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Adventures in Nation Building

Harris has enjoyed his experience coaching the Chinese men's basketball team, even though there won't be a medal at the end of it.

August 27, 2004|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — The game was lost. And so were the medals.

Down by 20 points to Lithuania with less than a minute to play in its quarterfinal game, China was beyond even making the game respectable Thursday at the Olympic Indoor Hall.

But one could never tell from watching China's coach. He was still pacing the sidelines, directing the offense, imploring his players to hustle as if Olympic gold were still within reach.

"I hate to lose," Del Harris said afterward.

Yes, that Del Harris. The Del Harris who once paced the Laker sideline with the same passion.

The same Del Harris who has been a head coach with the Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets and, currently, an assistant with the Dallas Mavericks.

For the last three months, "three months and two days," to be specific, Harris has been working in China and here in Athens to make the Chinese basketball program respectable.

That nation was 10th in basketball in the 2000 Olympics and 12th at the 2002 world championships, but, under Harris, the Chinese made the medal round in these Olympics.

"Their biggest problem is geography because they can't play in a league in Europe where they could get international experience," Harris said. "Still, the Chinese will find a way to be successful in basketball. It's not going to happen tomorrow, but it will happen."

The Chinese hope it happens within the next four years so that they can be medal contenders in 2008, when they will hold the Olympics. They are third in Athens in total medals and second in gold medals behind the U.S. They have won gold in sports such as weightlifting and diving but have excelled only in individual sports. Despite having more than 600 athletes in Athens, the Chinese are represented only in basketball among team sports.

That's why they hired Harris, who has also worked with teams from Puerto Rico and Canada.

"In each of my experiences as a world traveler," Harris, 67, said, "I've learned so much about peoples and cultures. But particularly so in this situation. I've learned how thoughtful, kind and generous the Chinese people are. They are wonderful human beings. I'm so glad I did it."

For someone who has had to deal with the massive egos found in the NBA, he has been particularly pleased to direct Chinese players.

"They are the easiest to coach of all the players I've ever had," Harris said.

From the Chinese point of view, the relationship has been just as pleasing.

"This is the first time that China has hired a coach from the outside, team captain Li Nan said. "He has taught us the rules of the game at the international level. He has taught us to play as a team. He has taught us to never give up through his attitude. He is our role model."

In the short time he has been at the helm of the team, Harris has learned to communicate with the players in their native tongue.

"I know about 1,000 words or so in Mandarin," Harris said. "Just short phrases."

Such as, "Give the ball to Yao Ming."

While Harris concedes various aspects of the game have yet to be fully developed by the Chinese, shooting is not one of them.

"A shooting contest between my Chinese team and the Dallas Mavericks would be really close," Harris said. "Actually, I think the Chinese would win it. They can really stroke the ball without a defense in front of them. Unfortunately, that is not the case in a game."

There have been some moments about his Chinese experience that still leave Harris shaking his head.

Like the postgame meals.

"They had this buffet that stretched from here to there," he said, pointing to a wall more than 10 feet away. "They had 20 different hors d'oeuvres and salads, 15-20 entrees and 17 different desserts. They had a wok station and a noodle station. But they never gain any weight. I don't know how they do it."

Harris also laughed about three games his team played on a tour in China.

"I was told we were going to play in small towns," he said. "The smallest town we played in had 1.5 million people."

So when the Olympic torch is lighted four years from now in China, will Harris be the hometown basketball coach?

"I've learned to listen to my father-in-law, who is in his 90s," Harris said. "He doesn't even buy green bananas. Don't ask me about four years from now."

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