Somewhere in her stroll between Sleeping Beauty Castle and Snow
White's Scary Adventures, Haixia Zheng has become Disneyland's
latest attraction. The 6'8", 254-pound Los Angeles Sparks center
is visiting the Magic Kingdom on her off day to "be invisible,"
as she puts it. But for the last hour, parents have trained
video cameras on her, little boys have shaken her hand and
little girls have stared in goggle-eyed awe as if they just
spied the Matterhorn.
It is quite something to see the WNBA's tallest player
high-tenning Mickey and Minnie Mouse, tweaking their
cantaloupe-sized noses and spinning around with them in an
enormous teacup. "Even back in China, Haixia loved
make-believe," says Wendy Chang, her interpreter. "Especially
fairy tales, because they are about good and bad."
"Oooooooh," Zheng sighs softly when she recognizes a kindred
spirit from another Disney tale. The Beast--massive, towering,
cloaked in purple--embraces her. "At last," Zheng tells Chang.
"Someone who is bigger than me."
So far the WNBA adventure of Haixia Zheng (pronounced HI-sha
jheng) has been good and bad but no fairy tale. Though she
scored 28 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in a June 27 game
against the Sacramento Monarchs, she has averaged only 8.6
points per game and 3.1 rebounds for the season. "This league is
a bit more physical than what Haixia is used to," says Sparks
point guard Jamila Wideman. "We're still trying to figure out
how to best utilize her talents."
For 13 years Zheng, 30, loomed over women's basketball in the
Far East. She led China to Olympic bronze in 1984 and silver in
'92 and won MVP honors during the '91 Asian Games. "I am China's
Michael Jordan," says Zheng, who keeps a poster of Jordan on a
wall of her Marina Del Rey apartment.
Born to peasants of average height, Zheng was raised in the
province of Henan and didn't touch a basketball until she was
12. By then she was already 5'11". At 14 she joined the national
youth team and helped China win the Asian juniors title. At 17
she made her Olympic debut.
Former Sparks coach Linda Sharp first spied Zheng at the 1987
World University Games. What she remembers most from then are
the thunderous footfalls made by Zheng's size-18 sneakers.
"Haixia was over 300 pounds," says Sharp, who coached the U.S.
team at those games. "When she ran past our bench in warmups,
the floor vibrated."
When picking her way through the treacheries of newly learned
English, Zheng speaks firmly and with conviction. "It doesn't
matter what I ask Haixia," says Wideman. "Her answer is always,
On the road Zheng and Wideman read out of a Mandarin-English
primer. "We're on the same vocabulary list," says Wideman. "But
at this point it's more important that Haixia learn basketball
Offense, shoot and score Zheng knows. Her shooting percentage
(58%) leads the WNBA, and, unlike another center in
L.A.--Shaquille O'Neal--she can make free throws. Her
foul-shooting percentage is 69%.
It's defense, pick and screen that give Zheng trouble. Teamwork
is another alien concept to Zheng. She has to share the paint
with the Sparks' top scorer, former U.S. Olympian Lisa Leslie.
And when the Sparks fall behind or their opponents press, the
lumbering Zheng gets yanked.
The Sparks made Zheng their second draft selection. They had
considered taking her with their first pick but figured her
plodding, knock-kneed gait would discourage other teams. How
slow is she? Dynasties (the Ming, the Han, the Celtics) have
risen and fallen in the time it takes Zheng to traverse the court.
Still, she fills the lane. What she does not fill is the air.
While hang time is measured in seconds, no unit of time is small
enough to accurately calibrate Zheng Time. Mao preached the
Great Leap Forward. He said nothing about the Great Leap Upward.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Zheng was a high-scoring heroine in China, but in L.A. she has struggled for playing time. [Haixia Zheng in game]