Friday, August 25, 2006

A day of rest

Today is a day to relax for all the teams, and tomorrow the round of 16 will start (or 8-finals, as the FIBA site calls it, which is finally back up). But China won't play Greece until Sunday night, which means Yao and his teammates will have three full day to recover from an exhilarating yet probably exhausting game (especially for Yao).

When the games tips off, Yao will once again be facing a teammate in Vassilis Spanoulis. This might be even more interesting to see than Yao playing against Battier. Spanoulis has said before that "all international players look up to Yao. He's our role model." I wonder if Spanoulis will be prepared to challenge Yao going down the lane. Yao certainly won't shy away from going all-out to block his shot. Yao would his mom if she went down the lane against China (trivia fact- Yao has actually blocked once, when they played one-on-one together).

But even if this is a day of rest for Yao & Co., it's not for Mark and Co. (that's me). So, let me continue with my thoughts about yesterday's game:

Whatever the outcome of the game against Greece, I think China will truly be able to say that they, to put it into Yao's words, "fought to the last men." This team now knows what it means to never give up. They were down by 14, and they came back. A lot of it was Yao, of course, but guys like Du Feng and Zhu Fangyu really hit some big threes, especially in the all-important third quarter.

The problem with China was never really the talent. China has skilled players. It has good shooters, some good passers, some good low post guys. It was the heart (this is starting to sound like some sort of sappy movie). A few years ago, the Chinese players would simply give up once the deficit reached a certain point. And maybe they still do. But, if nothing else, their win against Slovenia, and their win two years ago against Serbia and Montenegro should teach them they actually have the talent and the skill to come back against a team like Slovenia that has four NBA players.

But now they have to go a step further. They have to play with fire, not just so they don't ever give up, but so that passion is always there. They need a firey player...a player like Bob Sura. In the 04-05 season, Sura and Jon Barry, but especially Sura, were the fuel that fed the flames. They were the ones that sacrificed their bodies to get the team motivated. They dived on the floor and get floor burns. They took the charges and took the headaches. They were skilled players, good shooters, good passers, but it was their passion for the game that made them invaluable (sadly, now Barry is retired, and Sura has been out for over a year).

Yao had to learn to do this. He already would never give up. But even that wasn't enough. Once he got to the NBA, he had to become more passionate. He did, and if he hadn't, he wouldn't be half as good as he is now.

Right now, besides Yao, the only really passionate players are Chen Jianghua and Yi Jianlian. It's no coincedence that they are also the two most promising youngsters on the team. Both will have big roles to play in helping China to become better by become NBA-level players themselves. Yi will be going to the NBA in a year, and I think he'll be ready to improve himself, but I think Chen might be even more influential than Yi. Yao was the original pioneer for China, but Chen could become the pioneer for guards. If you haven't noticed already, China's best players are all big men. Their best guards really aren't that exciting to watch. Chen is the only one who doesn't fit the mold of some boring old Chinese guard. He's fast, he's explosive, he has great dribbling skills, and he has a flair for showing off. It's not going to be long before he gets noticed by NBA scouts. In fact, there are scouts probably checking him out already. If he can show that Chinese guards can make the NBA, even if you're not abnormally tall, then maybe that could finally open the way for Chinese guards to start improving.

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