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IT IS a January morning in old Shanghai, and the sky is the color and density of oatmeal, feebly lit by an orange disc as vague as a watermark. In urban China in the 21st century, this is known as a sunny day. At an outdoor marketplace, a teeming tenement of narrow stalls and alleys, clamoring vendors peddle knockoff Rolex watches and Nike sneakers, pirated videos, severed ducks' heads and trussed pink pigs. Into this tumult strides a seven-foot alien from the imperial courts of the U.S. But he is no tourist. ¶ Daniel Raymond McClintock is a 25-year-old pro basketball player out of Golden West High in Visalia, Calif., and the University of Northern Arizona, a former Denver Nugget who lasted only six games in the NBA. He has been hired this season by the Shanghai Sharks of the Chinese Basketball Association to do nothing less than replace the irreplaceable Yao Ming at center. That makes McClintock the man in the middle of the biggest sports story in the most populated anthill on earth.
While "Young Giant Yao," as the Chinese lovingly call their paramount sports hero, contributes a stunning rookie season to the Houston Rockets, McClintock is expected to reciprocate. Last season, with Yao at center, the Sharks won 23 of 24 league games, earning their first CBA championship. Anything less than commensurate dominance will be considered a failure and a loss of face for McClintock. At the market everybody seems to know his name, perhaps because every Sharks home game is aired on television. So are most of Yao's games in Houston, beamed live at 9 a.m. Shanghai time from the Lone Star to the Red Star state.
"Dan-ni-er! Dan-ni-er!" the dealers shout, rushing toward McClintock and his six-foot, green-eyed blonde wife, Alisha, holding up satchels of compact discs and videos and fake Cartier timepieces as high as their arms can stretch and barely reaching the big man's kidneys. "CD! DVD!" they cry as one.
A half hour later Dan and Alisha and their new DVDs are compressed into a Volkswagen Santana taxi, bound for the condo that the Sharks have leased for them in a complex of rococo pink high-rises that look like the Leaning Tower of Pisa dipped in Grenadine syrup. "You!" Dan commands, using Mandarin for turn right. Then, after passing through the gates, he says, "Ting!" which means halt. The driver lets them out in front of a fountain topped by a plaster nymph with breasts the size of cantaloupes.
McClintock is a sweet-tempered evangelist of the Christian faith, and like every Westerner who has journeyed to Cathay since Marco Polo, he finds himself bedazzled by China's masses and her mystery. He is asked if he is a bit overwhelmed by his new life in Shanghai. "I came here to play the game," says the Man Who Would Be Ming. "No matter where you are, basketball comes down to one thing. Put the ball in the hole."
AT 9:30 THE next morning McClintock and a fellow Shark, 6'10" Kevin Byrne out of the University of Idaho, are watching tape of that night's opponent, the Guangdong Southern Tigers. The two players are in Room 301 of a dormitory at the Hui Feng Training Center of the Shanghai Technical Sports Institute, where all the Sharks save three—the two pampered imports and one Chinese player with U.S. college and pro experience—are made to dwell, dine and train.
The institute is a remnant of the Soviet sports system as adapted by the People's Republic of China. A year ago Yao Ming was living in Room 305. At this very moment, in the little restaurants and motorbike repair shops just outside the gates of the institute, his proud and excited countrymen squat in front of televisions and watch him battle the overmatched Minnesota Timber-wolves half a world away. Yao's NBA debut on Oct. 30 was reported to have been seen in 287 million households in China.
After a half hour of video McClintock and Byrne join the rest of the Sharks in an unheated gymnasium across campus for the pregame shootaround, which is endured by the shivering players in parkas and toques. Outside it is 45°; inside it feels about half as warm. During the halfhearted workout the coaches' infrequent instructions are translated for McClintock and Byrne by an exceptional teammate: Ma Jian, the 6'7" power forward who, a decade ago, became the first mainland Chinese to play basketball at a major U.S. college, Utah. Like McClintock, Ma—whose given name, Jian, means Healthy—had a brief taste of the NBA: a handful of preseason games for the Los Angeles Clippers in 1995. He was the last cut, and he cried like an orphaned child.
Healthy Ma has a one-year contract with the Shanghai Sharks, a shaved skull, a black Fubu 'do rag, a red Phat Farm sweatshirt, a U.S. green card and an American wife and two little sons in Henderson, Nev. At 33, balanced on a weak right knee, he yearns for one last NBA dance.
"Do you think you'll still be playing when the Olympic finals are in Beijing in 2008," he is asked, "and Yao Ming scores 66 points against the U.S. Dream Team?"