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Ma Jian paved way for sports fame

From CNN's Hugh Riminton

Ma Jian on the court.
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CNN's Hugh Riminton talks to basketballer Ma Jian

BEIJING, China (CNN) -- On the crowded basketball courts of Beijing's vast urban sprawl, Ma Jian still carries himself like the basketball lion that he once was.

He was a hero of the Chinese Olympic team, until he set off one day for the United States.

"I was not thinking of being a rebel. One -- I wanted to go get a better education; and two -- I wanted to play the best basketball," he said. "You know as a basketball player, the United States is the best."

In the early 1990s, Ma Jian's appearance on the U.S. college basketball circuit was seen as gross disloyalty. He was blackballed and never played for his country again.

"The U.S. and China have a totally different mentality as a people, y'know," he says.

"The people here (in China) -- they want to control players more. But in the U.S. it's up to the players what they want to do in future."

The financial fortunes of China's sporting stars remains a delicate subject. In January double Olympic diving champion Tian Liang was also dumped -- in his case for chasing endorsements.

He skipped team duties to cash in, and his prospects for a third successive Olympic title in Beijing in 2008 seem slight, for now.

But as with everything in Chinese these days, there are rapid changes afoot.

And in part that's thanks to the most prodigiously talented Chinese youth ever to pull on a pair of basketball shoes -- the one and only Yao Ming.

If Ma Jian's lonely defiance first cracked open the door to America, it was Yao Ming who blew it off its hinges.

With projected personal earnings of $300 million, the giant of the Houston Rockets is being hailed as China's first global sports superstar.

And where Ma Jian suffered official isolation, Yao Ming has just been named a "model worker" by the Chinese communist authorities.

For the first time, vast wealth and a foreign address are not necessarily an impediment to official hero status.

That's good news for Ian Stirling, a talent spotter for the world's biggest sports management company, IMG. Stirling believes a Chinese face could soon be at or near the top of every global sport, including soccer, tennis and golf.

"There's obviously the population to support any sport, so why would golf be any different?" Stirling said. "There'll be some players who could certainly be the next Tiger Woods."

Stirling already handles China's top golfer Zhang Lian-wei, a self-taught player who has battled officialdom to play overseas. Zhang has broken through to become the first Chinese player to win on the European tour and the first to play the U.S. Masters.

"The first generation of Chinese golfers have faced a lot of difficulties," Zhang says. "But the next generation, I think, will be quite outstanding in Asia and the world."

Zhang, a farm boy who first saw a golf bag when he was asked to carry one for a Japanese tourist, now plays at any one of the lavish new golf complexes springing up across China

But it's basketball that is the number one participation sport in China, and the global game that could be most reshaped by a Chinese explosion.

Ma Jian believes that if coaching techniques can be brought up to American levels, there is no limit.

"I never regret what I did," he says. "I'm really proud of myself because, you know, think about it -- I am the one. If you say I am making history well, maybe that's too big, but I did actually."

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