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Rockets weigh gamble on Yao

Posted: Sunday, June 23, 2002

HOUSTON -- From coin flips to long-shot lottery odds, the Houston Rockets have been successful at getting the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft.

Coin flips got them Ralph Sampson in 1983 and Hakeem Olajuwon in 1984 and this year an 8.9 percent chance in the lottery system gave them the first pick once again in Wednesday's draft.

Barring last-minute snags with China's basketball association, the Rockets are likely to test their luck again, this time on talented but unproven 7-foot-5 center Yao Ming.

John Huizinga, Yao's United States-based agent, reached a deal with Yao's current team -- the Shanghai Sharks -- on Saturday and was attempting to complete an agreement with China's pro league that would allow Yao to be drafted.

The Sharks agreed to let Yao go to the United States for an undisclosed portion of their player's expected multimillion-dollar NBA earnings.

Yao has taken on near mythic proportions in China, making it difficult for the Chinese to allow one of their greatest athletic heroes to leave his adoring masses.

''Everywhere we went in Beijing, you'd think he was the Chinese Michael Jordan,'' Rockets team physician Dr. Walter Lowe said. ''Kids ran up to him everywhere asking for his autograph. He's a national hero over there.''

Houston has caught on to the Yao craze too. Mayor Lee Brown, already in China on business when the Rockets got the first pick, met with Chinese officials on the city's behalf. When Yao's representatives, John Huizinga and Erik Zhang, visited Houston in May, they were assured by Mayor Pro Tem Gordon Quan that Yao would find a comfortable home in the city.

''We are a very friendly city,'' Quan said. ''We have a growing Asian community and a community that embraces diversity and welcomes Asian Americans.''

Still, Yao's move to Houston would be filled with uncertainty.

Unlike Olajuwon, whom the Rockets watched for three seasons at the University of Houston before picking him, Yao presents much more of an international challenge.

With Shanghai, Yao averaged 32.4 points and 19 rebounds per game and 4.5 blocked shots. He once made 22 of 22 shots from the field in a game.

But such Paul Bunyonesque numbers came from the more genteel international basketball circuit.

Will Yao be battle hardened to the rough world of the NBA, or could he become the next Shawn Bradley, another skyscraper who didn't dominate?

''This was never about his basketball skills,'' Rockets general manager Carroll Dawson said. ''We've seen him enough to know his potential. We like his skills.''

The Rockets expect the return of injured Maurice Taylor, their backcourt tandem of Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley, and the further development of forward Eddie Griffin to be good support for Yao's NBA development.

Lowe accompanied Rockets attorney Michael Goldberg to Beijing where he performed a complete physical examination of Yao. Lowe found a healthy and perceptive 22-year-old excited about coming to America.

''His English was surprisingly good, he's been studying it for some time,'' Lowe said. ''He's very engaging.''

Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich, Dawson and Goldberg spent three days in China earlier this month, seeking to clear the way for Yao's release to play in the NBA.

Both of Yao's parents played on the Chinese national teams and were aware of Tomjanovich from watching Rockets games in China.

Goldberg and Lowe returned from China on Wednesday convinced they'd reached agreement with the Sharks and the China Basketball Association.

Goldberg was assured that Yao would be available for the entire Rockets regular season and playoffs, and the Rockets assured the Chinese that Yao would be able to play for the Chinese national team in the Olympics.

''The Sharks would be losing their No. 1 player so they want to make sure everything could be worked out,'' Goldberg said.

Even with those assurances, Yao had to reach a monetary deal with the Sharks to be released from his obligations.

Overshadowed by the Yao excitement has been the Rockets' other picks. They also have the 15th pick in the first round and the 38th pick overall in the second round.

The second round pick is part of the trade that sent Olajuwon to the Toronto Raptors.

''We like our position,'' Dawson said. ''We think it's a real solid draft. We've had some good years but this is a quality year for players.''

The Rockets could choose others that appear to be much more of a sure thing. Connecticut's Caron Butler could be the best player in the draft. Other notable players include Duke's Mike Dunleavy and Jay Williams, and Kansas' Drew Gooden.

Williams was scheduled for a workout with the Rockets early in the week but canceled at the last minute.

Yao would be the third Chinese player in the NBA following Wang Zhizhi, with the Dallas Mavericks the past two seasons, and Menk Bateer, now with the Denver Nuggets.

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has dealt with the complicated issues involved with signing Chinese players.

''The best advice I can give is that just when you thought you had all your bases covered, you never do,'' Cuban said.



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