When Utah coach Rick Majerus was first asked if he was interested in Ma Jian, as Majerus recalls, he thought he was being asked about an order of Chinese takeout. He soon learned that the Chinese in question was actually a 6'7", 220-pound forward from the town of Tianjin, who happened to have two years of college eligibility left and a mouth-watering jump shot. Now, 13 months later, the 24-year-old Ma is a junior at Utah, having gone to Salt Lake City for the same reason so many Mormons leave it to go abroad: He's on a mission. "I want to be the first Asian to play in the NBA," Ma says. "I had a good life; I was comfortable in China. I came here to find hard work."
A member of the Chinese national team since 1988, Ma arrived in the U.S. during the summer of 1992. UCLA coach Jim Harrick, who had first seen Ma in '88 while conducting a clinic in China, had arranged for him to come to this country, but Ma's insufficient grasp of English kept him from passing the admissions test at UCLA. So, having already completed a year of studies at a Chinese university, Ma enrolled at Utah Valley State College in Orem and embarked on a hasty cultural evolution. Freed from the oppressive five-hour practices and interminable meetings favored by the national team's coach in China, Ma poured his energy into school, earning a B-minus average. Says Ma with a smile, "My English and basketball have already improved, and the [national] team is still meeting."
Ma worked hard on the court, too, though his priorities needed some attention. Once he summed up his outlook to Utah Valley coach Duke Reid this way: "Winning not important, Coach. Just play." For Ma the word play, roughly translated, meant catch the ball and hoist it. In one game when Reid implored him, "Set it up, set it up," Ma responded by drilling a 25-footer. "We need not set it up," he told Reid. In another game last season he scored 27 points in the first half against Snow College, burying seven threes. But when he thought he heard his teammates use the word selfish in the locker room, he was disconsolate. When he was finally persuaded to go out for the second half, he scored only one point after intermission. "Not want to get the others jealous," said Ma, who averaged 17.9 points last season.
Ma ended up staying in the Salt Lake City area rather than enrolling at UCLA. He has come to value winning and has shown some enthusiasm for rebounding and playing defense—but he still loves to shoot. "Ma identifies the open man, then ignores him," says Majerus.
Still Majerus has high praise for Ma's progress and an abiding respect for his attitude. When Majerus halted a recent practice to give him detailed instruction, Ma became uncomfortable with the attention he was getting at the rest of the team's expense. "I love him," Majerus says. "And the players love him. They see the almost insurmountable obstacles he has to overcome and feel they have a stake in his success."
There are about 300 Chinese students and faculty members at Utah, many of whom might very well make "Jia you!" ("Let's go!") a regular chant at Huntsman Arena. To further ease Ma's transition, the Utes are taking one training-table dinner a week at a local Chinese restaurant. Majerus maintains that the food there is good, but Ma says it is too Americanized. To back up his claim that he was an expert on cuisine, Majerus once pointed to his substantial belly. Ma pondered the coach's girth, then shook his head and said, "Cannot be all Chinese."