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Yao Shows What a Tall Order It's Going to Be

September 01, 2002|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

INDIANAPOLIS — For a few hours Saturday night, the RCA Dome seemed like someplace entirely different, someplace thousands of miles away.

Red-and-yellow banners festooned with Chinese characters fluttered through the crowd. A drum beat pounded as girls chanted the name of a far-off nation.

The United States might have won this first-round game at the World Basketball Championship, overcoming a slow start to defeat China, 84-65, but the featured attraction was the center on the losing team, Yao Ming.

American fans wanted a glimpse of the 7-foot-5 oddity who became famous overnight when the Houston Rockets selected him first in the June NBA draft. Chinese fans--more vociferous and noticeable among the 22,619 in attendance--came to cheer for their exceptional countryman.

"Today was like a home game," said Yao, who gazed around the stands during warmups. "It was a big crowd, the Chinese crowd."

Perhaps the most interested spectator was Rocket Coach Rudy Tomjanovich, who, like others around the league, is eager to know how Yao will fare in the NBA.

Though the likes of Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan are not on this U.S. squad, the 21-year-old faced NBA veteran Antonio Davis for much of the night and displayed a soft touch, scoring 10 points on jump shots from close range and a three-pointer.

"The kid could be really good," said U.S. Coach George Karl, who got his first look at Yao during an exhibition in Oakland last month. "From the standpoint of skill and size, he's extremely impressive."

League observers expect Yao will need to gain upper-body strength if he is to compete inside, and Saturday's performance did nothing to alter that prognosis. Though he grabbed six rebounds and, on one occasion, backed down the 6-foot-9 Davis for a turnaround jumper, Yao was mostly a nonentity under the boards.

He also got into foul trouble early, relegating him to the bench for long stretches. The same thing happened in Oakland, and Yao appears to be a quick study when it comes to one NBA skill: Griping.

"The fouls are not my problem," he said. "I have no control over the whistle. It's the referee who controls the whistle."

When Yao was at his best, the underdog Chinese team--which also features Denver Nugget forward Menke Bateer and sharpshooting guard Hu Weidong--held a lead through much of the first half. The Americans, as Karl put it, "got startled a little bit."

And then they got started.

As was the case against Germany the night before, the U.S. turned up the tempo and pulled away after halftime. Paul Pierce, emerging as the team's go-to guy, had a team-high 19 points and got help from Shawn Marion with 15 and Michael Finley with 14. The no-nonsense Ben Wallace supplied interior defense and nine rebounds.

With the victory the U.S. advances to the second round with a 3-0 record and, after a day of rest today, will face Russia on Monday. China (1-2) also advances.

But if Yao's performance was, as he put it, "only ordinary," his star appeal was decidedly better. The NBA is hoping his arrival will help tap a new market, selling more tickets among Chinese Americans and merchandise among millions of fans in China.

Saturday night offered a glimpse of the possibilities.

The banners and posters. All those fans dressed in red and chanting "China, China." There was even the sound of fireworks outside, the city holding its annual Labor Day celebration.

"It's very exciting to see such a big guy with such skills," said Qi Lu, a student at Southern Illinois University who brought his friends and an ornamental drum to the game. "There are a lot of Chinese people living here and they want to see him."

Yao suggested he might give them a better show in the future, saying, "I'm excited to play more games in the United States."

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