Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

What Gets the Attention of 300 Million Chinese?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

What Gets the Attention of 300 Million Chinese?

Article excerpt

As the lyrics to the "Star Spangled Banner" filled Reunion Arena, the recently dismissed Chinese Army officer stood stiffly and looked at the floor.

Talk of a downed plane and strained US-China relations had been buzzing in his ears for days. But on this night, he would block out the din long enough to make his own history, and bring the two clashing countries together - even if only for a brief eight minutes.

In last week's game before an adopted hometown crowd, Wang Zhizhi became the first Asian to play in the NBA, brought from Communist China to the heart of the Bible Belt by the Dallas Mavericks.

With arms as long as garden hoses attached to his 7-ft., 1-in. frame, Wang is only the latest foreign hoopster to earn a coveted spot in the US league. But China's decision to let him leave for America is fresh evidence that sports can - and often does - transcend politics, even on an international scale.

Wang is well aware of his duty to be as much an ambassador for China as he is a basketball player. "I know it will not be easy. But I will try my best to help the American people learn more about the Chinese people," he said at a recent press conference.

But before he goes about tackling international diplomacy, this boy from Beijing has a few lessons of his own to learn. While he looks confident and comfortable on the court, American life off- court still presents its challenges. Before Thursday's game against the Atlanta Hawks, for instance, Wang wandered into Reunion Arena through the main doors, along with arriving fans.

Hearing it right

Then there's the language barrier - and the simple problem of trying to understand the coach. With six minutes to go in the second quarter, Wang - whose name is pronounced Wong - shed his warm-up clothes because he thought Coach Don Nelson had called him into the game. Actually, Nelson had called for Juwan, meaning starting forward Juwan Howard.

While Wang knows some English ("I like big steaks" was one of his recent English pronouncements), he is accompanied at all times by a representative from China who acts as his interpreter.

He will study English every day, but says when NBA players start talking trash, "I just pretend like I didn't understand."

It's anybody's guess how long that polite Chinese reservedness - as well as his shy, hesitant off-court demeanor - will last. This is, after all, the rough-and-tumble, trash-talking, flashy NBA.

Still, says Dallas Mavericks' owner Mark Cuban, Wang has a great sense of humor. "He knows when to say what's expected of him, and he knows when to throw in a little hand grenade."

Mr. Cuban acknowledges that getting Wang was good for business - and gaining 1.3 billion new fans certainly can't hurt. Already, Cuban says, he's received hundreds of e-mails requesting the No. …

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