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A Long Way to the NBA

China's top hoopsters hold court in Maywood, with few spectators but 15 million viewers at home. Can the team pick up the brash U.S. style?

March 22, 2006|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

Inside a Maywood gymnasium, two basketball teams competed before mostly empty stands.

It would have been easy to mistake the game for a local league contest or even a friendly scrimmage if not for the television camera crews and massive banners advertising Chinese telecommunications and furniture companies.

Not many people in Maywood cared who won or lost the game. But 5,000 miles away, about 15 million Chinese tuned in, as they do several times a week, to see the game on CCTV5 -- the Chinese ESPN. They were watching Beijing Aoshen Olympian, a professional basketball club that had found an unlikely home in the American Basketball Assn., a league of NBA has-beens, wannabes and might-have-beens.

Though some of the team's 12 Chinese players are routinely recognized on the streets of Beijing, here they live anonymously in modest dorm rooms at the University of the West, a Buddhist-founded campus in Rosemead. The team's star player, the 6-foot-9 Sun Yue, draws only curious looks when he strolls through L.A.-area malls shopping for sneakers.

The team's owner, Winston Lee, a wealthy developer and music promoter, decided to send his players to the United States to face tougher talent. He also was fairly sure that Chinese companies would pay to see the games broadcast to China because basketball has become one of the nation's hottest sports, fed by national pride in Yao Ming, the star center for the NBA's Houston Rockets. Today, the game is "as big as ping-pong," said Zhang Changhong, Aoshen's general manager.

There is no confusing the ABA with the NBA. This is a sometimes ragtag league where the team salary cap is $120,000 and games are occasionally canceled when teams fail to pay their players on time. Aoshen paid $10,000 to join the ABA. Most team owners get by with revenue from ticket sales and modest sponsorships and merchandising.

For Sun and his teammates, the league is their chance to follow in Yao's footsteps. But in Maywood and in other gyms throughout the West, Chinese aspirations have met American reality.

Competing almost exclusively against American players, Aoshen had to change from the conservative Chinese approach to a style that demands athleticism, intensity and flair.

As a team, their challenge was to survive a five-month season, weather the cultural shocks and maybe even make the playoffs.

"In American basketball, everyone has confidence," said Sun, 20, after a recent game in which his coach chastised him for not being more aggressive. "Basketball is much better here."


At first glance, Aoshen looks intimidating. They are one of the tallest teams in the league, with one player reaching 7 feet 1.

"I was standing behind one of them and I thought I was looking at Yao Ming from behind," said Rob Ridnour, coach of the Washington state-based Bellingham Slam, at a game in Maywood late last year.

Aoshen began the season convincingly, winning their first six games. But then word spread throughout the league that the Beijing team could be pressured into mistakes.

Six minutes into the game against Bellingham, Sun had been stripped of the ball three times.

Aoshen Coach LaShun McDaniel, an American who has coached in South America, Asia and Europe, shouted at his players to play with more ferocity.

"Kick his [rear]!" McDaniel said.

Aoshen would eventually win, 112-105, after some sharp passes by Sun and a deluge of three-point shots from two of the team's American players.

It was an aggressive style that McDaniel had been trying to instill: fast, loose and fluid.

"Everything about them was slow, half-court basketball," McDaniel said, referring to the first time he met the Chinese players. "I wanted a more up-tempo game. They didn't know basketball could be that fun. I saw 24-year-old men turn into 14-year-old boys."

The team's stoicism was more likely a cultural byproduct than an attitude problem. In China, the players were taught that emotion implied weakness or a lack of concentration.

So, although their opponents burst on the court with NBA swagger and attitude, the Chinese players were stone-faced, giving no hint whether they thought they would win or lose.

One of those was center Huang Hai Bei, who along with Sun is considered one of the team's best prospects. After playing in the United States, he realized that he was being outplayed under the basket.

"I need to change," said Huang, 23. "I need to play more strong."

The job of helping Huang, Sun and the other players adjust fell not only on McDaniel, but on Fred Vinson, one of the team's three American players.

During games, Vinson paced the court slapping his Chinese teammates' chests and shouting "Let's go!" To him, their timid demeanor reflected timid play, resulting in stripped balls, anxious shooting and mediocre blocking.

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