By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 2, 2008
An early February game between the Houston Rockets and the Milwaukee Bucks may look like any other dull matchup between two teams that wouldn't even be in the playoffs if the season ended today. As of yesterday afternoon, the game hadn't even sold out in Milwaukee. But Xu Jicheng is anticipating an audience in China greater than the size of this Sunday's Super Bowl to watch Yao Ming vs. Yi Jianlian.
"That is the NBA game that the most Chinese fans want to watch," said Xu, a longtime basketball analyst for China Central Television (CCTV), in a telephone interview from Beijing. "It doesn't matter if it is a team of champions, or a team of Kobe [Bryant] or a team of [LeBron] James. This is the top two Chinese players there. Chinese fans usually follow their own players, like their brothers."
Tonight's game featuring Yao, the Rockets' 7-foot-6 center, and Yi, the Bucks' 7-foot power forward, arrives only a few days before the Lunar New Year and will be broadcast on four stations, including the government-run network, CCTV. The Bucks had to issue 22 credentials to 16 Chinese media outlets at Milwaukee's Bradley Center.
"You can call it the Chinese Christmas game," Xu said with a laugh.
The Yao-Yi rematch is expected to have a larger audience than their first meeting on Nov. 9, when more than 200 million fans in China watched the Rockets defeat the Bucks, 104-88. After besting Yi's 19 points and 9 rebounds with 28 points and 10 rebounds, Yao said that Yi would be a better player than him. Asked recently to explain what he meant, Yao said, "Cause I'm too old."
Yao, 27, has played against other Chinese players in NBA games, but facing Wang Zhizhi and Mengke Bateer doesn't compare to Yi, whom the Bucks selected with the sixth pick in the NBA draft last summer. Yi, 20, has been one of the league's best rookies, ranking third in scoring (9.7 points) and rebounding (5.8 rebounds) among first-year players.
Yi struggled some last month, but Yao has been impressed with what he's seen. "I'm surprised. I'm not saying he would struggle, but he's above what I think he could do," Yao said. "He's going to have a lot of success. He's just beginning."
Yi's popularity hasn't reached the heights of Yao, the No. 1 pick of the 2002 NBA draft, in China. Yao was voted an all-star starter for the sixth consecutive season. But while he wasn't on the all-star ballot, Yi still finished fifth among Eastern Conference forwards -- just ahead of Wizards all-star Caron Butler -- with 450,515 write-in votes.
"Yao is a pioneer," Xu said. "He is a traditional Chinese symbol . . . for the whole people, while Yi is followed by all the young generations."
Yi's arrival coincided with the NBA's expanding influence in the world's most populous country. The league recently started a subsidiary, NBA China, which has partners that include ESPN and several Chinese investors. Earlier this week, NBA China joined with promoter AEG and the Beijing Wukesong Culture and Sports Center to design, market and operate Beijing's Olympic basketball venue.
NBA Commissioner David Stern said Yao and Yi have contributed greatly to the league's growth in China. "Whenever you have a home-towner -- and the towns are the size of Shanghai [Yao] and Guangzhou [Yi] -- it's a good thing," Stern said in a telephone interview. "The base of basketball fans in China is deep and wide, but Yao and Yi make it more interesting for them."
China's favorite basketball sons are set to reunite on the Chinese national team this summer, making basketball the most expensive ticket at the Olympics, said Xu, who also serves as the deputy director of the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee's Media Operations Department. China is hoping to improve on its eighth-place finish in Athens, which is one of the reasons Chinese basketball officials wanted to make sure that Yi spent this season in the NBA, even though Milwaukee wasn't initially Yi's first choice.
Yi spent the months before the draft training in Los Angeles and said he has grown to enjoy the space that a quiet town like Milwaukee has afforded him. His only complaint? "It's cold," Yi said. "I am from southern China, where it never snowed. Here, it snow a lot."
His first season in the NBA has been beneficial, if arduous. "It's very, very fast. In three months, I play 40 games," said Yi, who won three Chinese Basketball Association championships in five seasons with the Guangdong Tigers. "When I look at my game, there are a lot of things I need to improve but I've got to look at the second half of the season and hope it happens then."
Yi was fortunate to have someone like Yao pave the way for him, because his rookie season outside of basketball has been relatively stress free. He is assisted by an interpreter, University of Wisconsin student Matt Beyer, but Yi can answer questions in English. He also has fewer Chinese reporters chronicling his every step than Yao. Yi does pregame interviews in front of his locker room stall, when Yao was often subject to large pregame news conferences at NBA arenas.
"My first year, I had a lot of pressure," Yao said. "Sometimes, the only two places I felt comfortable was basketball court and home."
Yao met Yi when they began training for the 2004 Athens Olympics. "That day I know, one day he would play here," Yao said. "I didn't give him any information about NBA because if you talked to him too much at his age, he would feel a lot of pressure and maybe he'd get wrong messages. I just let time give him experience. Some people ask 'Do you have any [advice] for him?' No. He's a grown man right now."
And Yi won't get too caught up in the game tonight. "This is a game the Chinese fans are really looking forward to," Yi said through his interpreter. "As far as I'm concerned, it's just another game."