Saturday, August 26, 2006

The clock is ticking...ticking...ticking

Fran Blinebury wrote a wonderful article about the Chinese basketball team, and the obvious goal they are working up to -- the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

If [Wang Shipeng's] shot had kissed off the front or kicked off the back of the rim, Team China would have packed up and marched out of the World Basketball Championship with the emotionless expression of the guards around the Forbidden City.

But the ball found the bottom of the basket and Yao Ming and his teammates found themselves dancing with joy amid the realization they had gotten off the floor and advanced to the final 16....

Many of those people are among the large contingent of Chinese media at the tournament. Through the first three games, they filled up the courtside media tables, moaned loudly and were almost despondent after losses. Then they would go each day to the postgame interview session and grill Kazlauskas with the same questions for nearly an hour.

"Why don't you coach them to play defense? Why is your team not prepared to win?"

Then came Wang's shot and the stunning win over Slovenia, and the same reporters were cheering, hugging and exchanging high-fives with the players.

One even told Kazlauskas, "We thank you for brilliant coaching today."

I think that maybe some people have forgotten that China was one very, very improbably shot away from elimination. One shot, maybe one inch, and then the Chinese media would be unhappy yet again. China has a ways to go, even though they've proved a lot here.

Concerns such as that probably have kept 6-11 forward Yi Jianlian out of the NBA draft in recent years and playing for the Guangdong Southern Tigers. Yi is long and athletic, with good instincts and quick moves around the hoop. The NBA received a notice at the start of last season that Yi was 19 years old and would be draft eligible in 2006. Then another notice arrived in January, informing that Yi was only 18 and too young for the draft. Most insiders believe he is 22. During an exhibition game two weeks ago, Yi told Shane Battier he's 24.

There have been so many articles and opinions posted about Yi's age, I certainly can't add to it. But I'm once again questioning his age. A few days ago, ESPN's Chris Sheridan said that Chinese reporters told him that "everyone" knows that Yi is 24. And then this article says that Yi told Battier he was really 24. I have no idea where they got that, as I've never seen that anywhere else, so I'm still wondering whether it's completely accurate. Nevertheless, if it's true, then you have Chinese reporters who are supposed to know stuff like that and Yi himself saying he's 24. Does that say anything to you? It does to me.

Good guard play is what China lacks most. National team veteran Liu Wei went to training camp with the Sacramento Kings two years ago, and it became clear quickly he could not compete with NBA guards.

He can pass. He can shoot. But he could not physically match up or play with anyone.

I've said covered that before already, this just makes it even more clear. And apparently, Blinebury hasn't heard of Chen Jianghua yet, because I think he'll definitely be able to match up with NBA players. He already did when he played against China. Some think Sun Yue is an NBA prospect, but Chen is definitely the one who'll pave the way for China.

[Yao] "In the last five games, I saw a lot of hope for us. Here is something very interesting. In my first international game, I was 17 years old in Australia. Puerto Rico beat us by 79 points. Now we come here and lose by three in overtime. This is progress. We have another two years, and I think we can do something."

Kazlauskas smiles and shrugs.

"The Chinese have to make decisions, not me," he said. "Myself and (2004 Olympic coach) Del Harris made suggestions after Athens and nothing happened. Maybe they are thinking that, 'OK, now we have a coach and he'll put in some systems and everything will be OK.' But to make those systems work, we need now to know the basics of basketball and this is not the case at this moment."

So, on one hand, you have Yao once again citing the vast improvement of China (79 points!? That's huge). And then, you have Kazlauskas telling how the bigwigs that run the CBA still reject some perfectly sound advice from those who know what they're talking about and still going to old way. Two very conflicting reports. China right now is at a crossroads, both in basketball and politically. These 24 months until the Olympics start are crucial to deciding which road they will take.

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