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June 26, 2002

Think agents are tough? NBA dealing with China for Yao

By Steve Friess
Special for USA TODAY

There is always a question of how the No. 1 overall draft pick will perform in the NBA.

But never has there been a question of whether his country will even let him play in the league.

Welcome to tonight's draft, in which 7-5 center Yao Ming from Shanghai is bidding to beat out every homegrown prospect to become this year's top pick.

The potential of this demure 21-year-old superstar is so impressive that several NBA executives and Chinese government officials stayed up all Tuesday night in China to try to secure the releases necessary for Yao to be in the draft.

At press time, the outcome remained unresolved.

Yao, recruited by the Shanghai Sharks to play professional basketball when he was just 14, waits in anxious limbo at his mother's home in Shanghai while dozens of other people determine his fate.

Negotiators are hashing out details ranging from what happens to his future fortune to what his obligations to the Chinese national team will be.

The Chinese are looking for guarantees that Yao will return when he's called, especially now that Dallas Mavericks free agent Wang Zhizhi is ignoring demands to return. Wang, the first Chinese player to come over, is in Los Angeles and plans to attend NBA summer camp.

Wang's U.S. representative, Simon Chan, doubts his client's situation will be problematic for Yao. He predicts that having both in the league will boost the sport to new heights in a nation already able to watch at least one NBA game live on TV daily.

''Children in China will grow up watching Yao and Wang in the NBA and think that some day they could be there,'' Chan says. ''It definitely will open up China in a new way and show China as an emerging country.''

The Rockets, who own the No. 1 pick, are in desperate need of a center, and Yao is projected to be the best in the draft.

His clever left-handed hook shot has even earned the praise of Michael Jordan. Rockets executives were in China this month to gauge his availability and came back encouraged, if not convinced, but say they'll draft him only if the proper agreements are in place.

Other NBA clubs, too, have coveted Yao from the time Nike brought him to a training camp in Oregon in 1998. After he held his own against the U.S. Dream Team at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, interest in him increased.

Yao, whose mother and father are both taller than 6-5 and were national basketball stars, is an intriguing combination of patriotic loyalty and youthful impatience.

Last year his country denied his request to jump into the 2001 draft and implied he wouldn't be able to go until he led the Shanghai Sharks to a national title. He answered by winning the title this year.

Meanwhile, he bulked up by 40 pounds in an effort to impress NBA scouts.

Conversely, the USA appears to be ready for him.

Auctioneers on eBay already are selling Yao Ming No. 1 draft pick trading cards for as much as $20. And the Houston Chronicle is dubbing an entire section of its Web site as ''Yao Central.''

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