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SEPTEMBER 20, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 11

Hoop Dreams, Chinese-Style
America's pro basketball teams are jumping at the prospect of signing a few of China's highly skilled--and very tall--players
By TIM NOONAN Fukuoka

The Chinese men's national basketball team seems to have it all: height, youth, experience and, after many disappointments, a big victory with last week's win at the Asian Basketball Confederation championship in the Japanese city of Fukuoka. That gives China Asia's sole spot in the basketball competition at the 2000 Summer Olympics. But with all that under their belt, a few Chinese players may well have their eye on another prize: a shot at the National Basketball Association.

Consider this: the U.S. currently suffers a dearth of talented players taller than 2.1 m. China just happens to have a pair of world-class giants: Wang Zhizhi (2.16 m) and Yao Ming (2.29 m). Wang, in fact, was drafted by the N.B.A. The Dallas Mavericks selected him as the 36th overall pick in this year's draft. "Wang Zhizhi is ready for the N.B.A. right now," says Dale Brown, who tried unsuccessfully to recruit Wang for his Louisiana State University team. "In Asia, he is a man among boys."

It isn't certain that Wang, 22, will actually become China's first export to the N.B.A., however. Mavericks assistant coach Don Nelson and team owner Ross Perot Jr. recently traveled to Beijing to try to secure Wang's services. But the Chinese player's club--the Bayi Rockets, official team of the People's Liberation Army--refused to release him. In China, a team has absolute hold on a player's rights. And as the dominant league power, Bayi is reluctant to give up its star. "When we drafted him we understood the challenges of getting him over to play," says Nelson, who also traveled to Fukuoka to scout the talent. "We didn't expect him to join us right away, but there is a strong possibility in the future." Wang, for his part, seems eager to test himself against the world's top competition. "I really enjoyed the game against the American Dream Team III at the 1996 Olympics," he says (the U.S. won, 133-70). But Wang isn't the kind who would leave China without permission.

The intoxicating prospect of a Chinese player starring in the N.B.A., the world's highest-profile league, has many parties excited. "From a marketing perspective, it would be huge," says Mary Reiling Spencer, vice president and managing director for N.B.A. Pacific. In China, broadcasts of N.B.A. games are seen by millions. "Ultimately it is the decision of the player and the team," says Reiling Spencer. "Everybody strives to do his best, and if the best means that he plays in the N.B.A. and makes it there, it can really only be a positive." Despite its interest in Wang, the N.B.A. doesn't wish to be seen as plundering China's professional league. But there aren't many Chinese on the N.B.A.'s wish list. "Realistically there are only a few players ready right now for the N.B.A.," says Richard Avory, senior vice president of International Management Group, which helps run the Chinese league. "Letting them play in the U.S. would be a huge boon for Chinese basketball."

China's other big talent is towering, 19-year-old center Yao Ming. "You watch how fast Yao Ming runs up and down the floor and see how coordinated he is, and you have to remind yourself, this kid is 7 ft. 6 in. [2.32 m] tall!" says Casey. But Yao seems content playing with his hometown Shanghai Sharks and avoiding, as far as possible, the glare of publicity. "I am not really bothered by the attention I have started to receive," says Yao. "My teammates are like brothers, and they protect me." Says Tom McCarthy, an Asian Basketball Confederation executive: "He just turned 19 and he plays like he is still slightly embarrassed by his huge size advantage. Within a few years, when he polishes his game and decides unabashedly to take over, he will dominate internationally."

A few years ago, Chinese star Ma Jian nearly became the first Asian to play in the N.B.A. Ma, 31, is fast and powerful and can handle the ball as deftly as he can battle big men underneath the basket. Seven years ago, he asked Chinese authorities for permission to try his luck at college ball in the U.S. He was refused but went anyway, despite warnings he could never rejoin the national team if he left. After playing sporadically in junior college and then at the University of Utah, Ma tried to make it in the N.B.A. in 1996, attending the Los Angeles Clippers' training camp. He was the last player cut by the Clippers. Ma returned to Asia and now plays for the Beijing Aoshen team in the Chinese National Basketball League. He watched from a distance on television while his countrymen qualified for the Olympics.

For now, the American scouts, too, have to be content to watch. "The only country with more basketball talent than China is the United States," says Brown, the former Louisiana State coach. "I think China will replace the old Russia and Yugoslavia teams as an international power." There's no question that, with its huge population, China has a surfeit of tall--and gifted--youngsters. "China has done a very good job of finding the size and cultivating it," says Dwane Casey, a Seattle Supersonics assistant coach taking in the action in Fukuoka. American coaches would like to see what they can do with that talent as well--once Chinese officials give them the green light.

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