NEW YORK — It's not often that I watch Chinese-language television. But the other night, as I was flipping through the channels, something caught my eye.
It was a basketball game involving the Shanghai Sharks, and running the court from baseline to baseline was none other than Yao Ming, the 7-ft., 5-in. Chinese center who may be the first player chosen in the June 26 NBA draft. Early this week, the Sharks, after winning the Chinese professional league championship, gave Yao final approval to enter the draft, making his much anticipated ascent to the NBA almost a done deal.
Understand, this was the first time I had seen Yao play. But, immediately, I could tell what the fuss was about. Yao is proportioned like an athlete, and because of that he moves like an athlete. He's not another Shawn Bradley or Manute Bol, toothpick-slender, sometimes awkward giants who could be outmuscled. He can play inside and outside; he can block shots; and, scouts say, he's tough. With two or three years of good coaching, the guy could be a star.
He also comes at the perfect time. The NBA is in dire need of big men centers to be specific something that is easily apparent as the playoffs enter Week 2.
Of the 16 playoff teams, only four have true, above-average starting centers, and that number includes one who is injured (David Robinson of San Antonio) and one who is more a passer than a bruiser (Vlade Divac of Sacramento). The other two are Shaquille O'Neal of the L.A. Lakers (in a class of his own) and Dikembe Mutombo of the Philadelphia 76ers (the second-best in the league).
The other playoff teams field centers who are either too old, too young, too small, or too lacking in skills. "Big" Ben Wallace of the Detroit Pistons, for example, is a great up-and-coming player who has the strength of a forklift. He's the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year and a fanatical rebounder. But at 6 ft., 9 in., he should really be playing power forward.
"We have 29 teams in the league, but we don't necessarily have 29 starting centers," says Chris Ekstrand, a consultant for the NBA who puts out its annual draft guide. "Right now, teams are looking for centers high and low. There are few available."
The perception of a dearth of big men is compounded by an amazing talent streak that is nearing an end. Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, Robinson, and Alonzo Mourning are close to retirement. O'Neal, now 30, may have three or four more years at the peak of his talents. Already, however, he's become a victim of the pounding that a center must absorb, and his injured toe has become a source of great concern for the playoffs.
The NBA hadn't seen such a talented corps of centers since the '60s, when Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Nate Thurmond roamed the paint.
Teams today are more desperate than ever to find a good center because of O'Neal's dominance. Simply put, no one can match up with him, and for that reason, the Lakers have a good chance to win a third consecutive championship.
"Twenty years ago, it was Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar], now it's Shaq," says Scott Lloyd, a former NBA center who works for the Dallas Mavericks. The Mavs already have the NBA's first Chinese player on their roster, Wang Zhizhi, who is 7-1 but plays a perimeter game. "Everyone wants a dominant big man because it's the only way to get past the Lakers."
Though drafted this year, Yao may have a long wait before appearing in an NBA game. This week, the Chinese government announced that it expected to receive 50 percent of Yao's NBA salary and other concessions before allowing him to play in the league. Some observers speculate it could take years to negotiate such a deal.
Outside Yao, there's not much help on the way for NBA teams. Only one other center, Chris Marcus of Western Kentucky, is sure to be taken in the first round of the draft. Marcus, however, has had injury problems and will be selected mostly because of his raw size: 7 ft., 1 in. and 290 pounds. The third-best center awaiting the draft is Dan Gadzuric, who is Dutch but played for UCLA.
One reason why there are so few good centers today has to do with the nature of the position. It's rough and lacking in glamour. And who would want to guard Shaq? "Elbows are flying, people pushing, barking. You're up in people's breath. It's not too pleasant down there in the hole," explained Mourning in a 1993 interview with The Washington Post. "That's why only a select few play down there.... A lot of people get big bucks, but very rarely do you find people that want to go down there and put up with that, night in and night out. I'm one of the select few who do."
Says Tom LaGarde, an NBA center in the late '70s, "In my day, guys like Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan [both 7-foot forwards] would have played center."
So NBA teams will continue to look abroad for big men willing to play the "pivot." According to Ekstrand, European coaches have done a good job developing centers because they encourage a versatile game that includes jump shooting and passing. Divac, who's from Yugoslavia, is a case in point.
In America, meanwhile, coaches are more likely to encourage a young big man to camp under the basket and focus on grabbing rebounds, blocking shots, and dunking whenever he gets his hands on the ball.
Yao, a competent shooter, seems to be more from the European mold, although it's hard to be sure. NBA coaches will surely encourage him to be more aggressive inside, and he will have to add considerable muscle to his frame. He will also have to be more aggressive in the Chinese league, dunking is somewhat rare and there's a gentlemanly tendency to allow uncontested layups.
So what NBA player does he most closely resemble?
"There's no comparison for Yao Ming," Ekstrand says. "There are so few guys who are well above 7 feet. He's a singular player."