Friday, October 25, 2002

On TV, it seems really easy



By Jim Litke
The Associated Press

Imagine how many kids are picking up basketballs in China at this very minute. NBA commissioner David Stern did -- almost 20 years ago.

The latest pin on the NBA's global map was put in place Wednesday night when Yao Ming of China, all of 7-foot-5 and just 22, made his debut in the biggest, baddest basketball show on the planet.

"When you watch it on TV it seems really easy," Yao said. "But when you are actually out there playing, it is extremely difficult."

The final line for the Houston Rockets rookie in a preseason loss to San Antonio proved just how difficult: six points on 1-for-5 shooting, 4-for-4 from the line, four rebounds, four fouls and three turnovers in 13 minutes.

But those numbers were almost beside the point.

The Los Angeles Lakers' quest to become the first team to four-peat in nearly 40 years will headline the upcoming NBA season. Michael Jordan's attempt to defy age, and Allen Iverson's effort to submit to authority, will draw their share of viewers, too.

But the most important back story this season - perhaps even this decade - will be the education of Yao, and by extension, a viewing audience back home that already numbers 287 million households.

The Spurs' Tim Duncan welcomed Yao to school by flattening him on his first-ever drive to the basket. But Duncan was gracious afterward, perhaps recalling the arc of his own learning curve.

"He'll end up being a good all-around player, but it always takes time," said Duncan, who was born in the Virgin Islands and didn't play organized basketball until ninth grade.

There's a wide range of opinion on Yao's game, but everyone agrees that the sooner he improves, the better.

Houston guard Steve Francis, who's been carrying the franchise and desperately needs help down low, is trying to speed up the process by chauffeuring Yao around his adopted hometown.

Rockets management cleared every obstacle set down by China's government and its basketball federation, and coach Rudy Tomjanovich has shown patience and tact.

"Everyone is excited about him being here, but now it's time to play basketball," Tomjanovich said.

"My gut feeling is that he will be able to handle this stuff."

Probably so.

In 1984, which also happened to be Stern's rookie year as commissioner, the No. 1 draft pick was Hakeem Olajuwon, who played at Houston but was born in Nigeria and dreamed of being a goalkeeper.

There were another nine foreign-born players in the league at the time, representing eight countries, but Olajuwon was already the best.

U.S. dominance of the game was taken for granted, in part because of established stars like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and the promise of the guy taken two slots lower in that 1984 draft - Michael Jordan.

In 1992, just before Stern unleashed the original Dream Team on the Barcelona Olympics, players born outside the continental United States had grown to 23, representing 18 countries, and Hakeem still was perhaps the most dominant representative.

Now, the seeds Michael, Magic & Larry sowed in the imaginations of kids around the globe that year are coming to fruition in increasing numbers.

Last season, there were 52 players from 31 countries and arguments galore over the best foreign-born star. It will be even tougher to decide in the years to come. Spain's Pau Gasol was rookie of the year and four other freshmen on the first- and second-team All-Rookie squads were non-Americans.

This season kicks off next week with 68 players listing birthplaces outside the United States, including Yao, the first foreign-born overall No. 1 draft pick who didn't play college ball here.

It also begins not quite two months after a U.S. team made up of NBA stars suffered not just its first defeat in international play, but lost twice more en route to an embarrassing sixth-place finish in the 16-team field.

Like never before, the rest of the world has demonstrated it can play. If Yao manages to get himself ahead of that parade within the next five years the rewards will be enormous all around.

The endgame Stern envisioned all those years ago still has a way to run. But he patiently courted FIBA, the international federation, then used that to begin an annual exchange program that matches NBA and European league teams in the McDonald's Championships.

Next, he put the original Dream Team on the world stage, then watched as the kids in small towns and big ones dribbled down to the corner store.

Talk about the big picture: While the rest of us were looking at playgrounds in New York and driveways in Indiana, the kids Stern had in mind were calling "Next!" in places like Split, Croatia; Rio de Janeiro; and even Shanghai.

---

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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