Drexler an ideal choice to promote China Basketball Challenge

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

You only have to watch Clyde Drexler walk into the room to be reminded what his basketball career was all about.

He doesn't walk so much as saunters, bringing to mind immediately why - in 16 years as a National Basketball Association professional - they called Clyde, simply, 'The Glide'.

Even from thousands of miles away, anyone lucky enough to have seen broadcasts of Drexler in his heyday would have been immediately struck by how easy he made it look, despite the fact he was playing in the toughest league in the world.

In a storied career that took him from college immortality as part of the University of Houston's Phi Slamma Jamma teams, through 12 years as a guard with the Portland Trail Blazers and eventually back home to Houston, where he iced his career with a championship in 1995, Drexler's grace and style elevated him into the basketball pantheon.

He was an NBA All-Star 10 times, took his place alongside Michael Jordon and Magic Johnson in the United States' fabled Olympic Dream Team of 1992, and was honoured by the NBA as one of the 50 greatest ever players in 1996.

On this particular day, he's in Guangzhou to help promote the China Basketball Challenge - which pits China, the US and Brazil against each other over the nights of August 7 and 8 - and the mainland media has fixed him in the spotlight. But Drexler appears relaxed, carefree even, as his message is taken out to an audience of millions.

He seems to have taken all the glory, all the accolades, in his long, loping stride.

'For me the greatest individual achievement of my career was simply being out there on the court,' says the 44-year-old after being ushered away from the din and into a private room at the Royal Mediterranean Hotel.

'I just loved playing the game - everything else was a bonus. To be able to go out there and play the game you love every night, well it just doesn't get any better than that. I still count my blessings every single day.'

It's fitting that USA Basketball and its Chinese counterpart have called on Drexler to help promote this event. When pressed, he rates playing for his country in Barcelona in '92 as the highlight of his playing days.

'I don't think anyone can really understand what it meant to us, playing for your country,' he says. 'And our practice scrimmages, man, they were unbelievable. You had these legends of the games - your Jordans, your Magics - going at it everyday and not giving an inch. It really was something else.

'Playing the real games was nothing on those sessions, I mean we were winning by about 40 points on average in the Olympic competition. Those games were over at half-time - it was like playing your little brother. But when it came time to practise, man, we went at each other.''

Which goes some way towards explaining why Drexler is left scratching his smooth head when it comes to finding an explanation as to why the current NBA stars - up until now - have seemed reluctant to wear their national colours.

It's a situation that saw them struggle to third place at the last Olympics in Athens in 2004 despite the fact the collective salaries of the talent involved could go a long way towards solving the national debt problems of many of the nations they faced.

'Yeah, to tell the truth. I find it hard to explain,' he says. 'I know they have a short break between seasons and have other things to do but it's a chance to go to the Olympics, to represent your country. That chance really meant so much to us back in '92.

'But the squad we have now - LeBron James, Dwayne Wade - who was unstoppable in the finals this year [for the Miami Heat] - and Kobe Bryant, they have committed to the squad through to Beijing [the 2008 Olympics], so things are looking good.'

Since retiring at the end of the 97-98 season, Drexler has been able to do the things he missed most in his playing days - spending time with his wife and three children and getting his golf handicap down to two.

'Nothing really prepares you for the NBA - the parties the money, and the women - but when I got in I was playing alongside people like Moses Malone. So they kept your feet on the ground,' he says. 'And I was able to leave on my own terms.

'To come back to Houston and play with Hakeem [Olajuwon, who he had played with at college] and then win a title, it was like a movie, like a dream.

'Fifteen odd seasons is a lot when you are banging the boards like I did, you know, playing the high-calibre style of game and flying all over the place. But I knew when it was time to end. These days I work for Houston with their TV broadcasts so I get to see all the games, but I keep my competitiveness for the golf course.'

Drexler also has business interests on the mainland, thanks to a contract with a brand of sporting goods. So he has seen first hand the growth of the sport. And he likes what he is seeing.

'At Houston I get to watch Yao Ming all the time and you have to be impressed,' he says. 'He has become, in my opinion, the best centre in the league.

'The real test for China now is to get their guards playing up to the standard of the big guy. If they do, then the team will be the real deal.'