WANG ZHIZHI, THE newest Dallas Maverick, is more than the first Chinese player to join America's premier professional basketball circuit. Whether he likes it or not, the towering Wang is also a potential goodwill ambassador who, with luck and talent, may help hold together a frayed relationship that got its public start three decades ago through sport. Thirty years ago today, an American table tennis team crossed the border at Lowu en route to no one knew quite what in Beijing - other than the certainty of embarrassing losses at their chosen sport. Although they didn't know it, the nine players and their entourage - including, not by accident, 10 journalists - had been invited by Mao Zedong himself to make this deliberately conspicuous tour. The result was ping-pong diplomacy. It had begun in Nagoya, Japan, just days earlier at the 31st table tennis world championships. After shunning foreign competition during the Cultural Revolution, China's sports federation had asked Premier Zhou Enlai for permission to send its skilled team to Japan. He wrote to Chairman Mao, who said yes, and the 64-member delegation was on its way. The politically coached players refused to meet teams representing the 'illegitimate' regimes of South Vietnam and Cambodia (King Sihanouk was then a political exile in China). But they sought out the United States players, and soon were exchanging small gifts with them. When the young Americans said they would like to visit China, the die was cast. Chinese officials beseeched Beijing for permission to issue an invitation, and Mao himself gave approval. There was nothing accidental about it, of course. Mao and Zhou for China, and Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger for the US, had been signalling to each other for years that it might be time to thaw the frozen Sino-American relationship. As early as 1967, Nixon - planning yet another political comeback - had written that change was desirable. And in 1970, Mao told an old acquaintance, American journalist Edgar Snow, that he would welcome a visit from Nixon 'as tourist or President'. But none of these efforts broke the ice. Each side was deeply suspicious of the other, and external events got in the way. The expanding Indochina war and constraints of the Cultural Revolution, for example, made starting dramatic foreign policy ventures difficult at best. Although Snow offered his Mao interview article to both Time magazine and The New York Times, neither would print it. However, deep distrust of the Soviet Union was a common bond that pushed the US and China together and kept them from giving up. The Russians were at what proved to be the height of their power, and both Washington and Beijing saw great merit in an informal alliance that could restrain Moscow. Concern about the international balance of power, not an amorphous 'friendship', propelled their efforts. Ping-pong diplomacy was an unexpectedly huge success. The US players met Zhou, who told them: 'With your acceptance of our invitation, you have opened a new chapter in the relations of the American and Chinese people.' When Nixon, two days later, responded by telling a US newspaper editors' meeting that he hoped to visit China someday, the trend was clear, even if the precise outcome was not. Dispatches from the journalists accompanying the ping-pong players were read avidly around the world, for it was obvious something fundamental was changing. Americans in particular were hungry for a renewed opening to China, a nation that had attracted them for two centuries, even if their knowledge didn't match their curiosity. And it had popular support inside China, where people were ready for an end to the Cultural Revolution (though it would prove to have another five years to run). By and large, China got a good press in America, though reports from journalists who made the trip are sure reminders of how much has changed in 30 years. John Roderick, an Associated Press reporter who had spent most of a long career in Asia, wrote of finding a nation that 'is poor, primitive and unfashionable. There are no skyscrapers in its great cities, no streams of automobiles to create choking traffic jams or contaminate the air with noxious fumes. A new bicycle is the status symbol for millions of Chinese'. However, Beijing's propaganda efforts had success. Although visiting reporters might note that 'society is strictly controlled', there were few hints of the underlying political tensions that would be played out later as the Gang of Four and others contended for Mao's authority. 'Despite a lack of luxuries and refinements we regard as essential to life itself, the Chinese I met appeared to be happy and contented. They have not forgotten how to smile and they believe in hard work,' Roderick wrote. As Patrick Tyler notes in his history of modern US-China relations, A Great Wall, 'the visit was a sensation beyond all expectation. The coverage in the American press went on for a month . . . Nixon was giddy, and he took to asking visitors to the White House, 'Have you learned to play ping-pong yet?' ' Soon a trickle of other American journalists to China began, though Nixon sent word to Beijing that he didn't want any prominent Democrats to make the trip and steal his political thunder (Beijing complied by delaying a visa for Mike Mansfield, then Senate majority leader). Much more importantly, arrangements for the secret Kissinger trip were under way. That came in July, and soon the world was told President Nixon would not be far behind. Robert Keatley, Editor of the South China Morning Post, was the first American journalist to receive a Chinese visa after the US ping-pong team finished its tour.