Declaring himself "here on business," hometown favorite Yao Ming joined Tracy McGrady and the rest of the Houston Rockets yesterday in Shanghai as they prepared for a pair of exhibition games against the Sacramento Kings -- the first NBA games played in China.
Yao and the Rockets settled into their hotel after the long flight from the United States, but canceled a scheduled practice session after a baggage mix-up.
The 7-foot-6 Yao told reporters at a packed news conference that he was happy to be home, but didn't consider his visit a social call.
"I'm here on business and I want to play well," said Yao, who was selected for Shanghai's youth team at age 14 and later played for the Shanghai Sharks of the Chinese professional league.
Houston will play the Kings in Shanghai tomorrow and in Beijing on Sunday.
Rockets Coach Jeff Van Gundy said he likely would play Yao between 22 and 28 minutes in the first game to give the fans the thrill of seeing the hugely popular center on the court.
"Obviously, I want to play him because he's in his home town, but I don't want to overplay him given that it's only the second exhibition game and we have a long season ahead of us," he said.
"I know he wants to play very, very well here and I want to give his fans the opportunity to see him play," Van Gundy added.
Shanghai has heavily refurbished the city gym that was built in the days of Mao Zedong's 1966 to '76 Cultural Revolution, adding an NBA regulation court, giant television screens and additional dressing room and office space.
The gymnasium seats about 10,000, but only about 3,000 tickets were available for fans -- those were snapped up in one afternoon.
It's the latest attempt by the NBA to harness basketball's surging popularity in China, 25 years after Wes Unseld and the Washington Bullets visited Shanghai to play the Chinese national team. Wang Zhi Zhi became the first Chinese player in the NBA in 2001.
Chris Webber, Mike Bibby and the rest of the Kings were scheduled to practice later yesterday afternoon. Liu Wei, Yao's teammate on the national team and the Sharks' current star, was invited to join the Kings for training in July and is expected to play in Shanghai and Beijing.
Yao said he wouldn't try to make things easy for Liu, but added: "I'm more afraid of accidentally passing the ball to him just out of habit."
-- From News Services