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OCTOBER 23, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 16


John Stanmeyer for TIME.
China wants to keep towering talents like Ma Jian at home


Basketball Stars
Just can't get a good outside shot

ALSO
National Pride: Patriotism makes a comeback

Despite being two meters tall, Ma Jian no longer worries about sticking out. The 31-year-old star of Beijing's Aoshen basketball team is perfectly happy to show exactly what he is: poised, slick and totally unrepentant for having had the nerve to try out for the National Basketball Association without Beijing's approval. His 1995 lark—he made it to the last round of the Los Angeles Clippers' tryouts before being cut—so irked Chinese sports authorities that they left him off this year's Olympic team. But, he says defiantly, "I'm one of the best Chinese basketball players. If China wants to do better in basketball, it should listen to what I have to say."

Beijing would do well to heed his words. China's vaunted Olympics squad was resoundingly slam-dunked in Sydney, winning only two games out of five, despite hopes that towering starters Yao Ming and Wang Zhizhi would make the Chinese competitive with the U.S. Dream Team. "This was a major loss of face," says sports writer Liu Xiao-yang. "China must rethink its entire basketball program." Ma's advice on how to do that is simple: allow the best of the 200 million Chinese who play basketball to hone their skills in the West, rather than condemning them to mediocre domestic leagues, where uninspired coaching and middling competition stunt their development. "By allowing the best people to go overseas," says Ma, "you're training people who can then come back and use that knowledge to help develop younger players."

Beijing, however, is reluctant to let go of its brightest prospects. With a university brain drain depriving the nation of many of its smartest citizens, China is worried about losing its athletes, too. When 23-year-old Wang was selected by the Dallas Mavericks in the second round of the 1999 N.B.A. draft, his army-run team, the August 1 Rockets, refused to release the fearsome 2.13-m lefty into American hands. Today, Wang's only real connection with the Mavs is a team warm-up suit he wistfully dons from time to time. Earlier this year when Yao, a smooth 20-year-old center, was invited to showcase his moves in front of N.B.A. scouts at Nike's Hoop Summit in Indianapolis, Beijing ordered him to stay put and focus on training for the Olympics. Says Yao, who will be too old to attend the junior sporting exposition next year: "It's just the way things worked out."

Whether Yao and Wang will eventually be released into N.B.A. hands depends on the whims of China's bureaucrats. But Ma is determined not to let the next generation of Chinese hoopsters waste their talents. "The reason I came back to China was to help my country's basketball program," he says. "I've talked to the education and sports ministries about training these kids in the fundamentals so they can one day be N.B.A. stars." And if China isn't interested in Ma's help? The two-meter man shrugs his mighty shoulders: "I'll figure something else out. Maybe they can keep others down, but not me."

H.B.

Write to TIME at mail@web.timeasia.com

government ALSO IN YOUNG CHINA: GOVERNMENT
National Pride: Patriotism makes a comeback

Sport: The basketballer denied an outside shot

Invisible Fences: Authorities keep a rein on kids partly by not telling them what is and isn't allowed

Getting High: Ecstasy becomes the urban drug of choice

Country Girl: A villager moves to the big, bad city

Getting Green: Activists seeking to avert an environmental disaster are tapping the ranks of the very young

Home Sweet Home: Citizens now aspire to buy a flat

Looking Inward: Today's artists are beginning to explore individual rather than collective themes

Big Think: Intellectualism did not die with the 1980s

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