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NBA Eyes China's Rare Ming

Shanghai player is 21 years old, 7 feet 5 and talented. But meeting Chinese demands will be a tall order for the U.S. team that drafts him.


LUSHAN, China — Watch out, America. A Chinese kid might be on his way to rock your basketball world.

He stands 7 feet 5 in his bare feet. (Shaquille O'Neal? A diminutive 7 feet 1.) And he once shot a three-pointer over Michael Jordan.

Some in the National Basketball Assn. love his height and his potential so much, they expect him to become this year's top draft pick. He would be among a handful of foreigners to reach that stature in the world's premier basketball league.

You might say it's the dawning of the Ming Dynasty. The reign of Yao Ming, a 21-year-old native of Shanghai.

To be sure, there remains some skepticism.

After watching Yao at an NBA-sponsored practice this year, some scouts questioned whether the young man with the nice shooting touch could transition to the faster, rougher NBA game.

But it's a gamble some teams seem willing to make.

"In one national game, he shot 21 times and made 21. How often do you hear that?" said Carroll Dawson, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, winner of this year's first pick in the June 26 draft, who have indicated that they are serious about drafting Yao.

But all good things come with a price.

This once-in-a-generation basketball prodigy is no mere athlete. He is China's national treasure, a symbol of growing Chinese status--and a priceless bargaining chip.

Any team that wants Yao in its uniform must first duke it out with the Communist sports machinery.

For Americans, it's a crash course on the vast cultural difference between the capitalist assumptions of U.S. professional sports and the paternalistic power of the Chinese state.

For the Chinese, it's a golden opportunity to flex their diplomatic muscle and remind the world that China's got what everyone wants.

"America has Michael Jordan, and China has Yao Ming," said Li Yaomin, the manager of Yao's current team, the Shanghai Sharks.

"If I were the NBA, I'd give anything for a player like Yao Ming," Li said.

Yao's personality, however, seems at odds with such a ferocious sport.

He used to refuse to dunk because he didn't think that it was nice. He likes to read ancient history. He hates to show off his height: The first thing he does when he walks into a room is sit down, even if it's on his duffel bag.

His looks are equally disarming.

His skull almost scrapes the ceiling in corridors of the modest Lushan Hotel here, where he stayed last month during a warmup game with the Chinese national team for upcoming competitions. His size 18 footsteps echo off the walls. But compared with 335-pound Shaq, he's practically scrawny. And his pensive brow, forlorn stare and graceful arms give him more the look of a schoolboy in love than a gladiator in the hard-core world of basketball.

Few dispute that Yao has talent.

But many caution against high expectations. They say Yao will have to put on some weight--he could stand to add about 30 pounds to his roughly 300-pound frame--and become accustomed to NBA play before his talents and potential can truly be evaluated.

"He's got incredible skills. For a guy his size, that makes it more unusual.... He's really coordinated," said Mitch Kupchak, Laker general manager. "But the No. 1 concern is that he needs a lot of work on his upper body."

Former NBA star Bill Walton has described Yao in terms of potential, which he called "huge."

Coach Larry Brown of the Philadelphia 76ers said of the Chinese standout: "In four years, he could be one of the best players in the world."

Money Matters

If Yao is picked first, the NBA's rookie salary structure could pay him about $12 million over three years, plus endorsements. That's a big raise from the $70,000 a year he earns now. But according to NBA rules, Yao's home team is only entitled to a transfer fee of $350,000.

That is not what China is expecting.

The central government is demanding 50% of Yao's earnings and endorsement income--for the rest of his career. Yao must then split the remaining half with the Sharks, his coaches and his agents.

On top of that, the Sharks want the NBA team that signs Yao to supply training camps in the U.S., coaching help and NBA-level American players to help them become the Lakers of China.

"In the U.S., parents spend money to train athletes," Li said. "In China, the state pays for everything. We feed him, we dress him, and we house him. When a child grows up, he must take care of his mother. There's nothing strange about that."

So for the Rockets, a lucky draw has turned into an international gamble.

"This is all rather new and very interesting," Dawson said before he left for China this week to hash things out face to face. "Basketball-wise, that's a slam dunk. He's got finesse, he's got strength, he's got scoring capacity. His athletic ability and his size are outstanding. He makes everybody play better. That's the kind of man we want."

Politically, it's still a bit up in the air.

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