March 27, 2001; Page
Wang's arrival in NBA transcends the sport
By Steve Friess
Special for USA TODAY
BEIJING -- He's a basketball player, so he's
supposed to be tall.
But when 7-foot Wang Zhizhi strides through
a Beijing restaurant en route to a private karaoke lounge to
conduct an interview, it's hard not to be stunned by how close
his head comes to the ceiling.
The Chinese gape because Wang, 23, is one of
the most famous basketball players in China. American tourists
stare, too, wondering who the giant might be.
They'll likely find out soon enough. Wang is
in the final stages of securing a release from the top military
basketball team in China to sign with the Dallas Mavericks,
which could occur as early as Thursday. He's likely to be followed
this year or next by 7-6 center Yao Ming, 20, as the first two
Asian players in the NBA.
Both already have endorsement contracts with
Nike and are receiving either representation or advice from
Bill Duffy Associates, a San Francisco-based basketball talent
''It's a bonanza for the league,'' says Billy
Hunter, head of the NBA Players Association. ''I understand
each is highly skilled and capable. The fact that they can play
can only help increase the NBA's popularity and visibility throughout
The daunting task of negotiating for Wang has
fallen largely to agent Bill Duffy and to Mavericks assistant
Donn Nelson, who has sat around restaurant tables all this week
with officials from the Chinese army hammering out the fine
print of this revolutionary deal.
Far from the spy-novel sensibility that image
evokes, Nelson says the army has displayed admirable concern
for Wang's welfare and little animosity. Its concerns, he says,
were as mundane as what type of medical treatment Wang could
access in the USA. Times have changed since its initial, outraged
attitude 2 years ago when it learned the Mavericks had drafted
''They weren't really educated about what that
meant, and their impression was that we were making some kind
of claim on their property, their player,'' Nelson says. ''Eventually,
they saw it was an honor to have a Chinese player recognized
that way. And then they started to see it as an exposure opportunity
for Chinese basketball and for China.''
For the military, the issue wasn't so much a
matter a Chinese citizen fleeing for a shot at the big time
in a democratic country. Rather, the chief concern has been
over Wang's team, the Bayi Rockets, losing their competitive
edge in the Chinese league. Last week, Wang sewed up a sixth
consecutive national title for the Rockets, and now his coach
faces the prospect of halting that streak by losing his Michael
Still, the tug of NBA stardom for a compatriot
is growing more irresistible for a nation that has spent the
last decade eagerly revamping its international reputation.
Wang, in fact, argues that allowing him to come to the NBA may
encourage the West to award Beijing the 2008 Olympics by showing
how rapidly this society continues to open up.
Plus, Duffy says the Chinese were encouraged
by the opportunity for Western sponsors to pump millions into
Chinese league coffers. ''This shows our commitment to the Chinese
marketplace,'' Duffy says. ''We're doing a lot more than just
saying we can take these players to the NBA. We can bring as
much as $1 billion in revenues.''
The final step for Wang is completing a letter
of intent that the Chinese demand of the Mavericks. It would
stipulate to most of the basic benefits and requirements that
exist in a standard NBA contract, but it would represent a binding
contract in China. An NBA document isn't binding there.
Nelson says he expects to have the Chinese letter
by this afternoon in Beijing (early morning ET).
If NBA attorneys approve it, Wang could be on
a plane as soon as Thursday. He'd sign a 2-year deal that would
earn him the rookie salary minimums of $316,969 the first year
and $423,510 the second. Wang asked that his army salary not
be published, but his NBA pay would be several times his army
pay. And his army salary is about 100 times that of the average
Nelson says the Chinese government won't take
a share of Wang's contract, a sticking point in earlier negotiations.
Wang will remain a member of the army and could be recalled
for active service, although Nelson views that prospect as unlikely.
The player would be committed to returning to China to play
on the national team this summer and in future Olympics.
''This is an extremely historic event,'' Nelson
says. ''That's why it's been so meticulous and painstaking.
They want to make sure everything goes smoothly, that he is
Wang is amazed by the prospect that after so
many years of dreaming he could be playing within the week on
an NBA court against players he considers friends such as David
Robinson and Kevin Garnett.
''That is hard to believe,'' says Wang, whose
parents are both former national basketball stars and stand
more than 6-feet tall. ''I'm so proud of myself to represent
China this way.''
Still, Nelson says it is unlikely Wang will
be in the games so soon. Chinese players are far less physical
and aggressive on the court, a difference Wang says he will
overcome partly by tacking another 15 pounds onto his 255-pound
''We're not going to put him into a situation
where he would fail,'' says Nelson, who predicts Wang could
have a real effect in 2 years. ''Until we see him and see how
he compares to our guys, it's hard to project anything.'' Washington
Wizards guard David Vanterpool, who played against Wang in China's
league, expects Wang to earn respect in the NBA.
''He kind of reminds me of Toni Kukoc,'' Vanterpool
says. ''He can shoot the jumper; he can play inside. He really
does it all. He can shoot the international three-pointer. He
can hit it on a consistent basis. As long as he's not afraid
of the American players and finds his niche, he'll fit in.''
Wang insists he is not nervous about being the only Asian player
in the league. He has become a quick study in English, capable
of understanding and answering most questions from reporters
without the aid of his adviser, and noted that being isolated
''may be good because it will push me to learn better English.''
And Wang is well aware of the pressure he faces
as a pioneer.
''I believe more and more talented players (from
China) will be able to perform in the NBA if I do well,'' he
says ''For me, the first thing I do is prove that Chinese people
can play with the best in the world.'
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