NBA Rockets lift off with China's Yao at Asian Games
Chinese giant Yao Ming takes the court here for Saturday's Asian Games opener while National Basketball Association players and fans half a world away wonder if they will ever see him perform.
Yao, the 2.26m (7-foot-5) center chosen by the Houston Rockets with the top pick in June's NBA Draft, has not been granted a release by Chinese officials and has not signed an NBA deal that could be worth up to 15.6 million dollars.
While Yao leads overwhelming title favorite China in a preliminary game against Kuwait, the Rockets will gather to begin pre-season training Monday without the NBA's first No. 1 pick from outside the United States.
Rockets owner Les Alexander told reporters Thursday in Texas that talks continue behind the scenes and that he was confident Yao will be in uniform for Houston's October 30 NBA season-opener at Indiana.
"We're still in constant negotiations with his agent and we haven't gotten the release," Alexander said. "I knew this would be a long process. Their agents want some things we haven't been wiling to deliver.
"When you have a 12 million-dollar contract, there are always terms and conditions and people ae going over this and that. It's just normal. I think everything will fall into place by the time the season starts."
The Rockets have a lot riding on the deal. Yao's face is already splashed on billboards all over Houston with the slogan "The start of something BIG". It could be a big flop if China refuses to let Yao leave for the NBA.
"I never thought it was a formality but I never thought it was something that wouldn't occur," Alexander said. "We're going through the process. I think they are serious. We are reasonable people. I think we will get it done."
Megenke Bateer, who played with the NBA's Denver Nuggets last year, will join Yao on the Chinese squad. But the third member of China's "Great Walking Wall", Chinese NBA pioneer Wang Zhi Zhi, will not participate.
Wang, who played the past two years for the Dallas Mavericks, did not want to return to China in hopes of landing with another NBA club. China's dispute with Wang has likely made officials more cautious about releasing Yao.
While his rookie season would bring a contract worth 3.8 million dollars, Yao might have to surrender half that salary to Chinese officials for receiving permission to leave.
Tall as he is, Yao cannot be in two places at once. He will likely lead China in an Asian Games quarter-final October 8, the same day the Rockets open their pre-season schedule at Memphis.
If the Chinese authorities and the NBA club strike a deal, Yao could finish a gold medal run here October 14 and be in Houston the next night to watch the Rockets' second exhibition, a home game against rival San Antonio.
Assuming a deal gets done, the delay will make it tougher for Yao to adjust to his NBA teammates and postpone his adjustments to life in America as well as the NBA's tougher level of play and greater travel.
Yao led China to 12th at the World Basketball Championships earlier this month at Indianapolis. He averaged 21 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 2.5 blocks. His 75.3 percent shooting accuracy led all players.
Yao, who turned 22 on September 12, averaged 23.4 points and 15.4 rebounds in the past five years in the Chinese Basketball Association. He averaged 32.4 points, 19 rebounds and 4.8 blocks last year in leading the Shanghai Sharks to their first league title.