Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Second Sports column

Sports are most intriguing when it offers up a deeper view into society at large. Such is clearly the case with one of Beijing’s two professional basketball teams, the Aoshen Olympians. Most teams in the CBA (Chinese Basketball Association) are affiliated with local sports authorities. But Aoshen has been a rebel outfit since it was formed in 1997, independently funded by a real estate company.

When the CBA twice called Aoshen star guard Sun Yue up to the Under-20 National Team and the team refused to release him, they were banned from first division games. If and where they would play this season became a matter of great intrigue for Chinese hoops watchers, many of whom consider Aoshen to be the nation’s best-coached, most refreshing team.

A détente was reached last June when Aoshen finally released Sun to the National Team. A 6-7 (2.05 m) point guard whose size and athleticism have caused many to finger him and 6-10 power forward Yi Jianlin, as China’s next great hoops hopes, Sun played in the Asian and East Asian Games over the summer. The question then became, would Aoshen be welcomed back into the CBA fold?

Apparently, the year-long ban is still in place, but Aoshen landed in a much more interesting place, opting to play in the American Basketball Association instead, spending the season based in Southern California. Their home games are being played in the LA suburb of Maywood. I got a hold of Sun through the team’s representative in California and met with him the day after his 20th birthday in an empty conference room in Aoshen’s headquarters in a beautiful downtown building. He was in Beijing for one day between the East Asian Games in Macou and a flight to LA, where the rest of the team had been practicing and playing for four months, while studying at the University of the West.

Sun entered the drafty room wearing a pair of faux spray-painted Ecko jeans and a maroon leather jacket, sporting a small cross in his left ear and a silver necklace around his neck. His hair was stylishly coiffed. I was struck by Sun’s size; perhaps Chinese basketball players and officials haven’t learned to lie about a player’s size yet; in America a “6-7 point guard” is usually closer to 6-5, but Sun looked every bit his listed height. And despite the official word, and Sun’s own admonition that he desperately need to gain weight and upper body strength, his shoulders looked broad and square, his arms anything but gangly.

“Everyone calls me Q Tip,” Sun said by way of introduction, surprising me by ignoring our interpreter and speaking in English. “But I don’t know why.”

He also answered directly back in English when I asked who his favorite player was. “Lebron,” he said without hesitation.

Sun is being hyped as a potential NBA player, not least by his team, but even the Hebai native himself won’t go that far. “Right now I am not mature enough to play in the NBA,” he said to the interpreter, careful to have these words properly understood. “I only hope that some day I will be.”

In fact, though Sun is considered a lock for the National Team for years to come, he refuses to even take the ’08 Olympics for granted, at least publicly. “It is my dream and everyone else’s in China to play in the ’08 Games because they are in Beijing,” he said. “Playing on the National Team has been a great experience and I learned a lot.”

He said it was excited to play in the U.S. this year to begin testing his mettle against “the best” but the truth is the ABA is largely a collection of has-been’s and never-will-be’s. Still, the overall level of athleticism and court savvy is undoubtedly higher than in the CBA and this is an extremely intriguing venture for anyone who cares about Chinese hoops. All of Aoshen’s games are supposed to be shown on CCTV Channel 5, so we’ll able to tune in and see how the team fares and how Sun progresses. Check out http://www.abalive.com/teams/teampage.cgi?teamid=CN to stay abreast of the team’s schedule.
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I’m not quite sure what to make of the five doll mascots for the 2008 Olympic Games unveiled in Beijing on November 11, exactly 1,000 days before the event's opening ceremony. The mascots are designed to embody the Olympic Flame and the natural characteristics of four of China's “popular animals” -- the Fish, the Panda, the Tibetan Antelope and the Swallow. I’m not sure how many people have been waiting around for a Tibetan Antelope mascot to hug at night, but the release of these furry critters is a sure sign that the Olympic countdown and its ensuing frenzy is officially underway.