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NBA's China success has a name: Big Xu
(Houston Chronicle)
Updated: 2004-10-18 10:59

Pick up the remote control, punch the power switch, and they are all over the American airwaves TV sports personalities who become as much a part of the action as the events themselves.

There is Chris Berman with his nicknames. There is John Madden with his boom-bam-boom. There is Dick Vitale with his hyperventilating, over-the-top craziness.

In China, there is Big Xu.

Xu Jicheng is an engaging fellow with eyes that light up like Chinese lanterns, a smile wider than Tiananmen Square and a presence that both dominates the room and draws his audience in.

On any night during the NBA season, in a vast nation where more than 300 million have identified themselves as passionate basketball fans, his happy face and solid background knowledge are part of the full experience with the slam dunks and 3-point shots.

If Yao Ming is the electrical spark enabling Chinese basketball to surge ahead in the 21st century, then Big Xu has been the conduit carrying the charge.

"All I try to do is open the door," said Xu, 41, demonstrating the modesty that is an ingrained part of his culture.

Now, with the Rockets and Sacramento Kings on the far side of the Pacific to play this pair of China Games in Shanghai and the capital city, that door has been flung wide open.

"This is something I've wanted to see happen for years," Xu said. "It is wonderful to have it come true."

At 6-4, he looks like a basketball player, which he was as a youth in his home province of Shandong, selected then by the officials of the government-run sports schools and told he was going to study basketball. Then 12 years old, Xu (pronounced Shoo) wasn't particularly fond of the game, but that didn't matter. It was his height that got him both the notice and the orders from the government.

"At that time, they did everything for you, made all of the decisions, from the time of the birth until the time of your death," he said.

Bad knees inhibited Xu's development as an elite talent, but he was still moved up to the army's youth team until, at age 16, a severe ankle injury ended his career and gave him an out.

Xu's parents, both college professors who had seen their careers stunted during the Cultural Revolution, steered their son to Shandong University, where he became a journalist.

Olympic impression

It was in 1988 that a young reporter working for the Xinhua News Agency was given the assignment of covering the basketball tournament at the Seoul Olympics. A few days before the start of play, Xu found himself in a conversation with the legendary Soviet Union coach Alexander Gomelsky, who convinced an impressionable kid that his team could win the gold medal over a United States team led by David Robinson and coached by John Thompson.

Xu filed a story for Xinhua predicting victory for the Soviets. When he arrived at the arena, he was greeted by many veteran basketball writers who chided him.

"They couldn't quite say my name the way it is pronounced," he said. "They called me 'Shoes.' And after that story appeared, they all said I was naive and called me 'Rookie Shoes.'

"Of course, you know what happened. The Soviet Union beat the Americans, and after that game, my colleagues started calling me 'Big Shoes.' "

Legends are often born of the unexpected, and Big Xu used that experience around the game in 1988 to gravitate toward the one and only real NBA Dream Team of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley and the rest in 1992 at Barcelona.

"At that time, a lot of my friends thought that I was crazy for wanting to be a full-time journalist whose main interest was the NBA," Xu said. "They said that the NBA was so foreign to China. They asked who cared."

Now, with interest in the league having exploded on these shores, nobody is asking about the passion Chinese sports fans have for the NBA. The league has been a marketing phenomenon in China over the past decade, and Big Xu, as the foremost expert on the subject, has been frequently asked by professors in business management classes to be a guest lecturer.

Xu remembers his first meeting with NBA commissioner David Stern at the 1997 NBA Finals in Salt Lake City.

"I told him that I could see a day in the future when China could be the No. 2 market in the world for the NBA," he remembers. "David Stern told me, 'With the size of China, it should be No. 1.' "

In the years since Rockets-Knicks in 1994 was the first NBA Finals televised entirely live in China, Big Xu has shepherded the game's growth on CCTV, the government-run network.

The game's keeper

"In the beginning, we used to get our games on tape, just put in an envelope and mailed to us from the NBA office," Xu said. "It usually took one month for the tape to get here. Then it had to be approved by the government censors, and that could take another month or more. We would show games that were three months old, and still people would watch."

While other Chinese announcers concentrated on expressing more descriptive feelings and emotions about the game "Jordan soared like a fierce eagle with a sharp beak" Xu talked more about the basics of the game and strategy.

"I explained the difference between the shape of the NBA lane and the (trapezoid) lane of international basketball," he said. "I tried to tell the fans why a coach did something or why a player did something. I began to get letters and calls telling me how much they liked what I was doing. They said it allowed them to actually understand the sport, not just the spectacle."

When the Rockets and Kings took the floor for the game in Shanghai on Thursday, the Chinese fans crammed into the stadium knew the details of all the players on both rosters.

A recognized figure

But it wasn't so long ago, on a promotional tour to China by NBA players such as Robinson and Allen Iverson, that Big Xu's was the most sought-after autograph by the young fans.

He has become a sensation who is the face of the league in China while still keeping his day job with the Xinhua News Agency and also helping to nurture a new breed of writers specializing in his love, the NBA.

"Big Xu is the leader," said Yang Yi, a 27-year-old journalist for the all-basketball newspaper Basketball Pioneers. "He has a love for the game that shows, and it has accounted for his popularity. But he has not changed. He has time for everyone. He answers questions. He helps all of us. He loves the game."

Xu still plays a once-a-week game with other writers at an indoor gymnasium that they rent out at an hourly rate. Now that he isn't being forced to play, he enjoys playing. Just not nearly as much as watching the game that he has done so much to promote in his country.

At official welcoming ceremonies for the China Games, which include league and government officials, Xu is the emcee. At any kind of basketball function, he is in the mix.

During a news conference at which Yao Ming sat at a table before a throng of more than 200 reporters and TV cameras, Xu stood in the back of the room wearing that wide smile, showing almost a parental sense of satisfaction. It was his game, his achievement, as much as theirs.

Part of the fabric, part of the culture, this, finally, was a really Big Xu.

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