As tea, silk and porcelain lured Marco Polo, word of outsized
human treasure drew me to China. I'd heard that the country's
basketball courts were aswarm with big men. Low-blocks grinders.
Open-court gazelles. Human towers who gobbled up rebounds and
swatted away shots while scoring copiously, too. As of the turn
of the millennium, provincial clubs and sports schools harbored
as many as 100 7-footers under age 24, or so said Dale Brown,
the former coach at LSU, who has given clinics in Asia for
years. Bruce O'Neil, the former Hawaii coach at whose United
States Basketball Academy in Eugene, Ore., the Chinese nationals
trained in July to prepare for the Olympics, repeated Brown's
figures, though not his suspicion that genetic engineering
accounted for them.
Westerners have long regarded China as a sleeping giant. As the
U.S. Dream Team eyes a Sept. 17 opener with its Chinese
counterpart in Sydney, that image has grown into a vision of row
upon row of basketball Lurches, supine on a table in some Doc
Frankenstein's lab. As Brown said, "Something's not right when a
nation of midgets is producing more 7-footers than any other
country in the world."
At last count that purported nation of midgets numbered 1.25
billion people, a Malthusian figure that's likely to yield a few
deviations from the mean. (Old joke: In China, when they tell you
you're one in a million, there are a thousand more just like
you.) Nonetheless, hearing suggestions of a more sinister genesis
for all this size, I went to see for myself.
Within hours of arriving in Beijing, photographer Al Tielemans
and I found ourselves, if not exactly face-to-face with Yao Ming,
the 7'6" teenager who's one of three giants on the national team,
at least darkened by his turrical shadow. "Do you think we could
pose the three of you together at the Great Wall?" asked Al as he
risked a crook in his neck.
"Why do you need to do that?" Yao replied. "When we're all
together, we are the Great Wall."
Indeed, Yao, 7-foot Wang Zhizhi and 7-foot Menk Bateer are known
in the Chinese press as "the walking Great Wall." But to Xia
Song, the hoops operator who had met us at Beijing's Capital
International Airport, they were something more familiar. They
were "my three big boys."
Xia, 30, is facile with the idioms of basketball, business and
backslapping English. His clothing is festooned with swooshes,
and he takes meetings at Beijing's Sports City Cafe, which looks
like a spaceship just flown in from some NBA city. Bill Duffy,
the U.S. agent who is advising Yao and Wang, has Xia on speed
dial. So does Donn Nelson, director of player personnel and
assistant coach of the Dallas Mavericks, who chose Wang in the
second round of the 1999 NBA draft and are trying to prise him
from the August 1 Rockets, the Chinese army team to which Wang is
While Xia cultivates contacts in the States, taking advantage of
the economic freedoms that Deng Xiaoping introduced to China in
the late 1970s, many of the factotums in the sports bureaucracy
are his former teachers at Beijing University of Sports and
Physical Education. Thus Xia sits between the hidebound,
centrally planned system of Mao Zedong, and the global
marketplace into which Yao, Wang and Menk hope someday to step.
When Nelson and his father, Don, the Mavericks' general manager
and head coach, visited Beijing two summers ago with Ross Perot
Jr., who then owned the team, Xia sat on the Mavs' side of the
table, across from the impassive army generals who insisted that
Wang's departure for the NBA was out of the question.
Xia laughed upon learning why Tielemans and I had come. "If
foreigners think the Chinese people aren't big, it's because for
years they've seen only people from Guangzhou or Hong Kong," he
said. "It's true that south of the Yangtze River most people are
short. There, they say to big guys--they call them 'long
guys'--'You're wasting clothes!' But people north of the Yangtze
can be very big. The problem is, How can young 7-footers get good
coaching? High school and junior coaches are still training
players in 1950s ways. There are no new ideas about diet or
weight training. We need exchanges with other good basketball
countries, like the U.S. and those in Europe, but we don't have
many opportunities for our coaches to go abroad."
Wang Fei, the forward-thinking 37-year-old who coaches Wang
Zhizhi's army team, spent five months in the U.S. last season as
a guest of the Mavericks and Nike, studying NBA ways. But China's
Olympic coach, Jiang Xingquan, 60, is a lantern-jawed devotee of
the old school. He's the guy who last spring moved up the start
of practice by a week to keep Yao from indulging in the
individualistic folly of traveling to the U.S. to compete in the
Nike Hoop Summit, where he could have auditioned for NBA scouts.
Moreover, Jiang refused to make the walking Great Wall available
to Al and me for more than a few minutes one day after practice,
lest singling out any of them undermine team spirit.
This wasn't surprising. Not so long ago Chinese propaganda
derided "the unhealthy American imperialist sport style of
seeking headlines." As recently as 1994 the Chinese Basketball
Association A-League didn't even keep individual statistics. At
least Al and I had Xia, and Xia had the big guys' confidence, if
only as an interpreter of the wider basketball world. Whipping
out his cell phone, he set up meetings with each player.
We found Menk at Silk Road, his restaurant in northwest Beijing.
Menk grew up not in the capital but in a town on the grasslands
of Inner Mongolia, where he dreamed of becoming a traffic cop.
That ambition got scuttled the day the mayor showed up at school
and, seeing how smartly the students had mustered to greet him,
complimented the big fellow at one end of the lineup. Hizzoner
had mistaken Menk, then only eight, for the teacher. Within two
years Menk had joined the Mongolian provincial team. Soon
thereafter he made his way to a sports school in Beijing and
finally to the national team.
If the three big boys represent the elements, Menk is earth:
broad, immobile and nearly 300 pounds. That long-ago goal of
directing traffic is apparent in the way he sometimes stands and
watches the action pass him by. "My problem is that my footwork
isn't good enough," he said. "I want to learn the moves Olajuwon
makes." Now 24, Menk is, according to NBA rules, too old to be
drafted, although his skills impressed scouts at the Nike Desert
Classic in Phoenix, which he attended in the spring of 1999.
"I wouldn't be surprised if some NBA team gave him a sniff," Donn
Nelson has said. "He's sort of a Joe Kleine type." I hardly had
time to consider what the world had come to if we could conceive
a formulation like "the Mongolian Joe Kleine," for Xia was
already rushing us toward our meeting with Yao, at the bar of the
Yao, who'll turn 20 on Sept. 12, is wind: fresh, unbridled,
animated by the thought of all the places he might go. He spends
his free time as any American adolescent would, lurking in chat
rooms behind a pseudonym (Sabonis) or loping into a Starbucks for
his favorite drink (iced latte) and perhaps a moment's rumination
on a faraway place where people call a small a "tall." In 1998
Nike invited Yao to one of its summer camps. After watching him
drop a couple of three-pointers on him during an evening
scrimmage, Michael Jordan said, "We want him right now. I'm
calling [Chicago Bulls vice president of basketball operations]
In China, no bit of Jordaniana escapes notice, including the
detail that Jordan so despises Krause that he avoids speaking to
him. So back home people knew: Yao must have made quite an
impression. "He's a Rik Smits who can block shots and rebound,"
Duffy says. "Yao Ming and Tyson Chandler [a 7'1" high school star
in Compton, Calif.] are the two best teenage big men in the
Both of Yao's parents--his 6'9" father and 6'3" mother--played
basketball for China. "That's where China's one-child policy
comes back to haunt," says Terry Rhoads, sports marketing
director for Nike-China. "If Mr. and Mrs. Yao had had five boys,
there'd be an NBA franchise in Shanghai right now."
Upon learning that Wang Zhizhi is also the only child of former
players, it occurred to me that if Chinese basketball authorities
really are, as Brown alleged, trying to breed supersized players,
they're letting prime opportunities go to waste. Nine years ago,
when few Chinese foresaw the results of Deng's demarche, Wang's
parents let their 14-year-old son join the army, in which he
would enjoy the best coaching and facilities available in China.
At the time he was 6'9"; within three years he had sprouted to
his current 7 feet. Officials at the Beijing Sports Ministry,
furious at seeing the city's finest prospect in a generation
disappear into the army sports machine, froze Wang's father in
his job as a youth coach. Wang is still in the army, powerless to
leave until some general lets him go.
To see Wang play is to see why the brass is reluctant to part
with him. Wang is fire--dancing, unpredictable in his movements.
Left-handed and very poised at 23, he plays the all-court game of
the Philadelphia 76ers' Toni Kukoc, only with more appetite for
defense. Besides having range out to the three-point line, he can
unfurl a baby hook, deploy a drop step and, says Donn Nelson,
"handle and pass and dunk every which way. The hardest thing in
our league is to find guys with that size who can do those
We met Wang after dark, at a hotel across from his team's
dormitory in the Olympic training complex. He shambled into the
lobby wrapped in a Mavericks warmup suit--wishfully wrapped, from
all appearances. "It was a dream come true to be drafted," he
said, "but it wasn't just destiny. I feel I worked hard for this
goal. As a big man, dribbling and outside skills are my
strengths. Those, and movement and transition." Braggadocio isn't
in the makeup of the Chinese athlete, even the star. But in the
cases of Wang, Yao and Menk, a quiet confidence is part of the
package, and that's remarkable enough.
"You must understand our culture," Xia said. "It comes from the
ancient philosophy of Confucius. Make your heart and mind calm,
and then you can face the world. You should be 'in the middle.'
You should be obedient. You should respect your elders. It's a
very noncompetitive attitude. But the three big boys, they are
different. Menk Bateer, he is very smart, strong and knows how to
use his body. Wang Zhizhi is fearless. 'I don't care who you
are,' he says. 'I am gonna beat you.' Yao Ming, even though a lot
of people say he is like Rik Smits, thinks Rik Smits isn't good
enough for him to copy. He says, 'I have everything Rik Smits
has, yet Rik Smits doesn't have some things I have.'"
There's a schizoid quality to life in a country that's
surrendering to the free market even as it's governed by
doctrinaire apparatchiks. The way I'd met each of Xia's big boys
reflected those cross purposes. The bureaucracy beneath the
surface bustle in China is as inert as ever, and every minister,
subaltern and clerk seems to have some stake in the fates of Wang
and Yao. The army team has won five straight CBA A-League titles;
no officer wants to be the Colonel Klink who lets Wang escape to
Dallas. While Yao's freedom to light out for the NBA might in
theory be greater, he and Duffy will have to pull off a trifecta:
winning over the municipal sports commission of Yao's hometown,
Shanghai; the directorate of his club, the Shanghai Sharks; and
CBA headquarters in Beijing, all of which will probably get a cut
of Yao's salary.
If pressed, Xia predicts that Wang, not Yao, will be the first
Asian to play in the NBA. He cites a simple Confucian reason.
"Yao Ming sees Wang Zhizhi as an older brother," Xia told us,
"and he believes Wang Zhizhi should make the first step of the
people of the yellow skin."
The three big boys have journeyed to Jinan, capital of
Confucius's home province, Shandong, to take on the Japan
All-Stars in an Olympic tune-up. Yao Ming pinballs from sideline
to sideline, blocking six shots in the game's first nine minutes.
But racking up blocks against a Japanese team is like collecting
flea bites in a kennel. Moreover, it's clear that Yao has never
done any weight work. "They could hire a strength coach for a few
days to work with Yao Ming, but they want to be fair to
everybody," Xia explains. "They're trying to change, but they
just don't know how yet."
Sent into action in the second quarter, Wang Zhizhi infuses the
game with energy. The ease with which he dominates in the post
signals how desperately he needs to go to the NBA, in which he
would find more daunting challenges.
Along with obedience, calm and equipoise, Confucius counseled,
"To go beyond is as wrong as to fall short." While Wang seems
willing to flout that teaching, Menk Bateer may have studied it
too well. Steady and composed, he's effective against any Asian
national team. But in Sydney he and his teammates will have to
swap Confucius for Nietzsche if they expect to place any higher
than eighth, where China finished at the 1994 world championships
and the '96 Olympics, its best result in a global competition.
"The fact is, they've got size equal to anybody in the world, but
they don't really use it," said Bruce Palmer, the American coach
of the Japan All-Stars, after China's 138-73 victory. "If they
really want to step up, they're going to have to develop a
strength-and-recovery program--massage, diet, weights, stretching
in the pool. Right now they look like buggy whips."
Indeed, that lack of physical robustness may be as culturally
ingrained as Confucianism. Bai Jinshen is an old basketball
character who coached Wang's mother in Beijing and now delivers
commentary for China Central TV (CCTV). He explains, "Ancient
Chinese sports were always performances, always art. Sports were
for health and exercise, not competition. So it's been a
tradition for us to be better at performance sports, like diving
and gymnastics and shooting, than competitive sports. Or, if the
sport must be competitive, let it be table tennis and volleyball,
where there's a net. Dividing the competitors is better, so
there's no body contact.
"You know, China has the largest number of bicycles in the world,
but we have never produced a cycling champion. To us, a bicycle
is just a transportation device. Quantity doesn't mean anything.
You must have quality."
For all the sinister prophesies that had impelled my visit, I'd
found ample basketball quantity and some quality, but nothing
close to quality in quantity, much less the strength,
aggressiveness and modern training techniques that might help
China threaten Olympic teams from Australia, Europe and the U.S.
If the balance of power in global hoops is going to tip Eastward,
it won't do so for at least another generation.
To be sure, Chinese basketball is improving rapidly. "It is much
different from four or five years ago," says another television
personality, Xu Jicheng, who hosts CCTV's NBA broadcasts. "Living
standards are improving, which means a better diet and more free
time. On TV kids watch Chinese league games, the NBA, whatever.
There are enough big guys with good athletic ability that now we
just ignore the clumsy ones."
But that story of 100 young 7-footers, even if it were literally
true, wouldn't mean much. The Chinese Basketball Association
counts 200 million males playing the game. If you were to pluck
only one 7-footer from every two million of them, you'd harvest
your 100 post prospects right there. Some certainly have
exhilarating potential. Tang Zhengdong, a 7'1" 18-year-old from
Jiangsu province, has Shaq-like breadth, runs the floor and would
be in Sydney if coach Jiang had any use for a fourth center. Xue
Yuyang of Henan Province, though only 19, is a 7-foot all-court
prodigy with the touch and handle, Xu says, "of Penny Hardaway."
But not even a dozen Chinese big men, says Donn Nelson, have "the
hands and feet and basic things that are needed." Reports of a
law on the books in Shanghai permitting a husband taller than
6'3" and a wife more than 5'11" to have a second child and even a
third turned out to be false. Anyone who believes China is
pursuing coercive eugenics, says Nike's Rhoads, "is smoking
For the moment, China will rely on the oldest genetic engineer of
all, Qu Pid. Just as rumor had brought me to China, rumor saw me
off. There's a 6'3" forward on the women's national team, and
word has it that one of the three big boys is sweet on her.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS YOU CAN'T TEACH HEIGHT The 7'6" Yao dwarfed the competition during China's 65-point rout of Japan.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS China's Kukoc Wang, a 7-foot lefty who can dribble and shoot from the outside, would run to the Mavs if the army would let him; Menk (opposite), 24, is too old to be drafted in the NBA.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS [See caption above]
"I have everything Rik Smits has, yet Rik Smits doesn't have
some things I have," says Yao.
"Palmer says the Chinese big men need to lift some weights: "They
look like buggy whips."