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2008 Olympics>Beijing Review Olympic Special Reports
UPDATED: August-18-2008 No.34 AUG.21, 2008
World's Eyes on Center Court
One of the most watched matches in history takes basketball to a whole new level

Thousands of spectators cheered when Yao Ming left the court with 4:41 minutes left in China's 70-101 loss to the United States at the basketball highlight of the Beijing Olympic Games. From the roar of the Wukesong Stadium crowd on August 10, it was as if China had romped home winners.

The home side was brilliant in the first half and were level at 29 all four minutes into the second quarter after a long-range shot from Sun Yue, who is expected to join the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2009-10 season. The United States then put their foot on the gas in a 20-8 spurt for a half-time lead of 49-37. China managed to stay in touch, but the United States closed the third 74-48 before racing away to a memorable 31-point victory.

With U.S. President George W. Bush and his father, former President George Bush, looking on from the stands, the Chinese applauded their team, but were also very enthusiastic about the NBA superstars in what was probably the most-watched sporting event in China's history.

Dream team

Inspired by a game he played as a child called "Duck on a Rock," James Naismith came up with the basketball game on December 14, 1891, in Massachusetts. He didn't know then he had invented what would become one of the most popular sports in the world, and that 117 years later, in Beijing, China, his game would be the focus of world attention.

Basketball has been an official medal event since its first appearance at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. During the next 36 years, the U.S. team dominated the sport. The big question surrounding men's Olympic basketball at that time was not who would win the gold medal, but who would be the runner-up. NBA players were first allowed to play at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, after which the U.S team was dubbed the "Dream Team." But others have been catching up in recent years. Argentina, former Yugoslavia and Spain pulled off victories that used to be considered nearly impossible, defeating the United States in the 2002 World Championships. And in the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, the U.S team lost three games on its way to a bronze medal.

The Chinese made their debut in the 1936 Olympics and reappeared in 1948, being eliminated in the group stage on both occasions. After 1949, basketball became increasingly popular in China. The Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) was established in June 1956 and basketball careers received government support until 1995, when the CBA introduced its own league, which was greeted with enthusiasm by fans and the media alike. To date, the league has made big improvements in both players' skills and marketing the game to a growing domestic audience.

Chinese basketball, especially the men's team, outdistanced all other Asian teams after China's participation in the Asian Games in 1974. The Chinese men's team finished eighth twice, in Atlanta and Athens, the best performances in their seven appearances in the summer Olympic Games; while the women's team won the silver medal at the Barcelona Games in 1992.

Basketball exchanges between China and the United States date back to 1979, when a U.S. university All-Star Team came to China and was beaten twice by the Chinese Army Team. The Washington Bullets' visit to China in August 1979 marked the prelude to the interaction between NBA and Chinese basketball for decades, including NBA first hosting the Chinese national team in 1985 and regularly providing training for the team through U.S. coaching clinics, exhibition matches and superstars paying visits to China through hundreds of touring basketball events. Via TV, magazines, newspapers and the Internet, more and more Chinese have become hooked on NBA-mania. Carmelo Anthony, Lebron James, Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant, Jason Kidd and others on the 2008 U.S. "Dream Team" are widely known. Chinese fans eagerly await the spectacular slam dunks and court antics of these stars during the Olympics.

China's foremost sporting son

Another NBA superstar in the opening game drew much attention all around China. Yao Ming, 2.26 meters tall, the anchor of the Chinese national team at center, has become a national hero since his first pick by the Houston Rockets in the 2002 NBA draft. He is not the first Chinese basketball player to compete in the world's most popular professional game. Song Tao and Wang Zhizhi were drafted respectively by the Atlanta Hawks in 1986 and the Dallas Mavericks in 1999. But only the chiseled-faced Yao has taken the NBA by storm.

"Yao Ming has the potential, the capability, of changing the future of basketball," said Bill Walton, a famous NBA commentator, after watching Yao's games when he was only 20 years old. Walton had clearly seen the potential in the young rising star.

As the starting center for six successive NBA All-Star Games, Yao not only has a strong frame and excellent shooting skills, but also a sharp mind and amiable personality. Children model themselves on Yao because of his effort, diligence and accomplishments. Even basketball fans in remote Chinese provinces are able to watch Yao on television. His success in the NBA is encouraging children to live their dreams and believe in themselves. Meanwhile, basketball has become an important bridge connecting people from different cultures. Yao has a lot of friends in the NBA, including Shaquille O'Neal who calls him "Gemener" (meaning "brother" in Chinese). Yao's Restaurant and Bar is often full of celebrities; the film The Year of the Yao and his biography Yao?A Life in Two Worlds, co-written by Richard Butcher of ESPN magazine, have been a big success. Yao Ming, ranked fifth in Time magazine's 100 Olympic Athletes to Watch issue on July 27, and he is changing the definition of sport in China and the United States.

Comparing the two countries, American basketball, especially the NBA, values speed, efficiency, power and diversity, and it is personalized and extroverted; while Chinese basketball requires cooperation, practicality and values the honor of the team represented by Yao.

Olympic spirit the winner

Sports Illustrated, a famous American magazine, when analyzing international sports structure, predicted the most significant cross-cultural handshake would be between Dwight Howard and Yao Ming in the Olympic basketball opener, second only to the Richard Nixon-Mao Zedong meeting in 1972, which initiated a new era of cooperation between the two countries.

In the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, Team USA finished first in the medals race with 103, of which 35 were gold; China overtook Russia and ranked second with 63 medals, 32 of which were gold. The Chinese men's team lost every match against the U.S. team in the previous four Olympic Games, yet the game on August 10 was considered by many fans as the competition of sports image between China and the United States. While the score was important to fans, the image of Chinese athletes over the three decades of reform and opening up and the Olympic spirit of "higher, faster, stronger" is much more important.

Yao had the final word when he expressed how he felt after the big battle. "This is a personal Olympics for me. Everyone is proud. It felt great, all the flags and people cheering. It was a great atmosphere."

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