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April 6, 2001

Yao yearns for the NBA

By Steve Friess
Special for USA TODAY

CHANGCHUN, China - Yao Ming doesn't want to be here anymore.

The potential No. 1 pick in this year's NBA draft isn't interested in putting on slam-dunk performances for the Chinese masses at their All-Star Game here. He absolutely loathes having to sit for questions from the Western media about his future. And he cringes at the growing likelihood that he may be forced to skip this year's draft to stay in China another year or two and continue to play for the Shanghai Sharks.

The mind of this anxious 20-year-old with almost no say in his own destiny is an ocean way, in a land where scouts are buzzing about his vast potential and where his compatriot, Wang Zhizhi, suited up Thursday night as a Dallas Maverick. Yao says he wants to enter the draft this year if he is permitted to make himself eligible, which he called "almost a sure thing."

Those who have a say, it seems, are not yet so ready to relinquish their designs on the 7-foot-6 Shanghai native. They're just now starting to realize his marketing potential within the planet's most populous country, and they're not anxious to allow anybody else to cash in first on a hugely talented athlete blessed with a magnetic smile.

"Our nation cultivated Yao Ming, and Yao Ming should give up something for his country," China Basketball Association Director Xin Lancheng said this week. "Yao Ming is too young now."

Xin, the most powerful man in Chinese basketball, would seem to have the final word, and his word is that Yao stays until he is can be drafted without having to declare his availability. That would be 2002, the year of his 22nd birthday, although Xin said he expected Yao to stay for two more years, until he actually is 22.

Indeed, Xin and the management of the Shanghai Sharks basketball team both are publicly insistent that Yao owes the club at least one national title before his inevitable ascension to the NBA. The team fell to Wang's Bayi Rockets in this year's finals last month, so Shanghai is hoping for a rematch without Wang in 2002.

And yet, at the same time, as recently as Wednesday, the Sharks were receiving new proposals from sports agencies in the U.S. to mediate some messy negotiations that have transpired surrounding Yao. That, some observers say, implies that there's still a possibility these matters will be resolved by May 13, when he must declare his eligibility for the June draft.

Still, China is nothing but a land of contradictions, and the juxtaposition of Xin's adamant denials with Shanghai's exploration of new avenues fits in perfectly here. This is a country where they call themselves Communists, but everybody's out to make a buck.

Here in conservative Changchun, a northeast car factory burg about 200 m iles north of the North Korean border, the most striking tourist attraction is the 20-foot-tall statue in the middle of People's Square of a naked man so anatomically correct that he's become a cause celebre for nudists worldwide.

So the negotiations for Yao that have been stuck for two years continued. They began in 1999 when the then-18-year-old Yao signed a contract with Cleveland-based agent Michael Coyne that gave Coyne 33% of Yao's future basketball-related earnings in the NBA. Coyne insists now that he had to charge Yao that much because the Shanghai Sharks expected a seven-figure annual fee from Coyne in exchange for allowing Yao to go West. But Yao and his family disavowed that contract within days of signing it. Though the NBA players union only recognizes NBA contracts, it prohibits agents from taking more than 4% from its athletes.

Coyne has since agreed to set that contract aside at the recent request of the Sharks, more evidence that the team is considering other possible deals. Yao wants to negotiate directly with his team now, to decide on an agent when he arrives in the USA. But they remain intent on having whoever takes their prodigy away replace him with players who can fill an unfillable gap on their roster. Yao himself suggested that, while the NBA can't give Shanghai a player, it can "give the team information to help them find somebody who can play in place of me."

A tall order, indeed. In Changchun, Yao landed MVP honors for the season and the playoffs as well as being selected best blocker, slam-dunker and rebounder. For the 2000-01 CBA season, he averaged 28 points, 15 rebounds and six blocks, an improvement over his 1999-2000 averages of 20 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks a game.

Yao says he started imagining himself as an NBA star after Nike, who already has signed him to a multiyear endorsement deal, brought him to a 1998 training camp in the USA. The son of parents both over 6 feet tall who met when both starred on national basketball teams, impressed none other than Michael Jordan with an untouchable left-handed hook shot and an uncommon agility for someone so tall.

His height is an obvious blessing - and curse. Yao says he's a private person and "sometimes I get tired of everybody looking at me, but everywhere I go, they look." He'd rather hide away with friends and let out some aggression on the controls of his Sony Playstation 2 or listen to American pop. He's known for a sharp wit and humor that rarely comes out in interviews, although it did appear when asked about coping with harsh critics in the U.S. sports media. "I read little English anyway," he sniffed.

Yao's fate rivals the standoff between the U.S. and China over a downed spy plane in Chinese custody as the hottest public topic of the day. One national sports magazine, Sports World, splashed Yao on the cover with the simple headline, "To go or not?" in Chinese. No elaboration is necessary for a culture increasingly enthralled by this sport and enthused by the prospects of watching some of their own on those live daily broadcasts of NBA games.

"What is best for China basketball is to have Yao in the NBA because it will inspire a generation of young Chinese to play the sport and dream that their dreams can come true," said Nike's sports marketing director Terry Rhoads. "We can only imagine what kind of impact this kid will have on the sport in China and Asia. Kids are going to be thrilled to see a citizen of Shanghai and citizen of China beating up on players in the NBA."

Some experts feel Yao isn't ready now, that another year in China could be as good for him as for his present team and league. "I know he wants to go now, but being patient might be his best position," says Bruce O'Neil, part-time scout for the Detroit Pistons and owner of the U.S. Basketball Academy in Oregon, where several national teams come for workshops. At 255 pounds, "he's not of the physical stature yet to stand up to the NBA."

Yao disagrees.

"I appreciate the CBA and I am happy playing here," he says. "But now I am ready. I want to be with the best."

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