Basketball Is Main Event At Beijing Olympics

January 27th, 2011| by

As Yao’s popularity exploded in China and the concept of the individual Chinese star began to grow, the country was also preparing for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. But this wouldn’t be any ordinary Olympics. This would be a chance for the Chinese people to see the basketball players they idolized from halfway across the globe in person for the first time. And as the swell of nationalistic pride reached a fever pitch leading up to the games, the Chinese national basketball team became a symbol of athletic hope for the country’s people.

Yao Ming’s success in the NBA couldn’t have happened at a better time for the sport of basketball in China. Since it coincided with the build up to the Olympic games, the sport only grew in popularity.

Said Cheong Sau Ching, senior communications director in the NBA Asia office in Hong Kong in 2006: “I think Yao Ming came along at just the right time. He came at a time when China was stepping out on the world stage, and Yao Ming came to represent that.”

As stated before, the Olympics were a watershed moment for a country that had long-lived isolated from the rest of the world.

In 2006, the Houston Chronicle wrote: “It is so much more than just the first Olympics to touch down in the home of 1.3 billion people, more than the first Games to be held in a developing nation in 20 years. It will be the official coming-out party for the 3,000-year-old Chinese capital city, an unlocking of the doors to what for so long was a closed society.”

As such, the games became a symbol for national pride throughout the country and while Chinese officials were expecting all their teams to do well, a lot was pinned on the basketball team which hadn’t medaled in any of its previous Olympic appearances.

And the pressure was extremely high for Yao Ming, who had just emerged as the biggest individual sports star in the country’s history. If anyone could lead China to its first medal in basketball, it would be Yao.

Yao took that role seriously and ran himself ragged playing for the Rockets while also training for the Chinese national team. It was all part of the deal that allowed him to play in the NBA in the first place and he wasn’t about to turn away from his country now, just before the biggest sporting event in China’s history.

Said Yao’s coach in Houston at the time, Jeff Van Gundy: “This is not some fake national pride, some marketing thing. And some people are going to say it’ll be to his detriment, but how can you be bothered by that kind of commitment to his country?’‘

The NBA realized the potential gold mine it had in China, especially during the lead up to the Beijing games when the most attention would be spent on the basketball team. At that time, David Stern made it an issue to double the size of the NBA’s influence in China during the two-year lead up to the Olympic games. By 2006, the broadcast rights in China had been growing by 30 percent a year and they weren’t about to slow down.

Said Stern: “The China market is our most important and largest market outside the United States.”

Disaster nearly struck in February when Yao injured his foot during an NBA game. The country’s news presses practically stopped as everyone in China and the U.S. wondered what Yao Ming would do. His two options were to do nothing, rest and let it heal or to have surgery on his foot.

Both required long recoveries but the surgery, while riskier, would allow him to get back just before the Beijing games.

Said Yao before he made his ultimate decision: “If I cannot play in the Olympics for my country this time, that will be the biggest loss of my career to right now. That is my biggest loss.”

With that mindset Yao elected to have surgery on the foot, to the chagrin of many American fans who didn’t want him to risk getting injured again and cutting short his NBA career. But at this point of his life just before the only Olympic games, there was no way he’d be convinced otherwise.

And so by August 7, after six months of rehab, not only was Yao ready to compete in the games, he was the one leading the entire Chinese delegation during the opening ceremony parade of countries, one of the highest honors for an individual athlete to have.

Two of the biggest storylines for the 2008 Olympics were the Chinese basketball team and the United States’ “Redeem Team” starring LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant. The Chinese not only drew the same group as the U.S., but the two met in the their opening game of the tournament.

The game was so big the presidents of both countries would be in attendance.

Said Jason Kidd just days before the game: “You can take a Game 7 and (multiply) it by seven. It’s going to be something that nobody’s experienced before. I don’t know if anybody’s had a president come to a game to watch them play before.”

And in the opening moments of the game, it looked the like the ultimate Cinderella story, China’s own “Do you believe in miracles?” The U.S. turned the ball over right away and Yao Ming, of all players, drained a three-point shot to give the Chinese a 3-0 lead. Then both nations fought hard to a 29-29 tie with six minutes to go in the first half. The arena was bursting with excitement.

Said Kobe Bryant after the game: “I’ve never felt an environment quite like this. I’ve played in many big games, but the energy tonight was different.”

Despite the slow start, the U.S.’s superior athleticism eventually showed and the Americans pulled away thanks to to a 16-3 run to end the half. China never got back into the game. The U.S. walked away 101-70 winners but the Chinese had proven how far the national team had improved since the mid-‘80s.

In its next game, the Chinese nearly knocked off Spain, another tournament favorite, losing by just 10 points, 85-75. China finished the round robin portion of the tournament 2-1 and advanced despite a 2-3 overall record. The Chinese were no match for Lithuania in the quarterfinals, losing 94-68.

The loss itself wasn’t very surprising, but coupled with the injury of hurdler Liu Xiang, China’s second-biggest star behind Yao, it was a major downer for the country. Despite all the hype and buildup for the games, China could only muster an eighth place finish.

Said Yao: “We were determined to fight. I think through our courage we got this far. But we were limited by our capabilities.”

Even though the Chinese were out of the tournament, the games went on and the Chinese fans were able to watch the world’s best players at their finest. The Olympic finals pitted the United States against Spain, with players like James, Wade, Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Pau Gasol and Ricky Rubio on display. In an instant classic, the U.S. won, 118-107, just further whetting the Chinese’s appetite to see the best players in the world live on the hardwood.

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