For awhile tonight, like gawkers at a circus sideshow, the Washington Bullets seemed so surprised at playing against one of the world's biggest basketball players they forgot about the game.
The mountain of flesh that China calls a center -- 7 foot 3, 330 pound Mu Tieju -- daintily scored several free throws and passed to two much smaller, but hot shooting guards. Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes were bumped aside with surprised looks on their faces and the August 1 Army Team, China's best, took an early lead.
Then the Bullets decided to put on their own circus. Kevin Porter began to electrify the crowd by twisting in midair like a kite above Peking's Forbidden City. Roger Phegley swished jump shots with the robot efficiency which has attracted hundreds of Chinese coaches to study.
On the sideline, Bullets Coach Dick Motta provided comedy relief by berating the two Chinese referees in a tongue incomprehensible to them. By his side was interpreter Stephen Markscheid, first round draft pick from the Princeton Chinese Language Department, rendering Motta's remarks into a gentler Peking dialect.
In the end, the "American Bullets" as the Chinese scoreboard had it, beat the Chinese Army team, 96 - 85, after two 20 minute halves. But the standing-room-only crowd of 19,000 at Peking's Capital Stadium, dotted with a few rooters for the visitors like Sen. Henry Jackson (D-Wash) and former vice presidential candidate Sargeant Shriver, loved every minute of it.
Hayes, eventually too quick for the giant Mr. Mu, still marveled at what he called "the biggest man I ever played against, Wilt Chamberlain, was big, but Mu is BIG."
Others in the audience struggled to describe the human phenomenon, a Chinese national monument as stupifying as the Great Wall. Bullets General Manager Bob Ferry; "He's the biggest pagoda we've seen in China." Sen Jackson; "He's the first basketball player I've seen who never goes faster than a walk, but once he's got the ball, he's got it."
The senator, a Seattle SuperSonic fan, told U.S. Ambassador Leonard Woodcock during the difficult early going that he was only seeing America's "second team."
Discussions of Mu's actual height provoked raging debates. The Chinese said he was only 7-3. They admitted his weight was a well distributed 150 kilos -- 330 pounds -- but there were no Redskin scouts in the audience. Unseld insisted Mu had to be at least 7-6. Motta, gazing upward, guessed 7-8.
The object of all the attention is a warm, gentle 29 year old warehouse guard who, like all the other members of his team, is an active duty member of the People's Liberation Army.
"I think the Americans are good players, but they are rough players," he said before the game.
That surprised Hayes, who found Mu a very tough customer, until the big Chinese player fouled out with seven minutes to go. Mu spent most of the time on offense standing to the left of the key. His feet never left the ground, perhaps out of fear for the consequences once they crashed again. "If they could get him to move across the middle, he could shoot over everybody," Hayes diagnosed.
But like all the Bullets, he added, that the Chinese were "very quick, with some good shooters."
Motta happily discussed with Bullet attorney David Osnos ways to acquire NBA rights to the game's high scorer, Chinese guard Guo Yunglin, a 25 year old out of Liaoning who had 27 points, Mu had 20.
For the Bullets, Hayes and Porter each had 18, Bobby Dandridge 14, Greg Ballard 12, Unseld 6 and David Corzine 5. Their high scorer was Phegley with 23.
Phegley said he remembered his last international game, three years ago when his Bradley team "got pounded" by the Spanish National Team. He was out for revenge.
Dandridge got so excited he drew a technical foul for loudly disputing a Chinese referee's ruling.
"How do you say 'cheat' in Chinese?" he asked Markscheid.
Assistant Coach Bernie Bickerstaff grinned and eyed the hugh crowd. "Don't start another revolution," he said. "They've got us outnumbered."