This wasn't surprising. Not so long ago Chinese propaganda derided "the unhealthy American imperialist sport style of seeking headlines." As recently as 1994 the Chinese Basketball Association A-League didn't even keep individual statistics. At least Al and I had Xia, and Xia had the big guys' confidence, if only as an interpreter of the wider basketball world. Whipping out his cell phone, he set up meetings with each player.
We found Menk at Silk Road, his restaurant in northwest Beijing. Menk grew up not in the capital but in a town on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, where he dreamed of becoming a traffic cop. That ambition got scuttled the day the mayor showed up at school and, seeing how smartly the students had mustered to greet him, complimented the big fellow at one end of the lineup. Hizzoner had mistaken Menk, then only eight, for the teacher. Within two years Menk had joined the Mongolian provincial team. Soon thereafter he made his way to a sports school in Beijing and finally to the national team.
If the three big boys represent the elements, Menk is earth: broad, immobile and nearly 300 pounds. That long-ago goal of directing traffic is apparent in the way he sometimes stands and watches the action pass him by. "My problem is that my footwork isn't good enough," he said. "I want to learn the moves Olajuwon makes." Now 24, Menk is, according to NBA rules, too old to be drafted, although his skills impressed scouts at the Nike Desert Classic in Phoenix, which he attended in the spring of 1999.
"I wouldn't be surprised if some NBA team gave him a sniff," Donn Nelson has said. "He's sort of a Joe Kleine type." I hardly had time to consider what the world had come to if we could conceive a formulation like "the Mongolian Joe Kleine," for Xia was already rushing us toward our meeting with Yao, at the bar of the Beijing Hilton.
Yao, who'll turn 20 on Sept. 12, is wind: fresh, unbridled, animated by the thought of all the places he might go. He spends his free time as any American adolescent would, lurking in chat rooms behind a pseudonym (Sabonis) or loping into a Starbucks for his favorite drink (iced latte) and perhaps a moment's rumination on a faraway place where people call a small a "tall." In 1998 Nike invited Yao to one of its summer camps. After watching him drop a couple of three-pointers on him during an evening scrimmage, Michael Jordan said, "We want him right now. I'm calling [ Chicago Bulls vice president of basketball operations] Jerry Krause."
In China, no bit of Jordaniana escapes notice, including the detail that Jordan so despises Krause that he avoids speaking to him. So back home people knew: Yao must have made quite an impression. "He's a Rik Smits who can block shots and rebound," Duffy says. " Yao Ming and Tyson Chandler [a 7'1" high school star in Compton, Calif.] are the two best teenage big men in the world."
Both of Yao's parents—his 6'9" father and 6'3" mother—played basketball for China. "That's where China's one-child policy comes back to haunt," says Terry Rhoads, sports marketing director for Nike- China. "If Mr. and Mrs. Yao had had five boys, there'd be an NBA franchise in Shanghai right now."
Upon learning that Wang Zhizhi is also the only child of former players, it occurred to me that if Chinese basketball authorities really are, as Brown alleged, trying to breed supersized players, they're letting prime opportunities go to waste. Nine years ago, when few Chinese foresaw the results of Deng's demarche, Wang's parents let their 14-year-old son join the army, in which he would enjoy the best coaching and facilities available in China. At the time he was 6'9"; within three years he had sprouted to his current 7 feet. Officials at the Beijing Sports Ministry, furious at seeing the city's finest prospect in a generation disappear into the army sports machine, froze Wang's father in his job as a youth coach. Wang is still in the army, powerless to leave until some general lets him go.
To see Wang play is to see why the brass is reluctant to part with him. Wang is fire—dancing, unpredictable in his movements. Left-handed and very poised at 23, he plays the all-court game of the Philadelphia 76ers' Toni Kukoc, only with more appetite for defense. Besides having range out to the three-point line, he can unfurl a baby hook, deploy a drop step and, says Donn Nelson, "handle and pass and dunk every which way. The hardest thing in our league is to find guys with that size who can do those things."
We met Wang after dark, at a hotel across from his team's dormitory in the Olympic training complex. He shambled into the lobby wrapped in a Mavericks warmup suit—wishfully wrapped, from all appearances. "It was a dream come true to be drafted," he said, "but it wasn't just destiny. I feel I worked hard for this goal. As a big man, dribbling and outside skills are my strengths. Those, and movement and transition." Braggadocio isn't in the makeup of the Chinese athlete, even the star. But in the cases of Wang, Yao and Menk, a quiet confidence is part of the package, and that's remarkable enough.