Basketball: Red Star over Houston?

The Rockets' No. 1 NBA draft pick may be Chinese

Even Shaquille O'Neal will have to look up to the probable first pick in this month's NBA draft. China's Yao Ming, 21, stands a shade over 7 foot 5 inches. And that's when he isn't wearing his size 19 sneakers.

Among basketball insiders, there's little doubt that the Chinese giant's got game. "He'll be a good player," says ESPN basketball analyst and former NBA coach Jack Ramsay. "He can handle the ball, run, and jump." To say nothing of Yao's knack for scoring. Playing for the Shanghai Sharks last season, the slender (at 236 pounds) big man averaged 41 points per game.

If there's a lingering question about Yao, it's whether the Chinese government will allow him to suit up. The Houston Rockets, who control the first pick in the June 26 draft, have spent weeks trying to coax a deal out of various Chinese sports federations and government officials. A team delegation, including coach Rudy Tomjanovich, returned home from a visit to Beijing on June 13. That came after Houston Mayor Lee P. Brown, on a trade mission to China, made a personal pitch for Yao.

To be sure, selling Yao to the pros is risky for the Chinese. A serious injury to the superstar could sideline him from the national basketball team, China's athletic pride and joy. Then there's the specter of defection.

Neither of the two Chinese who have played in the NBA has abandoned the homeland for the bright lights of their adopted NBA cities. But earlier this month, Wang Zhizhi, who played last season with the Dallas Mavericks, failed to report to China for mandatory training with the national team. (Wang's agent squelched defection speculation, telling the Dallas Morning News Wang intends to rejoin the national team.)

Still, China and basketball watchers see much to recommend in a Yao-NBA marriage. Already, buzz surrounding the draft has enhanced the credibility of Chinese basketball around the world, and especially in the U.S. "It's a kind of self-validation--a way for the Chinese to say, `We are producing the best basketball player in the world this year,"' says David Bachman, chair of the University of Washington's China Studies Program.

Then there's the boost in Yao's on-court skills that is almost certain to occur after a few seasons trading baskets with O'Neal and other NBA behemoths. "Assuming [Chinese officials] have an interest in the growth of Chinese basketball, this is a huge benefit. The only way for players to get better is to play against the best," says Russ Granik, the NBA's deputy commissioner.

Millions of dollars may also salve concerns about Yao's playing in the U.S. About half of his earnings--roughly $10.4 million over three years--would go to various sports and government agencies. And that doesn't count endorsement deals. "There's an interest there in striking a deal. But certainly, the Chinese side will do what it can to maximize value," says Bachman.

There are plenty of dollars at stake for the NBA, too. Chinese fans can already follow the draft on an NBA site presented in Mandarin Chinese. And TV audiences there are growing. Six NBA games are telecast each week, and audiences climb when local heroes are on the court. For Wang's debut with the Mavericks in 2001, 300 million Chinese tuned in, according to the NBA.

A hotshot like Yao will only stoke interest further, predict NBA execs. The league is opening an office in China this year. By next season, it will have a licensed apparel deal that for the first time will allow fashion-conscious NBA fans in Beijing to shop for Jordan--and possibly Yao--jerseys at their corner clothing store.

By that time, Rockets officials say, Yao Mania may have taken root just as strongly in Houston. Among the city's 150,000 residents of Chinese descent, interest in the team has blossomed since the May 19 draft lottery in which the Rockets won the top spot. The next day, "we had a call from a prominent businessman of Chinese descent asking the price of 500 season tickets. That's unusual," says Rockets Chief Operating Officer George Postolos. Good prospect. But it will take Yao in a Rockets uniform to close the sale.

By Mark Hyman

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