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THE INSIDE TRACK | DIANE PUCIN

An American Moment Deep in Heart of Texas

April 06, 2001|DIANE PUCIN

DALLAS — His first move was a stumble, a clumsy attempt to drive by Nazr Mohammed and it ended in a turnover.

But the crowd still stood and cheered.

Wang Zhizhi, a lieutenant in the Chinese Army, a 7-foot center with a sweet shot and sweet smile, became the first Asian player to perform in an NBA game. He scored six points in eight minutes. He had three rebounds and two fouls for the Dallas Mavericks.

And Wang, who pumped both fists after his first basket, an 18-foot jump shot in the fourth quarter, also proved something else.

At a time when 24 U.S. airmen are either prisoners or detainees of the Chinese government, depending on what story you want to believe, at a time when a U.S. spy plane is in the custody of the Chinese government, at a time when the Chinese government blames the U.S. for a mid-air collision--of planes and purposes--which caused the death of a Chinese pilot, basketball fans at Reunion Arena were shouting "Wang, Wang, Wang," and pulling up shirts to show stomachs with the painted letters 'W' and 'A' and 'N' and 'G.'

One woman held up a sign which said "Welcome to Wang's World." In the fourth quarter, when Wang was feeling it, the P.A. blared loud the song "Everybody Wang Chung Tonight."

Everybody did.

"I feel," Maverick owner Mark Cuban said, "that this tells us a lot about the nature of sports and about how inclusive we are in this country.

"I've gotten thousands of e-mails since we signed Wang. And there were thousands in support of Wang and only a couple asking what we were doing. But here comes this kid, really nervous about everything, about the reception he was going to get and it couldn't have worked out any better."

Wang, a 23-year-old son of two basketball players--his father, Wang Weijun, is 6-7 and his mother, Ren Huanzhen, who played for the Chinese national women's team 20 years ago, is 6-4--arrived in Dallas a week ago. He signed a two-year, $800,000 contract two days ago. He has played for the Chinese Olympic team and for a Chinese Army team.

During the 1996 Olympics, Wang remembers playing against Shaquille O'Neal. "I had 12 points," Wang said. "And he made two fouls on me." So if the Mavericks play the Lakers in the playoffs--and, yes, the Mavericks have qualified for the playoffs and it very well might be Mavericks versus Lakers at some point--Laker fans might not want to welcome Wang with a standing ovation.

But this isn't about Wang as player.

If it was, we'd note that Wang has a soft, accurate jump shot which he seems comfortable shooting from 20 feet in. And we'd note the swift, strong move Wang made to the baseline against Mohammed to score his second basket was confident and natural. And we'd note that Wang might give up as many points as he scores. Wang doesn't do defense yet.

This is about what sports means, about how sports breaks down boundaries.

The Mavericks give away free Taco Bell chalupas if Dallas scores over 100 points. It was Wang, with a seven-foot shot, who put the Mavericks over the 100-point mark in Dallas' 108-94 victory over the Atlanta Hawks.

The fans were calling Wang "Chalupa Man," as Wang ran off the court. When somebody asked Wang what he was going to eat for his postgame meal, Wang didn't need his interpreter. "Chalupas," Wang said.

This Chinese basketball player who speaks almost no English, can make a baseline move that would make any playground star proud and he already has the nickname "Chalupa Man."

What a country.

Dallas officials have made sure that Wang is not asked about the political situation between the U.S. and China. They've told him not to respond.

"We're not going to talk about the political issues," Dallas Coach Don Nelson said. "We're basketball here. We're not political in any way."

That's how it should be. We should be proud in our country that Wang came and was welcomed. What do you think the chances would be if, say, a U.S. table tennis star wanted to go to China so he could play the best athletes of his sport right now?

There has been talk in the U.S. of how Americans should boycott Chinese products. Easy to ask until we start looking at the labels of everything we own and see how much of it was made in China.

Boycotting Wang would do no good to anyone. Nelson said that Wang can "shoot the ball, he can pass the ball and he can rebound. He is very intelligent and he can pick things up quickly. He's a very interesting player."

Wang isn't even the biggest star in China. That would be 7-6 Yao Min, who might be the No. 1 pick in the next NBA draft, even though Chinese officials say it will be at least two years before he might be given his release to play in the U.S.

"That's the thing about us," Cuban said. "We accept everything in this country. We'll take players from Mexico or Germany or Canada or China and let them make our game better and we'll cheer for that."

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