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March 27, 2001; Page 1C

On-court détente
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 agency.

''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 Asia.''

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 Wang.

''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 Jordan.

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 Chinese worker.

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 treated right.''

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 frame.

''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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