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Yi Ready

By Khalid Salaam,
Olympic Hoop 08

China's recent ascension to global power in the modern age has largely been fueled by its bustling economy. With a manufacturing industry that makes the world go round and workforce of hundreds of millions, everything that China does is felt by every citizen who chooses to
indulge in modern amenities.

That thirst for success is not a singular obsession related to the business sector alone. The Chinese love sports, too, and their focus on doing everything right for the 2008 Summer Olympics is only bested by their focus on winning in the Olympics. They're amped to make an
impact—especially in basketball—and if you think that their ability to do so rests only on the shoulders of Yao Ming, well, then, congratulations. You're half correct, but keep reading to learn about the other half.

First, a little background. With apologies to Wang Zhi Zhi, the Chinese legacy in the NBA is improved greatly with the addition of Yi Jianlian (pronounced EE jee-AHN-lee-AHN), whose success in the Chinese Basketball Association set off a whirlwind of interest from
international scouts. Over the last few years, several NBA teams sent the scouts or executives to watch Yi in action, noting his demeanor and just trying to see, up close, if he had the proper skills to earn an NBA roster spot or better, become the League's next great international star. Depending on who you ask or what you value, his coming-out party was either at the'02 ABCD Camp here in the States (held at New Jersey's Farleigh Dickinson University, where Yi played against future NBA players like LeBron James), at the 04 junior World Championship
Games in Greece (where he averaged 18 points, 11 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game) or by earning MVP honors for the Guangdong Tigers in '06 on the strength of his averages of 20 points, 9 boards and 1.3 blocks per contest.

Either way, his name has circulated throughout basketball circles for the last few years, so when he formally announced his entry into the NBA Draft, it was expected he would be a lottery pick. Courted by several teams, it was the Milwaukee Bucks who showed the most interest.

Only problem was Yi didn’t want to play for Wisconsin's finest. He wasn't using the rookie "I won't play here because its too far from my family" card. His family is thousands of miles away; so wherever he played in the US is obviously far His beef was with the city, not known by any means as one of the marquee NBA locales nor as an area of the country with a high Asian population. It's virtually a random city as one could get for an international player looking to make an impact.

He--and/or his people--weren't feeling America's dairyland and the Chinese government had his back like a chiropractor. Chinese officials agreed and told the Bucks he would not play there. The Bucks, floating in NBA irrelevancy, were steadfast in their assertion that if he was
there when they picked at No. 6 that he would be selected. He was, they did, setting off a relative firestorm of commentary and controversy with Yi and his handlers demanding the Bucks trade him because playing for the Bucks would not supply the 19-year-old enough playing time, and that lack of burn would weaken him for the Olympic Games. Regardless of all this melodrama, he did go to Milwaukee and ended up averaging a respectable if quiet 8.6 points and 5.2 rebounds per game while playing an average of 25 mpg. As predicted, the typical
NBA fan didn't much notice what was going on in Milwaukee, but the 20-year-old showed impressive offensive ability.

Yi is expected to team with Houston Rockets All-Star Yao Ming (assuming the latter's recovery from foot surgery continues to go well) to provide the host nation with arguably its best basketball team ever. At 7 feet and 238 pounds, and possessing guard-like sills, any all comparisons between Yi and Yao (besides the obvious) fall under the "white guy/small forward reminds me of Larry Bird" category of stereotyping.

Long and versatile, Yi has a modern game, heavy on perimeter skills if lack in the ability/interest to do much banging down low or catch many and-ones. He has the potential to surpass assumed international player limitations and turn himself into a legit NBA player.

But all that is a long way and a lot of improving from now. At this moment in time, the world's introduction to Yi will com e via the 2008 Games. In a recent interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Yi shared his enthusiasm for the upcoming Summer Games. "I'm very
excited," he said. "Often, I catch myself thinking and imagining about the Olympics right now. To have the Olympics right at our front door and look and see the stadium and it's all Chinese fans, this is something I am really excited about."

The Chinese have drawn the unenviable task of being placed in the same group as the US as well as the defending world champions, Spain. (The participating teams were drawn in two groups of six teams each. Three spots are yet to be taken, as 12 teams will fight for the available tickets during the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Athens from July 14-20.

The participating sides will be Cameroon, Cape Verde, Puerto Rico, Canada, Brazil, Korea, Lebanon, Greece, Germany, Croatia, Slovenia and New Zealand). In fact, for China's opening game, they are set to play what looks to be the second best US basketball team of all
time. Keeping the game with the US from being a buzz-killing romp will be an accomplishment in and of itself. Beating the American team seems to be unrealistic, unless of course Yi and the rest of his teammates are up to a remarkable task.

Like Yao, Yi is also rehabbing injured body parts (a sprained ligament in his right wrist) and how he is feeling come the Games' August tipoff will undoubtedly play a major role in whether he will be able to go at full speed. "The time off is enough for me," he recently told China Daily. "I am confident that me and Yao Ming will be at our best shape ahead of the Games." And regardless of the talent disparity, he seems fairly confident of what to expect from the US team.. "After spending a whole season in the NBA, I am a lot stronger and have a better understanding of the game".

Yi seems excited, as is his country (Though some excitement has surely been dampened by the very real, very tragic earthquake took the lives of thousands in southwest China. Both the Chinese men's and women's teams have donated 500,000 yuan--around $75,000 USD--and Yao Ming 100,000 yuan himself.)

The country has devoted a large amount of time and money into the game For example, all basketball games will be played the brand-new state of the art Wukesong Arena. It has an 18,000-seat capacity (It will seat 12,000 for the Olympics, however) and inside it is beset with all the modern trappings of an NBA arena. The Chinese team placed eighth in the 2004 Games and will be looking to improve upon that. With an estimated fan base of 350 million--about as many people as are in the United States--basketball has arguably become the that nation's most popular sport, and expectations are higher than usual. Because of this, players on the basketball team have become real celebrities, Yi chief among them. He recently participated in the Chinese leg of the Olympic torch relay and led a group of athletes in unveiling apparel for the Games at a Nike event..

China is no longer a rising superpower. They're squarely here, and with that star power comes more visibility in the Summer Games, their athletes are taking center stage with this newfound visibility. In his home country, Yi is already a star. However, what he does in the Olympics is his chance to position himself as one of the faces of China's future.

You can bet that all of China, and the basketball world as a whole, will be watching to see what happens.