Top pick wants O'Neal

Posted: Friday, June 28, 2002

BEIJING -- The NBA's No. 1 draft pick said Thursday he's looking forward to battling with the best in the league -- even if he has to adjust to American food along the way.

A day after making basketball history, 7-foot-5 Yao Ming worked out with the Chinese national team and pledged one day to best Shaquille O'Neal.

''He is a mountain in my way,'' Yao said, referring to the Los Angeles Lakers' own 7-foot star. ''I will try to conquer it by all means.

''My first tries may turn out to be failures, but I will continue with others.''

Yao was selected by the Houston Rockets as the league's top draft pick in New York on Wednesday night. He was the first foreign-born player who had not played American college ball to be picked No. 1.

''It's a big day. It's a new beginning for me,'' the 22-year-old Yao said following practice at the China Basketball Association's gym in southern Beijing. The team is preparing for a tournament later this month against Yugoslavia, Italy and Australia.

It was early Thursday morning in Beijing when Yao rose to watch the draft live with his family.

Later in the day he shot free throws and played in a brief scrimmage. Thursday. Afterward, surrounded by reporters, he looked a little abashed and unaccustomed to all the cameras. Admitting he didn't much like being photographed, he answered question in terse bursts.

Does he like Western food? ''So-so.''

Is he worried about all the pressure? ''I already feel it.''

Yao's solid moves and shooting are a rare combination in a player so tall. However, he needs to bulk up and improve his upper body strength to gain advantage under the basket and avoid injuries.

He said he expects adjusting to the NBA will take some time -- but that practice is the best form of preparation.

''American basketball has its own unique culture,'' he said. ''I hope I can adapt quickly.''

Chinese national coach Wang Fei said Yao will have no problems.

''I think Yao will be a quick learner,'' Wang told Xinhua, China's national news agency. ''His attitude toward the sport is perfect and he is very smart.''

Even as Yao hits the NBA, he remains little known at home in a land where soccer is king. In the midst of their obsession with the World Cup, Chinese hardly picked up on the news about Yao on Thursday.

''I've never heard of him,'' said Li Yulong, a Beijing hardware store clerk, turning quickly to Sunday's soccer championship. ''So who do you think will win the final, Germany or Brazil?''

In Yao's native Shanghai, where he plays for the local team, the Sharks, residents were a bit more aware.

Fei Fusheng, 50, browsing in a sporting-goods store in a Shanghai shopping mall and wearing a red Sharks cap, said Yao's departure for the United States would be a loss for Chinese fans.

''But it is definitely good for Yao's personal future,'' Fei said. ''In the long term, his going will also promote the development of basketball in China.''

Liu Jianchao, a spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry, said Yao's shift to Houston -- following moves to the NBA by China's Wang Zhizhi and Menk Bateer -- could help smooth often-rocky relations between China and the United States.

''We hope that he will succeed,'' Liu said. ''In my view, their performances can only help enhance mutual understanding between the two countries.''

Yao's skills easily qualified him to play in the United States. Approval from the government's official China Basketball Association didn't come as easily, though.

The CBA demanded a guarantee that its star player would be available to play for China's national team when called upon. Word of a final agreement came through only hours before the draft. Days earlier, Yao had separately closed the other part of the deal by reaching a compensation agreement with the Sharks.

It's not clear when Yao will travel to the United States. Yao is training in Beijing with the national team, which will be going to the United States in August for a training camp to prepare for the world championships.

Yao will be only the third Chinese to play in the NBA after Wang, who played two seasons with the Dallas Mavericks, and Bateer, who plays for the Denver Nuggets. Chinese media have dubbed them the ''walking Great Wall.''

Bateer, also at Thursday's practice, said Yao might be overwhelmed at first by the foreign culture, language and food. But he said Yao would adapt to the game within a year or two.

''Play your hardest, that's the best advice I can give him,'' Bateer said.

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