If Forrest Gump was Chinese and living in 2013, he’d probably say something like this: Life is kind of like flipping around Chinese television at 3am… You never know what you’re going to get.
So when we came across 重温经曲振兴大球, a late-night program on CCTV-5 that shows classic games from Chinese sports history, we stopped flipping. (Don’t worry, it was on a weekend.) The game? A throwback of throwbacks — the Yao Ming-led Shanghai Sharks vs. the Wang Zhizhi juggernaut Bayi Rockets from 2001. We were so pumped, we decided to live blog it. Enjoy.
We’re immediately greeted by a really crappy intro vid that is quickly followed up by a deep-voiced voice over whose Chinese pronunciation is so perfectly crystal clear my television screen is turning see-through. This guy will be called Brother Voice Over from now on.
As Brother Voice Over informs us, when Yao Ming and Wang Zhizhi first met on a basketball court in 1997, it was perhaps in the most Chinese way possible: At the National Games. Yao, playing in his first senior level competition for his hometown Shanghai squad, scored 13 points, while Wang had 19 for the People’s Liberation Army, who won the game.
Three years later in 2000, Yao had turned into a dominant force in the Chinese Basketball Association for the Sharks, leading his squad all the way to the league finals for the first time in club history. But in his way was the familiar Army team, the Bayi Rockets, and their smooth shooting center, Wang. Yao and the Sharks would lose handily to the Rockets, who were still in the midst of a dominant run of championships.
But on November 18, 2001, Yao would have his chance for revenge as his Sharks travelled to Ningbo, Zhejiang to play the Rockets in the CBA season opener. And that’s where we pick up the action.
And we’re in business: Nothing says Chinese basketball more than the Sun Zhengping-Zhang Weiping commentating combo, who have been doing their thing since pretty much forever it seems. Why I like these two: Sun doesn’t blurt ai-yooooo or waaaaaa or any other loud, odd sound when a player does anything remotely exciting, like many Chinese play-by-play guys are prone towards. He just announces the game.
His partner, Zhang, came up playing ball in the 60s, eventually playing for the National Team in the 70s and 80s. So he knows what he’s talking about, even if he’s as impartial as Tommy Heinsohn calling a Celtics game. He also made this unbelievable video, which is equally awesome if you understand Chinese or are non-speaker.
OK, to the game.
Shanghai, 5-0: Not one minute into the game, and Yao has every NBA scout in the gym drooling: On his first possession, he pops out, gets a catch, reverses the ball, sets a good on-ball screen, rolls to the rim and gets a dunk. On his second, he cans a three pointer in Wang’s face. Dude might be obscenely tall, but he moves well, has good hands and can step out and shoot it.
A warm reminder, in case you forgot: YAO MING IS 7’6!!!
Shanghai, 8-2: Hey, I know this guy!
Shanghai 11-4: Yao just hit another three. Wow. I’m not the only one impressed, either. The Bayi home crowd is roaring every time Yao does something good.
Shanghai 13-6: As Sun tells us, there’s no foreigners on the court right now for the Sharks because there’s a two player, four quarter limit (meaning both players can only take the court for a combined four quarters). Compare that to now, where it’s a two player, six quarter limit. Definitely a different league back then.
Anyway, back to the action: Zhang Wenqi hits a fadeway for the Sharks. Brother Voice Over says he was the Sharks team captain. He was also apparently the only other Chinese dude on the roster who could kind of play. In November, 2012 he and Yao’s jersey were retired together in Yuanshen Stadium. That’s cool, but ultimately irrelevant. I’m here for Yao, dude. And maybe a little bit of Wang, too, who is off to a 0-2 start.
Shanghai 13-6: Little did anyone sitting in that big yellow thing know at the time… but 11 years later, J.R. Smith’s sister would choke a bitch.
Shanghai 13-8: And Wang is on the board! Bayi turns up the pressure and forces a turnover, which is converted on the other end for an easy dunk by the big fella. Immediately, you can spot a major difference between Wang and Yao: The latter plays with a little bit of nasty, while the former is content to put his thing into cruise control. We’ll see if Wang has another gear.
Shanghai 29-25: Oh! The broadcast skips ahead several minutes and before you know it, it’s the end of first quarter.
Shanghai 29-25: First import sighting! It’s Damon Stringer, a point guard.
After a quick Google search, we found out that Stringer’s story is kind of crazy, actually.
Named Ohio’s Mr. Basketball in 1995, Stringer ended up attending Ohio State. But an injury and subsequent discipline issues forced him to transfer to Cleveland State, where he finished his college career in 2000. After spending time in China, Stringer went back to the States to try and get into the NBA.
But in 2002, Stringer and a Cleveland State ex-teammate were charged and convicted of robbing then Cleveland Indians pitcher, C.C. Sabathia, and his cousin, Jomar Connors, at gunpoint at a Cleveland Marriot on May 17th. Stringer ended up spending two years in prison before being released in 2004, and later played professionally in Europe.
Stringer is now spending his time talking to kids about the dangers of drugs, alchohol and gambling while also running the Mr. Basketball Academy, which focuses on training basketball players of all ages and abilities. So looks like he’s doing good. Which is good.
…Back in November 2001, he immediately applies heavy ball pressure to Bayi’s backup point guard, which results in a rushed drive and an ensuing huge swat by Big Yao.
Shanghai 31-25: Sorry everyone – I’d put the time before the score, but apparently the technology to put the score and time in a little box at the bottom right corner of the screen didn’t exist at CCTV-5 yet.
After doing everything else, Yao’s now throwing dimes like Bill Walton, this one of the pin-point variety from the wing to a cutting teammate, who dumps off to an open Stringer. In case you can’t tell, Yao is really good.
Bayi 33-31: The Rockets take their first lead of the game. Their constant pressure on defense, which is still a staple of the Rockets today, is starting to mess with the Sharks a bit. And they also are playing their butts off. I guess that Bayi spirit was legit, after all.
Shanghai 40-35: Whoa! With Stringer leading a 3-on-2 break, Yao just sprinted down the floor on the wing, left his man in the dust and slammed the ball down with some serious authority.
A warm reminder, in case you forgot: YAO MING IS 7’6!!!
…And on the other end, they’re chanting Yao Ming! Yao Ming!
Bayi 43-42: Second import sighting! It’s 33 year-old George Ackles, who subs a very tired looking Yao out of the game. Ackles was on the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels team that won the national title in 1992… but never played a game due to a broken wrist. Afterwards, he had a nice career overseas.
Back to the action… Li Nan hits two threes in a row. That’ll shut up the home crowd! If you’re wondering: Yes, the same Li Nan who is an assistant coach on the National Team and who does part-time color announcing on CCTV-5. I like him. He’s long, versatile and tough and doesn’t need the ball on offense. If we could teleport 2001 Li Nan to 2013, he would start for the National Team right now. That’s a sincere compliment.
Bayi 47-45: After two atrocious calls against the Sharks – the first being a missed foul call against Ackles, the second not calling goaltending after Liu Yidong (we’ll get to him later) clearly blocked the ball after it hit the glass – the Rockets go into halftime with the lead. For next season, the league’s official motto should be, “CBA officiating: Against the road team since 1996.”
My feelings on what has transpired thus far: Yao is legit, obviously. Wang, not so much. He’s a poor on-ball screen setter and is allergic to any kind of contact. He plays zero defense and doesn’t really hit the glass. The moves he has today are the same ones he had back then… the stepback, the awkward up-fakes in the post, the step throughs… It’s like watching the same player almost. Despite Wang’s nimble footwork and nice touch, it’s very clear who is the better NBA prospect. And it’s also quite clear that from an overall basketball standpoint, the CBA was even tougher to watch back then it is now.
Bayi 47-45: 2000: Where they jumped ball at the begging of the second half. Yao outstretches Wang and tips to Ackles. Seconds later, Yao hits his American teammate with a perfect high-low pass.
Bayi… – …Where am I?? The broadcast just skipped ahead in the quarter and I have no idea either time or score… CCTV-5 needs to step their production game up.
Then… HUGE DUNK BY YAO!!!!
Which is followed up by… A Tommy Point earned by chasing down his own miss from the other side of the court before diving to save a loose ball.
A warm reminder, in case you forgot: YAO MING IS 7’6!!!
Bayi: 71-59: Oh OK. There’s apparently two minutes left. In any case, the Rockets have successfully worn down the much thinner and far less talented Sharks. The road team is going to need to come up with something quickly, or else this thing may get ugly.
Bayi 76-69: They come up with something. Stringer hits a jumper on the right wing; then hits a high arching lay-up over Wang. Yao once again hits the floor for a loose ball, this time securing it, and passes from his back to Stringer who slices in from the top of the key for another floater; Yao follows up a missed free-throw with a huge dunk. Bayi hits a shot from the baseline at the buzzer to go up six.
Worth mentioning: The crowd is now completely rooting for the Sharks.
Bayi 76-69: Also worth mentioning: The Sharks can now play their two imports together. Against the foreigner-less Rockets, that should be a huge advantage.
Bayi 78-70: Wang scores what I think is only his fifth bucket of the night… and then quickly fails in flopping attempt to draw an offensive foul on Yao in the post. The guy who picks him up and hopefully tells him to stop flopping his one Fan Bin. You may know him as this guy. If we’re making China-to-China comparisons Fan is a tougher, better version than Lv Xiaoming.
Five fouls on Wang, which may or have not have been a career high for one game.
Bayi 84-82: This game has turned into the classic pick-up run “Last Game to 15” after everybody’s played for two hours straight. Nobody is running back on defense, people are cherry picking and everyone is letting people blow by them in the half-court. The score is close, but this game sucks. Also, Shanghai would be down 20 if it weren’t for Stringer, who is the only guy on the roster who is capable of taking care of the ball.
Shanghai 85-84: The Sharks take the lead on a three and the crowd is now in a frenzy. Fangshou! Fangshou! Fangshou! – Defense! Defense! Defense! Oddly, the Rockets are on offense.
Bayi 87-85: Bayi’s Liu Yudong puts an end to the run with a big three. We’ve given a lot of love to Yao in this, but Liu can really ball. He’s a mean range shooting four who can also punk guys down low and finish with either hand. His nickname translates to “War God.” Doesn’t look like he’d be much fun to play against. On queue, Brother Voice Over tells us that in 2001, he hit a last second three to beat the Sharks in the Finals. In the last round of the 2002 regular season, he went off for 51 points to clinch the Rockets perfect 24-0 season. He was also the all-time career leader in CBA points scored, until Guangdong’s Zhu Fangyu broke that record in 2012. Considering that Liu played the majority of his career without a foreigner to get him easy baskets, I think Liu gets the nod over Zhu in the all-time scheme of things. Jason Dixon, who said he was one of the toughest Chinese guy he ever played against, might agree.
Bayi 92-88: It’s been quiet on the Wang and Yao frong for a while – the Rockets seem content to go into Li Nan and Liu, while the Sharks seem content with letting Yao sit on the bench with under five minutes to go in a four-point game.
Bayi 94-88: Wang misses a bunny right in front of the rim, but cleans it up with a tip in. From what I’ve seen, he’s played like crap today. Time-out Sharks, who immediately put Yao back in about two minutes too late.
Shanghai 98-94: Stringer is on a one-man tear again, scoring the Sharks last eight points. For all the talk that foreingers do all the crunch time dominating… well, it looks like it happened in this era as well. Stringer’s father and Yao’s parents look on excitedly.
Wang responds by stepping on the sideline in the corner. Not a good day for Da Zhi.
Shanghai 99-96: Ackles is sent to the line with 34 seconds and makes one of two. On the ensuing Rockets possession, the Sharks double Li Nan down on the block but are too lazy to rotate out and some other dude sticks a three to tie the game… but wait! Foul before the shot! The Captain himself fouls the swing pass before dude can get the shot off… and after the Rockets call time-out, Li Nan gets trapped on the sideline and throws the ball right into Zhang’s hands. He’s then fouled on his way to the basket, which sets up this awkward celebration with Yao.
Shanghai 101-96: Zhang sinks both free-throws with 14 seconds left. Fan Bin takes the ball down and dribbles eight seconds off the clock. Despite the great clock management, the Rockets can’t get a score and the game is over. The Sharks rush onto the floor. I assume the Bayi fans are happy.
The most amazing thing from the game… Wang scored 38 points (!), according to Sun. I literally have no idea how. Maybe an invisible ghost slipped into my living room and slipped a roofie into my glass of water. Maybe he scored all his points during the program’s cut-aways. Again, I have no idea. I’m stunned. And possibly recovering from being roofied.
Anway… the Sharks and the Rockets would go on to meet in the CBA Finals again that season… and for the second straight year, Wang would get the best of Yao. It would only be next year, when Wang was playing in the NBA with the Dallas Mavericks, that Yao would get his first and only championship in China. In June 2003, he’d be selected No. 1 overall by the Houston Rockets.