As the Chinese men’s basketball team enters the last stage of preparation for the 2012 London Olympics, it is a sad fact that there are not many definitive profiles of these players, let alone ones in the English language. In this light, let us present you a series dedicated to giving a backstory to the players that will no doubt shine on the world’s biggest stage. After profiling Liu Wei last week, we go to the ageless seven foot lefty with the killer footwork and sweet stroke from downtown, Wang Zhizhi.
Name: Wang Zhizhi (王治郅)
Height: 7’1’’ (214 cm)
Weight: 275 pounds (125 kg)
Team: Bayi Rockets
The first Chinese athlete to play in the NBA, the cornerstone of a Bayi Rockets dynasty, a star for the national team since before this century started, and the one whose ban from the team and subsequent reconciliation with officials sparked a great deal of controversy. Suffice to say, Wang Zhizhi has been around for quite a while. A living legend of Chinese basketball, Da Zhi’s legend will grow this July and August as the seven footer will continue to play a great role for Team China in the 2012 London Olympics.
Wang’s journey started all the way back in 1977, when he was born in Beijing to two basketball athlete parents. Standing 6’9 at the age of 14, Wang was recruited by the People’s Liberation Army into the Bayi Rockets. Subject to harsh training, with practice hours sometimes extending to eight hours, Wang was forced to undergo massive lifestyle changes, with even his birthdate moved up to 1979 to allow him to dominate youth competitions. He was awarded places on several Chinese select teams, including the awkwardly named and roughly translated Youth Special Height Team, Chinese Youth National Team, and then the senior Bayi team.
No matter where in the world he went, the crafty center impressed with his nimble footwork, often confusing opponents with a spin and finish with his left hand. He was named the best center in Greece’s Youth Basketball Championships, then went on to deliver a solid performance, including a memorable block on David Robinson, in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics that earned him six scholarship offers from US schools and a Nike endorsement. Though Wang garnered interest from such high profile schools as Georgetown and LSU, Wang ultimately stayed in China due to the sensitivities involved in letting a PLA soldier and key basketball player go the States for four years. Instead, he returned to Bayi for the inaugural CBA season, catalyzing a dynasty that would run to six CBA championships and a league MVP. He seemed destined for a run of unrivaled dominance, entering the start of his prime by averaging 26.3 points and 11.7 rebounds in the 2000-01 season.
Dallas Mavericks owner H. Ross Perot Jr., though, had a different plan in mind.
Notoriously stingy about giving up their players to foreign organizations, Wang’s materials had to be smuggled to the Mavericks and Perot, who wished to draft the first Chinese player ever and thus make history. With the 36th pick of the 1999 NBA draft, and to the surprise of all involved, Wang Zhizhi was drafted by the Dallas Mavericks. The People’s Liberation Army would loath to let go of its prized center, and only when its hand was forced as China’s bid to host the Beijing Olympics was put to a final vote did it allow Wang to play in the NBA. With just ten games left in the season, Wang was able to fit in quickly as a role player, recording 4.8 points and 1.4 rebounds. Wang made the playoff roster; then, duty called, and Wang returned to China, Bayi and the National Team. China won gold at the Asian Championship, Bayi was crowned the champion of the National Games, and Wang played an unmistakable leading role on both teams.
But as his contract in the NBA expired, he began making a series of decisions that would endanger his position in China.
Wang, hoping to participate in the NBA Summer League to work on his game, moved to Los Angeles, leaving little behind in China. Chinese officials urged him to return to the country to practice, as various national team tournaments were on the horizon. But his constant refusals followed by rumors that he was planning on defecting to the US gave the team — and army officials — much to worry about.
PLA officers met him one month later in America, with Wang laying down an ultimatum: he would play in the World Championship, but would not disrupt his season for the the third-tier Asian Games, a relatively unimportant continental tournament. This did not go over well, and Wang was banned from the National Team on October 9th. Shortly after, he served short stints with the Los Angeles Clippers and the Miami Heat, but was unable to find consistent playing time. By the end of 2005, the center did not have a team to play for, and after an expulsion of four years, finally returned to his homeland, attempting to make amends for what amounted to betrayal in the Army’s eyes.
The good soldier was forced to attend “self-criticism” meetings, becoming politically “reeducated”, and published a three-page letter of apology. Returning to the army, he remarked, “It feels sacred to be in an army uniform again”. With the 2008 Beijing Olympics fast approaching, the Chinese government took a more lenient stance towards Wang, and “Dodger,” his American nickname, came full circle when he led China to first place in the Asian Championships with the other side of “The Walking Great Wall,” Yao Ming, out of the lineup. Wang found himself as the undoubted leader and mentor of a suddenly youthful and inexperienced Bayi team, yet found a way to win another CBA title and a Finals MVP in 2007.
Wang’s strong play still holds up today, and in 2012 was a CBA All-Star team starter. He is very much still a major contributor to the national team, winning yet another Asia Games in 2010 with critical plays against Iran, Korea and Qatar. After the game, his 11 teammates draped their medals around his neck, bowing in respect; Wang returned the favor by splitting his championship purse with them.
Fun Facts: the talented lefty started a camp to develop lefties like himself; his favorite car is the Lincoln Navigator; he loves to eat large Texas steaks and enjoys listening to Britney Spears; he enjoys watching movies and tried his hand at film himself, hosting a tourism show on Beijing; former CBA slam dunk champion; and he loves collecting rare china, jade, and metals.
Here’s hoping Wang comes home from London with what will amount to the most valuable metal of them all.