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Monday, September 13, 2010
Yao Ming and friends in Taipei

By Henry Abbott

Yao Ming and a cast of NBA players -- Brandon Jennings, Aaron Brooks, Chase Budinger, DaJuan Summers, Hasheem Thabeet, Jeremy Lin etc. -- played in Taiwan a few weeks ago. Australian hoops writer Anton Trees was there, and provides the following account:

On the long drive in from Taoyuan International, the cheap airport on the outskirts of Taipei City, you see three separate outdoor basketball complexes. These massive grids of grey cement and red hoops, slotted in amongst the dirty high-rise apartment blocks and monuments to industry, speak to the Taiwanese love of the game. Local kids dribble balls in the muggy sun, teenagers jacking up bad threes, everyone sweating prodigiously.

Taipei is a city fascinated by basketball, obsessed with American superstars. Ten-foot LeBron blow-ups dominate city streets. Kobe cut-outs sell shoes. Every 10th teenager seems to have a '23' emblazoned across their sneakers. Like many countries, Taiwan saw basketball take hold of the national consciousness in the mid-90s. The basketball boom, driven by the cult of Jordan and increasing international access to the sport through the internet, led to the establishment of the Chinese Basketball Alliance in 1994, which -- like many associations created during the roaring mid-90s -- was doomed to failure. From the ashes of the Alliance rose the Super Basketball League, an Australian NBL-esque outlet for local basketball freaks. The quality of play isn't incredible, but the enthusiasm is there.

I'm here in Taipei, in sticky late July, for the Yao Ming Foundation tour. My game ticket was bought from a machine in a 7-11. All the instructions were in Mandarin, so I relied on the help of a baffled teenager, who somehow understood what I meant by pointing to Yao in a newspaper and miming the purchase of a ticket.

Yao has cobbled together an oddball group of ballers for his tour: Brandon Jennings, Hasheem Thabeet, benchwarming Piston DaJuan Summers, energetic Raptor Amir Johnson, Portland rookie Luke Babbitt, undrafted Warriors newcomer Jeremy Lin and Yao teammates Aaron Brooks and Chase Budinger. Tonight, this young crew will go up against a small army of local Taiwanese and Chinese players, nearly 25 in all. Scores of fans are collected outside Taipei Arena, a state-built stadium used mainly by pop stars (Olivia Newton-John and the Backstreet Boys have been recent guests). The hordes are palpably excited, the crowd spotted with yellow Kobe jerseys and red China Basketball gear.

Inside, the teams are warming up. Hasheem Thabeet jacks up -- and misses -- 30-odd treys. Brandon Jennings juggles a basketball with his feet. Amir Johnson just runs and runs, and laughs, and runs some more. DaJuan Summers looks bored.

The game isn't quite a sell-out. Unsurprising, as tickets are selling for the equivalent of a week's rent. The pregame entertainment consists of a large, pretty girl singing Mariah Carey's "Hero," before two screeching presenters welcome Yao to the court. As he walks out, the crowd gets all warm and gooey, like they're seeing a beloved uncle for the first time in years. There is no cynicism when it comes to Yao, no cruel barbs screamed out, no insults. The crowd just loves him, without reservation. It seems tall poppies remain unlopped here.

Now, forgive how stupendously obvious this comment is, but Yao Ming is enormous. Like no human you've ever seen before. 7-3 Grizzlies center Thabeet is tall, obviously but he's also incredibly lean, like he's part-spider, part-human. Yao, on the other hand, is wide, long, high, everything; his shoulders look like struts on a roof, his legs like the base of a building. It's a wonder he can walk, let alone play basketball at the highest level.

After cracking some presumably hilarious gags -- the crowd laughs, but my sub-standard understanding of Mandarin means I'm left out of the fun -- Yao wanders off so the Americans can be introduced. Each player runs past a swarm of Taiwanese cheerleaders, grinding to the Black Eyed Peas. Jennings enters to the biggest applause. Perhaps the crowd has heard of his boisterous performance in Beijing. Or maybe Bucks fans still exist in Taiwan, well after the Yi Jianlian Era.

The game itself is entertaining, if incredibly lopsided. Jennings opens proceedings with an uncontested, 25-foot 3. Swish. Amir Johnson is in an athletic class of his own, dunking on the shorter Chinese players with an intensity and delight that makes the crowd feel sorry for their outmatched countrymen. Thabeet inexplicably dedicates all his time to perimeter defense and he is, of course, terrible at it. During the first time out, Aaron Brooks dances to Kesha, and fist bumps a fan in a Dwight Howard jersey.

The crowd is oddly quiet during game action, responding only to dunks or 3s. Eminem, Pitbull, and Dr. Dre are pumped into the arena. The word "motherf-----" goes uncensored, and nobody seems to notice. The score is 28-9 just nine minutes into the first quarter, the Americans dunking and cutting and stealing whilst the local players flail and whine. Close to halftime, a woman screams "I love you, Jennings!" in glitchy English; he blows her a kiss. A short Chinese guard then bodies up on Jennings, who yells "oh, we ballin' now!"

There is entertainment during timeouts, much of it not entertaining. Yao starts a "Chase!" chant, until Bundinger throws down a reverse dunk. Jeremy Lin gets involved, slotting the ball between his legs like Isaiah Rider's "East Bay Funk Dunk" in '94. Later, two local boy bands have a tedious free throw competition, and then a politician wanders onto the court to miss some jump shots. Yao is forced to shoot 3s for the amusement of the audience -- he misses nine of the 10.

The mood in the crowd is giddy, wide smiles everywhere, little kids in tiny jerseys pointing at the enormous Americans. There's a sincerity in the crowd, a love of the spectacle. Whenever Johnson or Summers or Budinger stuffs a dunk home, people look to each other in disbelief, like they've seen a circus trick. You don't see people texting during the action, nor wandering out for beers. They're just here to see some NBA players do what they do.