As tea, silk and porcelain In reel I Marco Polo, word of outsized human treasure drew me to China. I'd heard that the country's basketball courts were aswarm with big men. Low-blocks grinders. Open-court gazelles. Human towers who gobbled up rebounds and swatted away shots while scoring copiously, too. As of the turn of the millennium, provincial clubs and sports schools harbored as many as 100 7-footers under age 24, or so said Dale Brown, the former coach at LSU, who has given clinics in Asia for years. Bruce O'Neil, the former Hawaii coach at whose United States Basketball Academy in Eugene, Ore., the Chinese nationals trained in July to prepare for the Olympics, repeated Brown's figures, though not his suspicion that genetic engineering accounted for them.
Westerners have long regarded China as a sleeping giant. As the U.S. Dream Team eyes a Sept. 17 opener with its Chinese counterpart in Sydney, that image has grown into a vision of row upon row I of basketball Lurches, supine on a table in some Doc Frankenstein's lab. As Brown said, "Something's not right when a nation of midgets is producing more 7-footers than any other country in the world."
At last count that purported nation of midgets numbered 1.25 billion people, a Malthusian figure that's likely to yield a few deviations from the mean. (Old joke: In China, when they tell you you're one in a million, there are a thousand more just like you.) Nonetheless, hearing suggestions of a more sinister genesis for all this size, I went to see for myself.
Within hours of arriving in Beijing, photographer Al Tielemans and I found ourselves, if not exactly face-to-face with Yao Ming, the 7'6" teenager who's one of three giants on the national team, at least darkened by his turrical shadow. "Do you think we could pose the three of you together at the Great Wall?" asked Al as he risked a crook in his neck.
"Why do you need to do that?" Yao replied. "When we're all together, we are the Great Wall."
Indeed, Yao, 7-foot Wang Zhizhi and 7-foot Menk Bateer are known in the Chinese press as "the walking Great Wall." But to Xia Song, the hoops operator who had met us at Beijing's Capital International Airport, they were something more familiar. They were "my three big boys."
Xia, 30, is facile with the idioms of basketball, business and backslapping English. His clothing is festooned with swooshes, and he takes meetings at Beijing's Sports City Cafe, which looks like a spaceship just flown in from some NBA city. Bill Duffy, the U.S. agent who is advising Yao and Wang, has Xia on speed dial. So does Donn Nelson, director of player personnel and assistant coach of the Dallas Mavericks, who chose Wang in the second round of the 1999 NBA draft and are trying to prise him from the August 1 Rockets, the Chinese army team to which Wang is indefinitely indentured.
While Xia cultivates contacts in the States, taking advantage of the economic freedoms that Deng Xiaoping introduced to China in the late 1970s, many of the factotums in the sports bureaucracy are his former teachers at Beijing University of Sports and Physical Education. Thus Xia sits between the hidebound, centrally planned system of Mao Zedong, and the global marketplace into which Yao, Wang and Menk hope someday to step. When Nelson and his father, Don, the Mavericks' general manager and head coach, visited Beijing two summers ago with Ross Perot Jr., who then owned the team, Xia sat on the Mavs' side of the table, across from the impassive army generals who insisted that Wang's departure for the NBA was out of the question.
Xia laughed upon learning why Tielemans and I had come. "If foreigners think the Chinese people aren't big, it's because for years they've seen only people from Guangzhou or Hong Kong," he said. "It's true that south of the Yangtze River most people are short. There, they say to big guys—they call them 'long guys'—'You're wasting clothes!' But people north of the Yangtze can be very big. The problem is, How can young 7-footers get good coaching? High school and junior coaches are still training players in 1950s ways. There are no new ideas about diet or weight training. We need exchanges with other good basketball countries, like the U.S. and those in Europe, but we don't have many opportunities for our coaches to go abroad."
Wang Fei, the forward-thinking 37-year-old who coaches Wang Zhizhi's army team, spent five months in the U.S. last season as a guest of the Mavericks and Nike, studying NBA ways. But China's Olympic coach, Jiang Xingquan, 60, is a lantern-jawed devotee of the old school. He's the guy who last spring moved up the start of practice by a week to keep Yao from indulging in the individualistic folly of traveling to the U.S. to compete in the Nike Hoop Summit, where he could have auditioned for NBA scouts. Moreover, Jiang refused to make the walking Great Wall available to Al and me for more than a few minutes one day after practice, lest singling out any of them undermine team spirit.