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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

COVER STORY BASKETBALL
KING OF THE TAIWAN COURT

Cheng Chih-lung is the media's darling


TAIWAN DIDN'T MAKE THE cut for Olympics basketball last year, but Cheng Chih-lung got to Atlanta anyway. He was among the island's three representatives who helped relay the Olympic torch around America to the Games. The Hung Kuo Elephants forward is also something of a standard-bearer for local pro-basketball.

Cheng was the only Taiwan player in the Chinese Basketball Alliance's all-star line-up last season -- the role model in a young league dominated by American players. Still, being the most valuable player in the CBA and its top team isn't very glamorous. Cheng spends a lot of time visiting high schools and hamming it up at fan-club functions. But the 192-cm. (6ft. 3.5in.) athlete knows it's part of the game: the league needs such efforts to get off the ground. "Ideally, we should only have to prove ourselves on the court," the 28-year-old says. "But we are only in our third year and it will take some time." Nevertheless, he concedes: "I do get tired of the promotions."

The public can't seem to get enough though. Photos of the idol in action and off court are a daily feature of local newspapers. And accompanying them are stories on such topics as his favorite foods and speculation about when he will make his 1,000th basket (he has since passed the mark). Cheng was only 20 when he joined the national team and soon after became the first male Taiwan athlete to be signed by Nike. But his recent switch to Reebok has sparked a row: Nike is the Hung Kuo sponsor. A shot at the big time beckoned when U.S. college basketball power Georgetown University came a-wooing, as did the New Jersey Nets later. College and national service kept Cheng a strictly homegrown hero. Nevertheless, he has developed into a new, more aggressive breed of Asian player -- rather like the American pros whom he studies avidly.

Asians are traditionally viewed as great outside shooters but ineffective at other kinds of play. Cheng, though, brings an excitement that the league needs. He shoots off the dribble, attacks the basket and is always looking for the ball. The flair and dynamism have earned him the nickname "Doctor," after U.S. legend "Dr. J" Julius Erving. This season, Cheng leads the CBA in three-point shooting and is the seventh highest scorer, averaging 19.7 points per game.

Not only that, he's a big hit with the girls. His striking looks (Cheng's father is American while his mother is from the indigenous Ami tribe) make him a teen favorite. Marriage and family only added to his popularity: his wife and two children are often asked to pose for photos with fans. So far, Cheng shows no sign of the oversized ego many star athletes seem to sport. "He's very open-minded," says Hung Kuo assistant coach Chiu Ta-chou. "He's willing to listen because he wants to keep improving." Poor material for tabloid headlines, but just the stuff to build your hoops on. -- By Laurie Underwood


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