This is an SI article during the Olympics. Thought this was applicable because it talks about all three big men from China ("The Great Wall" as they were called) and:
1) It makes no illusions that Menk Bateer was going to be something in the NBA. In fact, Donnie Nelson says in the article, "I wouldn't be surprised if some NBA team gave him a sniff. He's sort of a Joe Kleine type." Not exactly a glowing endorsement. It just made me wonder if Chinese fans would pass on Raef LaFrentz simply because Jim McIlvaine came to play in the CBA and sucked ass.
2) It raves about Wang Zhizhi, in fact comparing him to "Toni Kukoc, only with more appetite for defense" ... the defensive comparison is a little unnerving. However, in all fairness, I think Wang can be something in this league -- he just has been buried on the Mavs' bench.
3) The talk of how China basketball is so far behind on diet and weight training for the players really shows you how NBA teams are probably dying to get their hands on Yao and get him started on a program to build upper body strength.
I personally don't try to deceive myself to think Yao is going to come in as a rookie and dominate, and I know many will be so critical of the pick after just a game or two, but my feeling, based off what little I have seen of him and the great amount I have read about him, is he will be the real deal and become a very good and versatile center in this league given some time and training.
The Great Wall
By Alexander Wolff
At last count that purported nation of midgets numbered 1.25 billion people, a Malthusian figure that's likely to yield a few deviations from the mean. (Old joke: In China, when they tell you you're one in a million, there are a thousand more just like you.) Nonetheless, hearing suggestions of a more sinister genesis for all this size, I went to see for myself.
Within hours of arriving in Beijing, photographer Al Tielemans and I found ourselves, if not exactly face-to-face with Yao Ming, the 7'6" teenager who's one of three giants on the national team, at least darkened by his turrical shadow. "Do you think we could pose the three of you together at the Great Wall?" asked Al as he risked a crook in his neck. "Why do you need to do that?" Yao replied. "When we're all together, we are the Great Wall."
Indeed, Yao, 7-foot Wang Zhizhi and 7-foot Menk Bateer are known in the Chinese press as "the walking Great Wall." But to Xia Song, the hoops operator who had met us at Beijing's Capital International Airport, they were something more familiar. They were "my three big boys."
Xia, 30, is facile with the idioms of basketball, business and backslapping English. His clothing is festooned with swooshes, and he takes meetings at Beijing's Sports City Cafe, which looks like a spaceship just flown in from some NBA city. Bill Duffy, the U.S. agent who is advising Yao and Wang, has Xia on speed dial. So does Donn Nelson, director of player personnel and assistant coach of the Dallas Mavericks, who chose Wang in the second round of the 1999 NBA draft and are trying to prise him from the August 1 Rockets, the Chinese army team to which Wang is indefinitely indentured.
While Xia cultivates contacts in the States, taking advantage of the economic freedoms that Deng Xiaoping introduced to China in the late 1970s, many of the factotums in the sports bureaucracy are his former teachers at Beijing University of Sports and Physical Education. Thus Xia sits between the hidebound, centrally planned system of Mao Zedong, and the global marketplace into which Yao, Wang and Menk hope someday to step. When Nelson and his father, Don, the Mavericks' general manager and head coach, visited Beijing two summers ago with Ross Perot Jr., who then owned the team, Xia sat on the Mavs' side of the table, across from the impassive army generals who insisted that Wang's departure for the NBA was out of the question.
Xia laughed upon learning why Tielemans and I had come. "If foreigners think the Chinese people aren't big, it's because for years they've seen only people from Guangzhou or Hong Kong," he said. "It's true that south of the Yangtze River most people are short. There, they say to big guys--they call them 'long guys'--'You're wasting clothes!' But people north of the Yangtze can be very big. The problem is, How can young 7-footers get good coaching? High school and junior coaches are still training players in 1950s ways. There are no new ideas about diet or weight training. We need exchanges with other good basketball countries, like the U.S. and those in Europe, but we don't have many opportunities for our coaches to go abroad."
Wang Fei, the forward-thinking 37-year-old who coaches Wang Zhizhi's army team, spent five months in the U.S. last season as a guest of the Mavericks and Nike, studying NBA ways. But China's Olympic coach, Jiang Xingquan, 60, is a lantern-jawed devotee of the old school. He's the guy who last spring moved up the start of practice by a week to keep Yao from indulging in the individualistic folly of traveling to the U.S. to compete in the Nike Hoop Summit, where he could have auditioned for NBA scouts. Moreover, Jiang refused to make the walking Great Wall available to Al and me for more than a few minutes one day after practice, lest singling out any of them undermine team spirit.
This wasn't surprising. Not so long ago Chinese propaganda derided "the unhealthy American imperialist sport style of seeking headlines." As recently as 1994 the Chinese Basketball Association A-League didn't even keep individual statistics. At least Al and I had Xia, and Xia had the big guys' confidence, if only as an interpreter of the wider basketball world. Whipping out his cell phone, he set up meetings with each player.
We found Menk at Silk Road, his restaurant in northwest Beijing. Menk grew up not in the capital but in a town on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, where he dreamed of becoming a traffic cop. That ambition got scuttled the day the mayor showed up at school and, seeing how smartly the students had mustered to greet him, complimented the big fellow at one end of the lineup. Hizzoner had mistaken Menk, then only eight, for the teacher. Within two years Menk had joined the Mongolian provincial team. Soon thereafter he made his way to a sports school in Beijing and finally to the national team.
If the three big boys represent the elements, Menk is earth: broad, immobile and nearly 300 pounds. That long-ago goal of directing traffic is apparent in the way he sometimes stands and watches the action pass him by. "My problem is that my footwork isn't good enough," he said. "I want to learn the moves Olajuwon makes." Now 24, Menk is, according to NBA rules, too old to be drafted, although his skills impressed scouts at the Nike Desert Classic in Phoenix, which he attended in the spring of 1999.
"I wouldn't be surprised if some NBA team gave him a sniff," Donn Nelson has said. "He's sort of a Joe Kleine type." I hardly had time to consider what the world had come to if we could conceive a formulation like "the Mongolian Joe Kleine," for Xia was already rushing us toward our meeting with Yao, at the bar of the Beijing Hilton.
Yao, who'll turn 20 on Sept. 12, is wind: fresh, unbridled, animated by the thought of all the places he might go. He spends his free time as any American adolescent would, lurking in chat rooms behind a pseudonym (Sabonis) or loping into a Starbucks for his favorite drink (iced latte) and perhaps a moment's rumination on a faraway place where people call a small a "tall." In 1998 Nike invited Yao to one of its summer camps. After watching him drop a couple of three-pointers on him during an evening scrimmage, Michael Jordan said, "We want him right now. I'm calling [Chicago Bulls vice president of basketball operations] Jerry Krause."
In China, no bit of Jordaniana escapes notice, including the detail that Jordan so despises Krause that he avoids speaking to him. So back home people knew: Yao must have made quite an impression. "He's a Rik Smits who can block shots and rebound," Duffy says. "Yao Ming and Tyson Chandler [a 7'1" high school star in Compton, Calif.] are the two best teenage big men in the world." (Clutch: Great quote, but you should never consider a quote from a player's agent to be anything but self-serving)
Both of Yao's parents--his 6'9" father and 6'3" mother--played basketball for China. "That's where China's one-child policy comes back to haunt," says Terry Rhoads, sports marketing director for Nike-China. "If Mr. and Mrs. Yao had had five boys, there'd be an NBA franchise in Shanghai right now."
Upon learning that Wang Zhizhi is also the only child of former players, it occurred to me that if Chinese basketball authorities really are, as Brown alleged, trying to breed supersized players, they're letting prime opportunities go to waste. Nine years ago, when few Chinese foresaw the results of Deng's demarche, Wang's parents let their 14-year-old son join the army, in which he would enjoy the best coaching and facilities available in China. At the time he was 6'9"; within three years he had sprouted to his current 7 feet. Officials at the Beijing Sports Ministry, furious at seeing the city's finest prospect in a generation disappear into the army sports machine, froze Wang's father in his job as a youth coach. Wang is still in the army, powerless to leave until some general lets him go.
To see Wang play is to see why the brass is reluctant to part with him. Wang is fire--dancing, unpredictable in his movements. Left-handed and very poised at 23, he plays the all-court game of the Philadelphia 76ers' Toni Kukoc, only with more appetite for defense. Besides having range out to the three-point line, he can unfurl a baby hook, deploy a drop step and, says Donn Nelson, "handle and pass and dunk every which way. The hardest thing in our league is to find guys with that size who can do those things."
We met Wang after dark, at a hotel across from his team's dormitory in the Olympic training complex. He shambled into the lobby wrapped in a Mavericks warmup suit--wishfully wrapped, from all appearances. "It was a dream come true to be drafted," he said, "but it wasn't just destiny. I feel I worked hard for this goal. As a big man, dribbling and outside skills are my strengths. Those, and movement and transition." Braggadocio isn't in the makeup of the Chinese athlete, even the star. But in the cases of Wang, Yao and Menk, a quiet confidence is part of the package, and that's remarkable enough.
"You must understand our culture," Xia said. "It comes from the ancient philosophy of Confucius. Make your heart and mind calm, and then you can face the world. You should be 'in the middle.' You should be obedient. You should respect your elders. It's a very noncompetitive attitude. But the three big boys, they are different. Menk Bateer, he is very smart, strong and knows how to use his body. Wang Zhizhi is fearless. 'I don't care who you are,' he says. 'I am gonna beat you.' Yao Ming, even though a lot of people say he is like Rik Smits, thinks Rik Smits isn't good enough for him to copy. He says, 'I have everything Rik Smits has, yet Rik Smits doesn't have some things I have.'"
There's a schizoid quality to life in a country that's surrendering to the free market even as it's governed by doctrinaire apparatchiks. The way I'd met each of Xia's big boys reflected those cross purposes. The bureaucracy beneath the surface bustle in China is as inert as ever, and every minister, subaltern and clerk seems to have some stake in the fates of Wang and Yao. The army team has won five straight CBA A-League titles; no officer wants to be the Colonel Klink who lets Wang escape to Dallas. While Yao's freedom to light out for the NBA might in theory be greater, he and Duffy will have to pull off a trifecta: winning over the municipal sports commission of Yao's hometown, Shanghai; the directorate of his club, the Shanghai Sharks; and CBA headquarters in Beijing, all of which will probably get a cut of Yao's salary.
If pressed, Xia predicts that Wang, not Yao, will be the first Asian to play in the NBA. He cites a simple Confucian reason. "Yao Ming sees Wang Zhizhi as an older brother," Xia told us, "and he believes Wang Zhizhi should make the first step of the people of the yellow skin."
The three big boys have journeyed to Jinan, capital of Confucius's home province, Shandong, to take on the Japan All-Stars in an Olympic tune-up. Yao Ming pinballs from sideline to sideline, blocking six shots in the game's first nine minutes. But racking up blocks against a Japanese team is like collecting flea bites in a kennel. Moreover, it's clear that Yao has never done any weight work. "They could hire a strength coach for a few days to work with Yao Ming, but they want to be fair to everybody," Xia explains. "They're trying to change, but they just don't know how yet." Sent into action in the second quarter, Wang Zhizhi infuses the game with energy. The ease with which he dominates in the post signals how desperately he needs to go to the NBA, in which he would find more daunting challenges.
Along with obedience, calm and equipoise, Confucius counseled, "To go beyond is as wrong as to fall short." While Wang seems willing to flout that teaching, Menk Bateer may have studied it too well. Steady and composed, he's effective against any Asian national team. But in Sydney he and his teammates will have to swap Confucius for Nietzsche if they expect to place any higher than eighth, where China finished at the 1994 world championships and the '96 Olympics, its best result in a global competition.
"The fact is, they've got size equal to anybody in the world, but they don't really use it," said Bruce Palmer, the American coach of the Japan All-Stars, after China's 138-73 victory. "If they really want to step up, they're going to have to develop a strength-and-recovery program--massage, diet, weights, stretching in the pool. Right now they look like buggy whips."
Indeed, that lack of physical robustness may be as culturally ingrained as Confucianism. Bai Jinshen is an old basketball character who coached Wang's mother in Beijing and now delivers commentary for China Central TV (CCTV). He explains, "Ancient Chinese sports were always performances, always art. Sports were for health and exercise, not competition. So it's been a tradition for us to be better at performance sports, like diving and gymnastics and shooting, than competitive sports. Or, if the sport must be competitive, let it be table tennis and volleyball, where there's a net. Dividing the competitors is better, so there's no body contact.
"You know, China has the largest number of bicycles in the world, but we have never produced a cycling champion. To us, a bicycle is just a transportation device. Quantity doesn't mean anything. You must have quality."
For all the sinister prophesies that had impelled my visit, I'd found ample basketball quantity and some quality, but nothing close to quality in quantity, much less the strength, aggressiveness and modern training techniques that might help China threaten Olympic teams from Australia, Europe and the U.S. If the balance of power in global hoops is going to tip Eastward, it won't do so for at least another generation.
To be sure, Chinese basketball is improving rapidly. "It is much different from four or five years ago," says another television personality, Xu Jicheng, who hosts CCTV's NBA broadcasts. "Living standards are improving, which means a better diet and more free time. On TV kids watch Chinese league games, the NBA, whatever. There are enough big guys with good athletic ability that now we just ignore the clumsy ones."
But that story of 100 young 7-footers, even if it were literally true, wouldn't mean much. The Chinese Basketball Association counts 200 million males playing the game. If you were to pluck only one 7-footer from every two million of them, you'd harvest your 100 post prospects right there. Some certainly have exhilarating potential. Tang Zhengdong, a 7'1" 18-year-old from Jiangsu province, has Shaq-like breadth, runs the floor and would be in Sydney if coach Jiang had any use for a fourth center. Xue Yuyang of Henan Province, though only 19, is a 7-foot all-court prodigy with the touch and handle, Xu says, "of Penny Hardaway." But not even a dozen Chinese big men, says Donn Nelson, have "the hands and feet and basic things that are needed." Reports of a law on the books in Shanghai permitting a husband taller than 6'3" and a wife more than 5'11" to have a second child and even a third turned out to be false. Anyone who believes China is pursuing coercive eugenics, says Nike's Rhoads, "is smoking something."
For the moment, China will rely on the oldest genetic engineer of all, Qu Pid. Just as rumor had brought me to China, rumor saw me off. There's a 6'3" forward on the women's national team, and word has it that one of the three big boys is sweet on her.