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His father's family, living 80 years ago in the nascent republic's star-crossed capital, Nanjing, had ties to both Sun Yat-sen's struggling administration and the rising Communist party, and was forced to flee when the Japanese brutalized the city in 1937. Like many intellectuals, his father, a veterinarian, and mother, an agriculturalist, lost their primes in the mindless furor of Mao's socioeconomic overhauls, relegated to work on farms for reeducation until the Cultural Revolution fizzled out in 1976. "My parents got [into] some really serious trouble," Xia says. "I don't want to mention too much about that, but they were pretty much depressed for 20 years. It's been a big shadow in their whole lives."
But through American basketball, their son was able to see some light. In 1982, at age 11, he was waiting for an old anti-Japanese war movie to start playing on a screen hung from the trees in his remote southern hometown of Guiyang. A different film came on first, highlights of a recent exhibition game of NBA All-Stars held more than 1,000 miles away in Beijing. Julius Erving soared and scored, big and black and handling the ball like no one in Guiyang ever dreamed of doing. That's funny, Xia thought. That's not the way basketball is played.
Xia began shooting every loose minute of the day. He wore Erving's uniform number--the lucky 6--at the sports school he attended in the afternoon and later at Beijing Sport University, where he studied basketball coaching. He wears it now, at 37, whenever he has the chance. "For everything," he says in English. "Just because of Dr. J."
In 1997 a roommate pointed out a want ad posted by Nike, which was looking to hire a hoops representative in China; the clinching question in Xia's final job interview concerned Erving. "You asked the right guy," Xia said.
Three years later he began representing Wang Zhizhi and Mengke Bateer, the first and second Chinese players to play in the NBA, respectively, and expanded into sports marketing. As you chat with him at the Olympic Day run, you ask about the face of China, morphing so fast, and he tells how a month ago he took his father, 80-year-old Xia Guangqiang, back to the old neighborhood for the first time.
"Some old friends, the neighbors, we called and said, 'We want to see our old home,' " Xia says. "They said, 'You're right on time! If you came two days later, your home would be gone.' We drove there, and I was asking, 'Where are we?' They said, 'Where are you? Look: That's your home.' "
Only the first floor remained of the two-story apartment building where he'd lived for 19 years and his father for 42. Neither recognized it. Around the wreckage: new apartments, a park, malls. They felt the dislocation so common now in a China in which neighborhoods, even whole cities, seem to rise in a blink of an eye. "It's unbelievable. This is where I was born," Xia says. "But everything had changed.
"Another thing: That home, when they tore it down? They built a basketball court. You know where my bed would be? In the paint. Under the f------ basket: That's my bed."
Don't get him wrong: Xia is more impressed than saddened by the phenomenon. Change is what enabled one sister to move to Beijing and another to Las Vegas, what allowed him to fly his parents there and watch them lose $100 in a slot machine, what sparked him to take that vision three decades old and make it real. In 2003, when the Beijing authorities sought celebrities for a campaign to assure tourists that the city was safe after the SARS epidemic, one name came to mind. Having met Erving in 2002, Xia invited him and Clyde Drexler to Beijing. They came, filmed the spot, held a clinic and, the night before returning to the States, sat on Xia's couch in his Beijing apartment.
Lucky number? Six ate all of Xia Song's fruit. Six smoked a cigar, signed a number 6 jersey that hangs there still. "I was standing back looking that day," Xia says. "I could never imagine this: Dr. J, and now he's with me. I've never told him what he's done for me."