Newsweek’s Shanghai bureau chief tells dynamically the story of two Chinese basketball stars who made their ways to the NBA through the thickets of Middle Kingdom politics.
By the mid-1980s, writes Larmer, sports was a critical resource for the Chinese government. Unlike the wholesale revamping of the country’s economy, athletics provided a fast track to the global stage, raising China’s stature and projecting a sense of national ambition. As the rest of the country careened down the capitalist path, sports prodigies were viewed in the old Maoist way as state assets, destined to live and work for the glory of the motherland. Two of the most valuable were Wang Zhizhi and Yao Ming, both over seven feet tall, who between them revitalized Chinese basketball. Larmer begins with a short recounting of recent Chinese history, mainly as it affected the families of the ballplayers, and a sketch of the character of China’s sports establishment: long on duty and stoicism, short on fun, exemplified by the credo that athletes must learn to “eat bitterness.” He then turns to the gathering confrontation between the elephantine Chinese bureaucracy and global capitalism, in which sports plays a conspicuous role. When America came calling for its basketball stars, China was reluctant to lose complete control over Wang and Yao by letting them play in the NBA. Authorities eventually agreed in hopes of currying U.S. support for the 2008 Olympics bid by Beijing. Wang ultimately crashed and burned in both the U.S. and China; Yao moved on to stardom, still playing for his Chinese team in the NBA off-season. The NBA was tickled to have a bridge to the vast Chinese market; Nike thought it had one in Yao, nurturing his development for six years before blowing it by alienating his mother and her trusted Chinese-American confidant.
A Byzantine tale of sports, commerce and politics, nimbly shuffled by the astute journalist Larmer.