By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 10, 2008
BEIJING, Aug. 9 -- LeBron James curled his lips and frowned at the question. A reporter wanted to know how it felt to be in a country where he isn't the biggest basketball star.
"Where I'm not the star?" James responded, befuddled.
The reporter then told James that Houston Rockets center Yao Ming is the biggest basketball star in China. "He is?" James asked, and shrugged his shoulders. "I thought I was a star here."
There is no denying that James is a star in China, where the NBA estimates that more than 300 million people -- the population of the United States -- are basketball fans, and where James has his own museum (the Nike-sponsored LBJ Museum in Shanghai).
But when the U.S. Olympic men's basketball team opens pool play against China on Sunday, the Chinese fans who have showered him and his teammates with affection likely will put aside fanaticism for national pride. "They might boo us," forward Carmelo Anthony said with a laugh. "They are home, playing for their country, just as we are playing for our country, but there's a lot for them to defend their country playing here on their grounds. We have to be prepared for that. Anything can happen."
U.S. Coach Mike Krzyzewski was thrilled that his team was forced to open against a Chinese team that features New Jersey Nets forward Yi Jianlian, former NBA player Wang Zhizhi and the 7-foot-6 Yao, who is returning from a broken left foot.
"I think it will give us a nice flavor of the Olympics because I'm sure there will be a lot of excitement in this arena. Chinese people and the American people have a common passion. They love basketball," Krzyzewski said. "I think the fact that they put such an importance on playing us in that game is an honor. That's an honor for us. They feel that highly about us that they have made this a big event. We hope that we can play to that level."
The final result should be lopsided, considering that the past two meetings were decided by more than 25 points, but it may be one of the most-watched basketball games of all time. President Bush will also be in attendance. "This is bigger than just a game. This can help the future of China," said Ma Jian, a former Chinese Olympian and Chinese Olympic broadcaster. "It's not a matter of whether China wins or loses, because people love the game. This game should be the game of the 2008 Olympics for China. I don't care. I like other sports, but nothing is like this."
Ma was a member of the 1992 Chinese Olympic team that finished 12th in Barcelona. China was in a different pool than the original Dream Team, but Ma said he was a spectator for all of their games. "They won every game by 30 points -- at least," Ma said. "Nobody can compare with the Dream Team. The first team was perfect. This team, not bad, but there is no comparison. There are big stars coming, but this is probably the second- or third-best team since the Dream Team."
Ma knows a little something about being first. His is an oft-forgotten story in China's basketball history. He is believed to be the first player to leave the country to play basketball in the United States. Watching the Dream Team helped inspire Ma to pursue that dream.
Ma said former UCLA coach Jim Harrick once recruited him while participating in a coaching clinic in China. But after the Olympics, he left to attend a junior college in Utah to improve his English before playing for Rick Majerus at the University of Utah from 1993 to '95. Ma failed in two attempts to make the Los Angeles Clippers, but he doesn't question why Yao, Yi, Wang and Mengke Bateer later were given an opportunity to taste the NBA when he wasn't. "First off, they are all big guys," said Ma, who is 6-7.
Chinese basketball officials frowned upon Ma's decision to play at an American college and he never played for another national team. "They wanted to control you. It was a totally different mentality," Ma said. "To be the first, it's always so hard, but you're learning so much. I never think it was hard. I wanted to do something for fun, do something not anybody has done before. Maybe I went the hard way to get to this point. If I had the chance to do it again, I would do it again."
He returned to play professionally in the Chinese Basketball Association in 1998 before retiring from basketball in 2003. Ma has seen the game grow exponentially in popularity in China in the past 15 years, especially with Yao's NBA success and Yi coming off his rookie season. "Everybody knows China probably has the greatest potential for future players, because they have the population," Ma said. "You also have a positive image for basketball, as opposed to, say, soccer."
American players credit Yao for increasing their popularity in China. "He's obviously a huge, huge influence here in Asia," Kobe Bryant said. "He's probably opened up the market for people here in Asia to look at a Tracy McGrady, to look at a Kobe and all these other players. It's because of him opening up that door."
But if Yao opened the door, then Ma perhaps was the key that unlocked it. Ma, however, doesn't consider himself a pioneer. "Personally, I don't care. If you love the game, you do what you have to do."