It's not too late for China's fallen hero to rise again

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 April, 2006, 12:00am

You are not allowed to make a decision off the basketball court. You are indebted to us in perpetuity.

These were rules and this is the story of Wang Zhizhi: a young boy who left China a pioneer and returned a pariah, all in the space of five years.

This week, the wayward basketball prodigy returned. According to reports, Wang had been suitably 'rehabilitated.' But it wasn't Wang's knee or shoulder that had need rehabbing. It was his head.

'I realised I had made a big mistake,' Wang said in a statement distributed by the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) upon his return to China this week for the first time in four years. 'I want to say sorry to my fans and to the Bayi team which trained me and gave me the chance to play in the NBA. I was too young to make the right decision. I hope I can make a contribution to the Chinese national squad in the World Championships and at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.'

Wang was coming back at 29 years old, a repentant young father. He had a cup of coffee in the NBA, but not much more. Playing sporadically for three teams in four years and currently out of work, Wang could reasonably be classified as an unemployed journeyman. From a basketball angle that would be a fair judgment. But if Wang was always judged solely from a basketball angle, he would certainly be far more than a journeyman player today.

When he was 16 Wang was the best player anybody had ever seen in Asia. Ever. At over seven feet, he had nary a gangly bone in his body. He was smooth. He could shoot like a guard and rebound like a centre and could dominate without breaking a sweat.

I saw Wang for the first time 12 years ago when I was broadcasting his games on the old Prime Sports, the forerunner to Star Sports. He had been a junior star and was about to carry a Bayi Army team full of national players on a six-year title run atop the CBA. He also got called up to the national team for the first time and soon found that all the attention he was garnering at club level did not make him the most popular guy on a veteran team who had never had this kind of exposure. He would often be frozen out. But after a stellar showing at the 1996 Olympics, Wang was truly on the international map and received a number of scholarship offers to American universities.

Still, it was silly to think he was going anywhere so he assumed a leadership role on China's under-22 team at the Asian Championships. Minus the old guys, Wang was far more assertive.

When challenged by Qatar's Yaseen Mahmoud, a six-foot-eight jumping bean, Wang responded ferociously. Wang knew he deserved to find out how he stacked up against the best, and endured five years of frustration before he could. Finally, in March 2001, he got his wish when he debuted with the Dallas Mavericks as the first Chinese player in the NBA.

As soon as the Mavs were finished that season, he dutifully hurried back to China. And while showing flashes of his potential in the US, he desperately needed some NBA seasoning.

After the 2002 season, he decided to turn his back on China and devote himself to achieving a meaningful professional career. Wang stayed behind to improve his game with superior competition at a summer camp in Los Angeles. He felt that it would be better to score 10 points against NBA-calibre competition than drop 40 on Mongolia at the East Asian Games.

It's hard to argue with that logic but he made a decision that someone with a free hand could make, not the first Chinese player to play in the NBA. Because of Wang's military commitments his decision to not return home became an even bigger slap in the face to China. He was branded a traitor and a 'defector'.

While compatriot Yao Ming became an NBA all-star, Wang became a brooding and non-productive bench warmer afraid and unable to visit his parents back in China. His fall was precipitous and, hopefully, his rise will be as well.

With no options, Wang returned home and just in time for the World Basketball Championship this summer and, naturally, the Beijing Olympics in 2008. He is still over seven feet tall. No doubt he can help and with Yao Ming's broken foot casting a pall on his role at the worlds, a revitalised Wang could be pivotal.

Perhaps an inspired performance this summer might prompt some NBA offers. But it's a decision he will likely not make alone, if at all. This is not the last chapter in the story of Wang Zhizhi, at least I hope not.