To be sure, Chinese basketball is improving rapidly. "It is much different from four or five years ago," says another television personality, Xu Jicheng, who hosts CCTV's NBA broadcasts. "Living standards are improving, which means a better diet and more free time. On TV kids watch Chinese league games, the NBA, whatever. There are enough big guys with good athletic ability that now we just ignore the clumsy ones."
But that story of 100 young 7-footers, even if it were literally true, wouldn't mean much. The Chinese Basketball Association counts 200 million males playing the game. If you were to pluck only one 7-footer from every two million of them, you'd harvest your 100 post prospects right there. Some certainly have exhilarating potential. Tang Zhengdong, a 7'1" 18-year-old from Jiangsu province, has Shaq-like breadth, runs the floor and would be in Sydney if coach Jiang had any use for a fourth center. Xue Yuyang of Henan Province, though only 19, is a 7-foot all-court prodigy with the touch and handle, Xu says, "of Penny Hardaway." But not even a dozen Chinese big men, says Donn Nelson, have "the hands and feet and basic things that are needed." Reports of a law on the books in Shanghai permitting a husband taller than 6' 3" and a wife more than 5'11" to have a second child and even a third turned out to be false. Anyone who believes China is pursuing coercive eugenics, says Nike's Rhoads, "is smoking something."
For the moment, China will rely on the oldest genetic engineer of all, Qu Pid. Just as rumor had brought me to China, rumor saw me off. There's a 6'3" forward on the women's national team, and word has it that one of the three big boys is sweet on her.