By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 11, 2008
BEIJING, Aug. 10 -- Yao Ming, the pride of a country in a towering, 7-foot-6 package, led the Chinese Olympic team onto the court for a game that held ramifications not only for his country but also for the United States' desire to return to international basketball glory and the NBA's desire to strengthen its foothold in a basketball-crazed nation of 1.3 billion people.
While the U.S. men's Olympic basketball opener against China may someday be looked back upon as a signature event in the history of the sport, the game itself on Sunday evening, after about 14 minutes of relatively tense action, really wasn't much of a game at all. President Bush, first lady Laura Bush, former president George H.W. Bush and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi were among more than 18,000 fans at Wukesong Indoor Stadium -- and an estimated 1 billion television viewers worldwide -- to see the Americans beat the Olympic hosts, 101-70.
While it was believed to be one of the most watched sporting events ever, the game was most noteworthy for how Americans Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant dazzled their adoring fans -- including some wearing China uniforms -- with an aerial show worthy of an NBA all-star slam dunk contest.
"Look, I had five dunks in one game. Last time I had five dunks in the game, I was like, 17," Bryant said. "That's all because of the energy in the crowd. I think they knew that history was being made. It was amazing. It was a proud moment for their country as it was for ours. You could feel the electricity."
Members of the U.S. team have played in a combined 11 NBA Finals and five NCAA Final Fours, and each said this was the biggest stage that they had ever been on.
"It can't get no bigger than this," Wade, the 2006 NBA Finals most valuable player and a 2003 Final Four participant at Marquette, said after scoring a game-high 19 points. "That was unbelievable. I haven't been this anxious to play a basketball game since I was like, a kid. I couldn't sleep. . . . I was up the whole day, just thinking about the game. It takes you to walk out on the floor to feel it."
It was the fifth time the countries have met in Olympic competition. U.S. teams comprising college players won by 49 points in both 1984 and 1988, and U.S. professional basketball players won by 63 points and 47 points, respectively, in 1996 and 2000. But at the time of those defeats, China had yet to have a player break into the NBA. Wang Zhizhi led the charge in 2001, only to have Yao, Mengke Bateer and Yi Jianlian follow. Guard Sun Yue, a 2007 second-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Lakers, will join Houston's Yao and New Jersey's Yi in the NBA next season.
Yao is China's biggest basketball star, a six-time NBA all-star, and a godsend for NBA Commissioner David Stern's desire to expand the sport in this nation. Yao battled back from a season-ending foot injury to represent his country in the Olympics and started the game by hitting a three-pointer and pumping his fist to celebrate, while the home crowd erupted in cheers.
"Scripted it perfect," Wade said.
Yao led China with 13 points and provided one of the few highlights for China when he blocked Bryant's shot in the first half. He left the game to a standing ovation, lifting his right fist to the fans, with 4 minutes 45 seconds remaining and his team trailing 87-54.
The game was tied at 29 with 6:06 left in the second quarter, which seemed to appease Yao and the Chinese fans, who continued to cheer loudly -- for both sides -- until the final horn sounded. "It's a treasure in my memory for my life," Yao said, adding that because of the game, he "thinks more people will love to play basketball."
Basketball already is extremely popular in China; the NBA estimates that more than 300 million Chinese -- a number equaling the entire population of the United States -- play the game.
NBA players have been treated to support in Beijing and exhibition games in Macau and Shanghai that equals, if not exceeds, their treatment in the United States. "This is like a second home," forward Dwight Howard said.
Bryant was singled out during the Opening Ceremonies on Friday, as spectators chanted "Ko-be! Ko-be!" when the U.S. team entered Beijing's National Stadium. He was mobbed Saturday, when the men's team attended the U.S. women's victory over the Czech Republic. At halftime, Chinese fans had to be restrained by security personnel as they snapped pictures and cheered the U.S. team's every move.
Howard and Wade both laughed when telling the story of how fans followed the team bus for several blocks from their hotel. "They try to follow," Howard said, "but the bus is too fast."
The game is growing at such a quick rate in China that the NBA established a subsidiary in the country last summer and plans to organize a Chinese basketball league. Chinese fans can watch NBA regular season games live on TV during the week, in addition to the NBA Finals. Bryant and James jerseys can be spotted on basketball courts throughout Beijing.
The exposure to NBA players has had a profound effect, even on members of China's basketball team.
"Those guys are heroes for some of our players. This makes it very difficult," said China Coach Jonas Kazlauskas, the former head coach of the Lithuanian national team.
The Americans are hoping to win a gold medal in a major international competition for the first time since the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Since then, the Americans have finished sixth in the 2002 world championships and third in both the 2004 Olympics and 2006 world championships.
The United States lost its opener in Athens four years ago to Puerto Rico, but Wade said he can already feel the difference this time around.
"In Athens, we wasn't the favorite," he said. "There, we was seen as cocky athletes and overpaid and all this and that. But here, they appreciate the game that we play. Everywhere we go, they show their excitement for us."