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Haverford School lands a towering recruit from afar

As Chinese imports go, this one has been a slam dunk - literally. Tao Xu, a gentle 18-year-old giant from China's Shandong province, is turning heads skyward as a newly arrived junior in the polished corridors of the Haverford School.

Tao Xu, a 6-foot-11 high school basketball player from China, chats with Charles Monroe, assistant basketball coach at Haverford School.
Tao Xu, a 6-foot-11 high school basketball player from China, chats with Charles Monroe, assistant basketball coach at Haverford School.Read moreElizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer

As Chinese imports go, this one has been a slam dunk - literally.

Tao Xu, a gentle 18-year-old giant from China's Shandong province, is turning heads skyward as a newly arrived junior in the polished corridors of the Haverford School.

It's hard to miss the 6-foot-11, 253-pound - and possibly still growing - basketball prodigy who arrived on campus six weeks after the start of class. He towers over his classmates and teachers, dressed in the Main Line school's mandatory jacket and tie but plain black shoes, nothing like the pricey Sperrys that nearly all the other students wear. And when he expresses his gratitude for the opportunity to study and play hoops at the elite boy's school, it's in halting English.

He came to the Philadelphia suburbs "to learn knowledge and play basketball," he said, his lanky body splayed over a chair in the school's admissions office, and has already been contacted by several colleges, including Georgetown, Utah, UConn, Temple, and Drexel.

Xu is the fourth international student the school has recruited since embarking on a program three years ago to increase its "global programming," said Matthew Green, head of the upper school.

The goal is to have five to 10 students from five or so different regions or cultures.

In creating a study body, "it's really about making a really flavorful soup so we have a wide range of students," Green said.

Foreign students stay with host families and apply for needs-based scholarships like any other applicants. Green declined to discuss Xu's financial situation for privacy reasons. Tuition is $31,800.

Learning English, Xu says, has been hard.

His odyssey of more than 7,000 miles from the city of Qingdao was almost checked by a freak accident last summer in China. A member of the country's junior national basketball team, he fell during a game and fractured three vertebrae in his lower back.

He spent two months in bed before he could fly to the United States. The arrival of the hobbled hoopster on Oct. 21 became a showcase of patience and perseverance for Haverford, as officials promised to fulfill Xu's ambition for a top-shelf American education no matter what happened on the basketball court.

"Hopefully, Tao knows we care more about him as a person than a basketball player," said Henry Fairfax, admissions director and new head basketball coach, who worked hard to recruit him.

By the time the team held tryouts last Friday, doctors had cleared Tao to play and he was practicing without contact, with no exact timetable for when he can go full tilt. He says he's about "90 percent," Fairfax said.

On the court, he has his own assistant to make sure he understands what's going on. But within 10 minutes, "he knew the plays of every position. I'm really impressed," Fairfax said.

Off the court, the school hired an English tutor to help Tao get up to speed in the classroom - he struggles in English class but does well in Algebra II and has a 3.54 GPA - but Fairfax said his protege has no trouble talking with students and teachers. He recently went to a concert at World Cafe in Philadelphia and is particularly interested in technology, the economy, and gas prices.

In one way, he's like many American teens: He "talks" to his parents by Tweeting and texting.

For Fairfax, Xu represents a chance to restore Haverford basketball to the level it last had when he was its star player in 1999, the last year the team won the championship of its Inter-Ac league.

A kid from West Philadelphia, Fairfax was at what was then St. John Neumann in his sophomore year when he was recruited by Haverford, where the academics were so intimidating he decided to start classes as a freshman.

"I came with basketball on my mind, much more so than Tao," Fairfax said. "I wasn't apologizing for it."

Fairfax was ultimately recruited to play for Drexel on a full scholarship. After his final game for the collegiate Dragons, Joseph Cox, the Haverford headmaster then and now, came up to him with the idea of returning to the Main Line to teach and coach.

After a five-year pit stop recruiting and nurturing inner-city youths and coaching basketball at a private school in Maryland, Fairfax came back to run upper-school admissions at Haverford in 2008. In short order, he earned a master's degree in educational leadership from the University of Pennsylvania, took over admissions for the entire school, and was named varsity basketball coach this year.

Although the school is a national power in lacrosse and soccer, Haverford hasn't won a league championship in basketball since Fairfax graduated, a source of irritation for him. "As a raging competitor, I don't take well to losing," he said. "That does not go away. That's inherent in me."

Xu's arrival shows that Haverford is jumping into the increasing elaborate global search for young athletic superstars.

Inspired by the success of the 7-foot-6 Yao Ming, who was the No. 1 draft choice of the Houston Rockets in 2002 at age 22, scouts now look to Asia for basketball's next big man.

This summer, an assistant basketball coach at Haverford learned from Dozie Mbonu, a well-known Philadelphia-area basketball figure who runs a sports management firm and develops and recruits players internationally, that Xu was interested in coming to the United States to finish his high school career. The well-pedigreed only child of a university basketball coach father and a mother who coaches volleyball, Xu had been playing hoops since age 9, excelled at Nike's Asian basketball camps, and played for Chinese national youth teams.

"I've only seen videos, but I think he's a fluid kid, fairly coordinated for a boy his size, runs the floor fairly well, active around the basket, really good footwork," Fairfax said.

Before recruiting him, however, Fairfax – sensitive to his dual role in admissions and with the basketball squad – needed to make sure Xu could cut it in the classroom.

Fortunately, Fairfax was able to verify that Xu's academic record in Shandong was very good - "nothing less than a B" - and he was accepted to the school in late August, expecting to start classes in early September as a senior.

But it was just three days after Xu was admitted that misfortune struck on a Chinese basketball court. A collision with another player during a game took out Xu's legs and caused his serious lower-back injury. He spent 10 days in a hospital and endured a long wait before doctors cleared him for the long flight to America. Fairfax decided Xu had missed so much class time he should repeat his junior year.

Fairfax and Xu are both happy the attention-grabbing new student is here, even if he never blocks a single shot.

"It's been exciting to have Tao here," Fairfax said. "The kids have accepted him and welcomed him with open arms. Hopefully, he can help us in hoops. We're really excited because I think he adds a neat flavor to the community."