sharing the Olympic spirit
OLYMPICS/ Team China

The Ming destiny
By Zhao Rui (China Daily/The Olympian)
Updated: 2008-05-16 15:28


Led by NBA all-star center Yao Ming and rookie Yi Jianlian, China's men's basketball team is looking to rewrite history at the Olympics.

Jonas Kazlauskas' side is hailed as the best Chinese national team ever, with two current NBA players and one former NBA regular in the form of Wang Zhizhi. Their Olympic goal is clear - to go beyond the quarterfinals and reach a new altitude at the Games.

But they have a mountain to climb as China will face US and World Championships winner Spain in the group stage.

"We have a very clear goal, which is we have to make the top eight," Yao said. "There are no weak teams at the Olympics because all of them consist of the best players from their continents, so I don't really care about whether we are in a 'group of death' or not.

"I am a player, so I just want to play as hard as I can and try to lead my team to realize this goal for the Chinese people.

"Certainly there are teams in our group that we are not on the same level with, but I believe there are opportunities and they are there for us to pursue."

China was drawn with the two powerhouses in Group B, which also includes African title-holder Angola and two qualifiers that will emerge from the 12-team Olympic qualifier to be held in July in Greece.

Basketball has recently become China's most popular sport, with massive support and exposure from an estimated 350 million fans. However, aside from an eighth-place finish four years ago, it has never sparkled on the world stage and is short of talented players besides Yi and Yao.

The Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), a nationwide hoop league, has been criticized by state media for the low grade of its players and performances. It has also come under fire for being poorly managed, despite having generated several elite athletes since the 1990s.

The CBA's Most Valuable Player (MVP) this year, Zhu Fangyu, only averaged 5.8 points and 3.3 rebounds per game at Athens 2004. His stats improved slightly to 7.2 and 3.6 at the World Championships two years later in Japan.

But Yao, who is in rehab after undergoing ankle surgery in Houston recently, believes China has what it takes to reach its Olympic goal.

"You cannot call it a goal if you can reach it easily," he said. "The improvements we have made over the past four years give us confidence that we will be able to play good basketball at the Games.

"The team has played more international games than before and all the players are more experienced and they have a lot of knowledge about their overseas rivals. Hopefully, this time in our homeland, we can surprise fans and ourselves."

The 21-year-old Yi, No 6 in last year's NBA draft, is expected to be Yao's right-hand man. He hopes to lay his nightmare in Athens to rest and rewrite the slate in Beijing this August.

As China's youngest-ever player at the Olympics, the then 17-year-old struggled as China raced to its best-ever eighth-place finish.

The skinny teenager averaged a miserable 2.2 points and 3.1 rebounds in the four games he started against international powerhouses. In response, Yao publicly slammed Yi and his teammates for their lack of "motivation and no winning desire at all".

"It was not a pleasant memory for me," Yi said. "I was too young to handle the things on and off the court. I tried my best, but all I could do was just be pushed away by those European big men as I struggled to score a point. I was very disappointed.

"I take the experience as a motivator for me. After spending a season in the NBA, I am a lot stronger now and have a better understanding of the game.

"I am so happy to have a second chance to play at the Olympics. Right now I'm just steeling myself for it, I'm working hard in practice to get my skills up and ready for the Games. It definitely helps that I have this NBA experience."

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