What gets the attention of 300 million Chinese?

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As the lyrics to the "Star Spangled Banner" filled Reunion Arena, the recently dismissed Chinese Army officer stood stiffly and looked at the floor.

Talk of a downed plane and strained US-China relations had been buzzing in his ears for days. But on this night, he would block out the din long enough to make his own history, and bring the two clashing countries together - even if only for a brief eight minutes.

In last week's game before an adopted hometown crowd, Wang Zhizhi became the first Asian to play in the NBA, brought from Communist China to the heart of the Bible Belt by the Dallas Mavericks.

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With arms as long as garden hoses attached to his 7-ft., 1-in. frame, Wang is only the latest foreign hoopster to earn a coveted spot in the US league. But China's decision to let him leave for America is fresh evidence that sports can - and often does - transcend politics, even on an international scale.

Wang is well aware of his duty to be as much an ambassador for China as he is a basketball player. "I know it will not be easy. But I will try my best to help the American people learn more about the Chinese people," he said at a recent press conference.

But before he goes about tackling international diplomacy, this boy from Beijing has a few lessons of his own to learn. While he looks confident and comfortable on the court, American life off-court still presents its challenges. Before Thursday's game against the Atlanta Hawks, for instance, Wang wandered into Reunion Arena through the main doors, along with arriving fans.

Hearing it right

Then there's the language barrier - and the simple problem of trying to understand the coach. With six minutes to go in the second quarter, Wang - whose name is pronounced Wong - shed his warm-up clothes because he thought Coach Don Nelson had called him into the game. Actually, Nelson had called for Juwan, meaning starting forward Juwan Howard.

While Wang knows some English ("I like big steaks" was one of his recent English pronouncements), he is accompanied at all times by a representative from China who acts as his interpreter.

He will study English every day, but says when NBA players start talking trash, "I just pretend like I didn't understand."

It's anybody's guess how long that polite Chinese reservedness - as well as his shy, hesitant off-court demeanor - will last. This is, after all, the rough-and-tumble, trash-talking, flashy NBA.

Still, says Dallas Mavericks' owner Mark Cuban, Wang has a great sense of humor. "He knows when to say what's expected of him, and he knows when to throw in a little hand grenade."

Mr. Cuban acknowledges that getting Wang was good for business - and gaining 1.3 billion new fans certainly can't hurt. Already, Cuban says, he's received hundreds of e-mails requesting the No. 16 Wang jersey.

"As long as they have checkbooks and credit cards, I'm happy," he says. "Now if we can just keep Wang from buying up every souvenir in the Hard Rock Cafe, we'll be fine."

For his two-year contract, Wang will earn $800,000 - considerably below the average NBA player's earnings of $3.5 million a year, but dwarfing the average household income of $900 a year in China.

Growing up, Wang was no stranger to basketball. Both his parents were stars in the Chinese league, and his father began teaching him the game at age 7. He entered a selective sports schools at age 12, and has been playing on Chinese teams ever since. While he gained superstar status in basketball-crazed China, he and his parents have always stood out for another reason: height. His father stands 6 ft., 7'in., and his mother is 6 ft., 4 in. Wang himself joins the dozen or so NBA players in the 7-footer club.

His parents were among 300 million Chinese watching the live broadcast in hope of seeing Wang play. They were not disappointed. An early blowout allowed Coach Nelson to put Wang in, and he played a total of eight minutes.

In the end, Wang made six points and countless new American fans. In the Reunion Arena, they held aloft welcome signs, waved Chinese flags, and chanted "We want Wang." They gave him a standing ovation when he entered the game for the first time, as the song "Everybody Wang Chung Tonight" blasted from the rafters.

"I really want to say thank you to all the Dallas basketball fans for supporting me so much," Wang said after the game. "This will help me to play harder."

A long road to Dallas

Of course, the road to Dallas wasn't easy. Wang first caught the attention of talent scouts in the 1996 Olympics. The Mavericks drafted him in 1999, and it took months of delicate negotiations to get his army-owned basketball team to let him go.

But if this Chinese transplant was feeling at all homesick in his new world, he's probably in good company on this team. The Mavericks now have more foreign-born players than any other team in the league: Obinna Ekezie from Nigeria, Eduardo Najera from Mexico, Steve Nash from Canada, and Dirk Nowitzki from Germany.

It makes sense that Nelson made it happen. When he was with the Golden State Warriors, he lifted the Iron Curtain just high enough to slip in Sarunas Marciulionis - the first from the Soviet Union to play in the NBA.

"Coming here from China, [Wang] is nervous and a bit scared," says Nelson. "But we are going to make him feel as comfortable as we can."

There is one transition that won't take long, though. For once, the Chinese giant doesn't tower above his peers.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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