wang's overall skills and tenacity. "He has gained confidence and can now hold his own. Johnny has increased his minutes and is finding his niche," he said.
"He is one of the best young men I have been around. He's respectful, smart and very prepared. On a recent road trip, I returned to the hotel after practice and saw Johnny in the hotel workout room lifting weights. He really pushes himself."
Wang is pleased with his decision at attend Fullerton. "I love all my teammates. We have lots of fun conversations. The team bonding is really tight. We're all family."
Last summer, Wang and three Titan teammates competed in the invitation-only pro-am Drew League in South Los Angeles. Wang tries to pattern his game after NBA stars Blake Griffin and Kevin Love. "They are mobile, can defend, fish and shoot threes – physical players who can move and rebound."
Wang is majoring in international business. His goal is to play professional basketball, either in the U.S. or overseas. Eventually, Wang would like to work for an international sports company, where he could capitalize on his language skills and knowledge from his extensive travels.
When he's not busy with school and sports, Wang enjoys reading books and watching movies. "I'm understanding English much better now, so I'm reading pretty well. I just read Kobe Bryant's book, 'The Mamba Mentality,' and I liked 'Creed II.'
"I like the weather in California. It never gets cold. It's hot in the summer, but I don't mind it. Sometimes it's snowing in China and I have to wear a couple jackets."
Last season, the Titans' Big West Conference championship and trip to the NCAA basketball tournament left a big impression on Wang. The Titans fell to Purdue in a first-round game in Detroit.
"When I was in Spain, I didn't know anything about March Madness. Someone there told me it is the best tournament in the world. So it was a dream to step on the stage in Detroit. I didn't play a lot, but it was one of the best experiences I've ever had. We are trying to get better each week. We want to win the conference championship again."
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