A Chinese-born basketball player for the Dallas Mavericks, Wang Zhizhi has gently forced American business and the People's Republic to work constructively — at least in the field of basketball.

Standing at 7-foot-1 and blessed with decent quickness and a deft outside shooting touch, Wang is a rare kind of basketball player, and the National Basketball Association — the top basketball league in the United States and in the world as well — was very interested in Wang. The Dallas Mavericks club selected him in the second round of the 1999 NBA Draft when Wang was a shade under 22 years of age. That's where the difficulties began.

Like many non-U.S. basketball players, Wang belonged to a professional team, the Bayi Rockets, at an age when most Americans would play for an amateur collegiate team. However, the Bayi Rockets weren't just an ordinary professional team; they were the official team of the People's Liberation Army of China. Wang was technically a soldier, though I can't imagine him fighting in the trenches — and not just because of his height.

Chinese officials were angry with the Mavericks for drafting Wang, because they imagined that it was a military-style draft and that the Mavericks were ordering Wang to report to Dallas for duty. This was not the case — the NBA Draft is a construct designed to spread out all the newly professional players among all the league's teams so that one team can't sign all the hot rookies. There was no compulsion; Wang didn't ever have to report to Dallas if he didn't want to. All the draft meant was that Wang had to sign with the Mavericks if he wanted to play in the NBA. (In 1986, the Portland Trail Blazers drafted Arvydas Sabonis of Lithuania; the USSR prevented Sabonis from joining the team until 1995. All the while, the Blazers held his rights.)

To be sure, the Mavericks weren't exactly diplomatic. Their owner at the time, Ross Perot Jr., never contacted Wang or PLA officials before the draft, and he embarrassed Wang's Chinese bosses by getting Wang to pose in a Mavericks cowboy hat. In retaliation, the PLA refused to release Wang from his contract until the next season.

Why did the PLA change its mind? Their PR web site doesn't say, but my guess is that the 2000 Summer Olympics had something to do with it. The Chinese team, with 7-footers Wang and Yao Ming, was supposed to be one of the top non-American teams. But instead they stank up the joint, finishing in 10th place out of 12 teams and losing to Spain by 20 points in the final game. Perhaps the PLA reasoned that giving their best players NBA experience would be a better route. There wasn't anything left for Wang in the Chinese league; in his final season there, he was the regular-season, All-Star and Finals MVP and won the slam-dunk contest.

The NBA wasn't so easy. Wang rode the bench for most of his first season, but the Mavericks thought he was a real gem. "With international players, the first year is really a throwaway year," assistant coach Donnie Nelson told The Dallas Morning News. "The cultural differences and the language differences take so much adjustment that basketball takes a backseat for a while. The second year is really like an international player's rookie year."

Even so, Wang had already made history by being the first Asian-born person to play in the NBA. This made him an international celebrity — he represented China's bid for the 2008 Summer Olympics in his hometown of Beijing, and Liberia made a series of postage stamps with his likeness.

Thankfully, the hype was justified. Nelson's words rang true in Wang's second year (2001-02), as he played in 55 out of 81 regular-season games, averaged 10 minutes a game and shot 41 percent on 3-point shots, which is very good. He even learned a deceptive crossover dribble; the only other person that tall I could imagine doing that is Kevin Garnett.

But there was more controversy in the off-season. In June of 2002, Wang missed a "mandatory" training session with the Chinese national team in preperation for the 2002 World Championships later in the summer. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said he had no idea where Wang was, and there was speculation that Wang was defecting. (A juvenile Dallas radio station called The Ticket immediately started "We lost our Wang!" bits.)

As it turned out, an "advisor" to Wang said he was working out in the Los Angeles summer leagues — where the level of play is far higher than in China — and was fully planning to play with his nation in August.

I don't think Wang was defecting. He doesn't have to — he already spends nine months a year in the states. No reason to burn one's bridges. However, I do think that Wang wasn't just staying in L.A. to work out. He was testing China's boundaries, seeing if they'd grant him a little bit more freedom. And Wang's ploy seems to be successful, judging from China's tacit acceptance of his choice.

This will be Wang's lasting effect. He has loosened China's reluctance to send its athletes to Western nations, and he has proven to NBA teams that it's safe to take chances on Chinese players. The next super-prospect from China — Wang's countrymate Yao Ming, who is expected to be taken with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft — ought to be very grateful.

6/26/2002 update: The Associated Press got in touch with Wang today and ran a story about him. In the interview, Wang said he just wanted to work on his game in L.A. and plans to return to China sometime this summer.

2/4/2003 update: Wang is a reserve forward for the Los Angeles Clippers this season. The team is pretty bad, and Wang isn't playing particularly well.

http://english.peopledaily.com.cn — a rather fascinating web site.

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