Players view Harris as if he's tall as Yao
Posted: Aug. 15, 2004
Athens, Greece - Yao Ming was angry, angrier than anyone had ever seen him during an NBA game, as Spain was crushing his Chinese national basketball team Sunday in an Olympics preliminary round. And now a TV reporter from his country was asking whether it was appropriate to show such anger in public.
He's sharing a very small suite in Athens with five others from the Chinese delegation, including Yao and guard Liu Wei. Although Harris has a somewhat modern bathroom to himself and the players have a miniscule shower stall with an overflowing drain and a half-curtain 3 inches too short, neither Yao nor Wei will accept Harris' offer of his facilities.
"They wouldn't hear about using my bathroom," Harris said. "They have to wade in there to pee. They have no hot water. In Chinese, (their reaction) sounds the same as when you take a cold shower.
Although Yao speaks fluent English, he tried to explain his behavior in his native tongue with a Chinese proverb through an interpreter. But she couldn't translate its literal meaning into English, and neither could Yao.
That's where Del Harris came in.
"If you don't release, you'll blow up," Harris deciphered. "Pressure will burst pipes. What we need here is a street translator."
That's Uncle Del. Whether it was in Milwaukee as a longtime assistant and head coach with the Bucks, in Houston, Los Angeles, Dallas or nearly halfway around the world in Greece, there is something about Harris' soothing Hoosier sensibility that tends to make sense from chaos.
It's just that he seems slightly out of place here as coach of the Chinese Olympic team.
Outside of Cuba, North Korea and the People's Republic of Madison, there are few places left in the world quite as anachronistic as China. With Harris out front of the Chinese team, it's almost as if Jimmy Stewart had been cast aboard the Empire's ship in "Star Wars."
But this isn't about politics, never has been, never will be, for a basketball lifer who has deep affection for his players of the moment, no matter their birthplace.
Here's a Del Harris story about the rather foreign concept of respect:
"They take care of me like I'm the king of China. I can't carry a bag or go through a door after anyone. We fly on small airplanes and the 7-footers want me to take their seat."
Just like in the NBA.
Harris' relationship with China goes back five years. In his current role as an assistant coach with the Dallas Mavericks, Harris helped assistant Donnie Nelson and former owner Ross Perot Jr. lure Wang Zhizhi to the NBA.
During the opening ceremony, Harris wore a red blazer and marched into the stadium with China. As his team was destroyed, 83-58, by Spain at Helliniko Indoor Arena, he wore a black shirt with the red Chinese flag above the Olympic rings.
"I love being around these players," Harris said. "I've only been away from them for 12 days out of the last three months, and they are such a joy to be around. It's amazing how kind these players are, what great gentlemen they are.
"(The opening ceremony) was a great moment. You should have seen all the pictures we took of each other. But it's hard to get that feeling back after getting hammered on worldwide TV."
Yao was upset because some teammates did not run the plays Harris, through an interpreter, sent in the game.
"I thought he was too much of a team player," Harris said of the 7-foot-5 center, who had only just 12 points and eight rebounds. "He gave up the ball more than I would have liked."
Besides coaching, Harris scouts and edits film. He had a Lithuanian assistant who speaks decent English, but a back injury has sidelined him and left Harris without help. He recently asked an American trainer to teach the Chinese how to tape ankles, the kind of routine preventive maintenance that wasn't practiced in China until last year.
The Chinese are young because they are building toward the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Center Yi Jianlian is 6-11, 16 years old and will be in the NBA within a couple of years, Harris predicts. But for now, they have much catching up to do.
"I'm disappointed because I thought we were better prepared to play the game," Harris said. "I thought we would compete better. The Chinese will have a good team in 2008. We'll be better. We're not just going to get run out of here."