Donnie Nelson's china odyssey
This story originally moved July 31, 2008.
BC-OLY-BKN--Donnie Nelson's China Odyssey
Amazing odyssey leads Donnie Nelson to China hoops
Donnie Nelson brought first Chinese player to the NBA; now he oversees China's national team
^By JAIME ARON=
^AP Sports Writer=
¶ DALLAS (AP) _ Donnie Nelson was 16 when he spent a summer living in Hong Kong, absorbing all he could about the Chinese culture.
¶ He tasted new foods. He learned some Cantonese phrases. He even went to a funeral, witnessing rituals that went back countless centuries.
¶ What fascinated him most were the nights his hosts took him up in the hills, to a place called Wedding Falls, for a peek at mainland China.
¶ "We could see it," he said, "but you couldn't get in."
¶ Thirty years later, Nelson is not only headed to Beijing for the Olympics, he's going as part of the Chinese delegation _ carrying the lofty title of chief advisor for the Yao Ming-led national basketball team.
¶ How the heck did that happen?
¶ The answer is an amazing tale featuring a live snake, a veteran hostage negotiator, a collision between spy planes, a near defection and a reminder about the value of a guy being true to his word.
¶ The son of longtime NBA player and coach Don Nelson, Donnie worked for his dad right out of college, starting as a scout for the Milwaukee Bucks, then following him to Golden State. While with the Warriors, he began making a name for himself in the international basketball community.
¶ His big coup was convincing the Soviet Union to allow Sarunas Marciulionis to join the NBA, in 1989. A year later, Nelson became an assistant coach for the national team of Lithuania, Marciulionis' homeland.
¶ With Nelson's help, Lithuania won a bronze medal at the 1992 Olympics. While in Barcelona, he also "had a chance to break bread with a couple of Chinese guys." They liked him so much, he was invited to Shanghai to witness a 3-on-3 tournament with an incredible 1,500 teams.
¶ It's hard to say what was better: Fulfilling his teenage curiousity about mainland China, or being a basketball scout and discovering a passion for your game in a land with more than a billion people.
¶ "When you go around the city, there are hoops everywhere," he said. "From what the people told me, Mao (Zedong) was a big basketball fan because it incorporated teamwork and there was a period of time during the Cultural Revolution that that was encouraged. Also, if you think about it, with the number of people in the city, it's a lot easier to tack up a basketball hoop than to have a soccer field."
¶ The next step was the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. While Lithuania again won bronze, and China finished eighth, Nelson got to know Wang Fei, an English-speaking coach, and got a good look at Wang Zhizhi, a 19-year-old, 7-foot budding star.
¶ Three years later, Nelson had followed his dad again, this time to Dallas. The duo was taking every gamble they could to rebuild the miserable Mavericks.
¶ At their first draft, in 1998, the Nelsons pulled off draft-day deals for an unproven Canadian point guard named Steve Nash and an unknown German kid named Dirk Nowitzki. In '99, they made an ill-fated trade for troubled Chicago high school star Leon Smith, then used a second-round pick, the 36th overall, on the first Chinese player ever drafted, Wang Zhizhi.
¶ That's when things really got interesting.
¶ Mark Cuban was only a season-ticket holder back then. The team was owned by Ross Perot Jr., son of the billionaire former presidential candidate.
¶ Perot wasn't much of a basketball guy, but he was a sharp businessman. And he immediately recognized the value of breaking into China. He also fancied it as a potential Basketball Diplomacy akin to the Ping Pong Diplomacy in 1971, when a visit by American table tennis players paved the way for President Nixon's historic trip in 1972.
¶ Perot not only funded the most expensive recruitment of a second-round pick in the history of any sport, he was part of the recruiters. He also brought along his dad's right-hand man Harry McKillop, who'd gotten POWs out of Vietnam, hostages out of Iran and, only a few years earlier, had persuaded China to release an imprisoned American woman.
¶ They needed such muscle because Wang belonged to the People's Liberation Army. And the army had never released anyone to pursue their own career.
¶ Plus, Wang was the star of the Bayi Rockets, the army's entry in the Chinese Basketball Association. The league began in 1995 and Bayi had won every title.
¶ Oh, there also was a little misunderstanding about that whole "draft" thing, Chinese officials mistaking a sports draft with the military kind.
¶ "The biggest challenge was explaining to them that we weren't somehow trying to lay some claim on their property," Nelson said. "We had to explain to them that it was a credit to them that they had produced one of the top players in the world in that calendar year."
¶ The Dallas contingent emphasized that by letting Wang play in the NBA, they'd be showcasing the greatness of the Chinese people. It was really the only leverage they had.
¶ Patience and perseverance helped. So did a couple of Olympic factors.
¶ In 2000, China slipped to 10th, despite having Wang and Yao. Officials likely realized Wang _ and, thus, the national team _ could benefit in '04 from NBA experience.
¶ The bigger issue was China's bid to host the 2008 Olympics. Leaders wanted the world to see that China was more open to change than their Communist predecessors, and a perfect example would be the military breaking centuries of precedence and stripping its own team, the best team in its league, of its best player.
¶ Sound farfetched?
¶ Consider this: Wang signed with the Mavericks on April 4, 2001, and the International Olympic Committee vote was July 13, 2001. The only athlete China sent to Russia for the big announcement was Wang.
¶ In retrospect, the Wang-to-Dallas deal was entirely a byproduct of the Olympic movement. It's sort of like the five interlocking rings on the logo, with 1992 connecting to '96, and '00 leading to '04 and '08.
¶ "I think the odds were pretty significantly against us, especially at first, when we realized the task we'd gotten ourselves into," Nelson said. "Ultimately, when the cards were on the table, they knew we weren't there with a hidden agenda. Once you establish trust, the barriers start to get washed away."
¶ Nelson was really good at washing away barriers.
¶ He bonded with the Chinese from the start, even going to a celebratory dinner on one of his first visits with several coaches and army officials.
¶ That's when a waiter brought a live king cobra to the table.
¶ "I'm like, `Wow, that's something I've never seen before. You going to do tricks with it? Or are we going to eat it?'" Nelson said, laughing.
¶ "They take it back and prepare it, then bring out this little green organ inside a shot glass of sake. The head of the table picks up his chopsticks and he mashes it into a green mulch. It looks like green schnapps or something. He takes a little sip of this and passes it to the guy next to him. Then the guy next to him passes it to the next guy. I'm like, `Oh, boy, here it comes. I'm going to have to do this.'
¶ "I got my dander up and took my shot. It was strong, to say the least. I had never tasted anything like it in my entire life. ... It was a great experience."
¶ Nelson later learned that the body part was a gall, and that it's a traditional drink supposedly for virility. At least, that's what they told him.
¶ "I took their word," he said, laughing again.
¶ Perhaps it was a test of his willingness to accept their culture. If so, he passed with high marks.
¶ "By the end of the night, we had the chopsticks on the table representing the key, the salt and pepper shakers representing players and we were talking strategy," Nelson said. "We were getting out of our chairs and showing defensive techniques, bear-hugging. That was one of the first ice-breakers. After that, I felt kind of accepted."
¶ Just when Wang was about to come to the U.S., international relations got in the way.
¶ On April 1, 2001, China spotted a Navy surveillance plane over the South China Sea and sent several fighter jets to intercept it. The Navy plane ended up colliding with one of the Chinese jets, knocking it out of the sky and killing the pilot, then making an emergency landing in China. The 24 Americans on board were taken into custody.
¶ "The U.S. side has total responsibility for this event," the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement read on state television.
¶ So much for Basketball Diplomacy.
¶ Wang already was in Dallas, but Nelson was concerned "some loony" might seek revenge against him for the 24 crew members being held in China.
¶ "Shortly thereafter, Wang entered his first game and our fans basically gave him a standing O," Nelson said. "In my subsequent visits to China, I can't tell you how many people have said what an impact that kind of reception had on the people of China, especially given all the tension."
¶ Don't remember the moment? That's understandable consider it was merely the story of the day in the U.S.
¶ In basketball-loving China, however, it was the most televised game in the country's history. And with a billion people there, it might've been the most-watched game of all time.
¶ What a shame, then, that the Mavericks had another 7-footer with a better outside shot.
¶ Wang turned out to be little more than a backup for Dallas, averaging 5.5 points over 60 regular-season games. But that wasn't the reason they gave up on him.
¶ It was for defying the People's Liberation Army.
¶ Part of the agreement that got him into the NBA was that he'd return home in the offseason for national team duty. In the summer of 2002, he not only refused, he went missing for a while. Then came talk he was planning to defect. He resurfaced in Los Angeles, shooting down the defection idea and insisting he'd be with the national team at the world championships in Indianapolis later that summer.
¶ Nobody plays such games with China officials. Wang's punishment was expulsion from the national team. Nelson braced for his own penalty, fearing a cutting of ties with the Mavs and possibly even the NBA.
¶ Instead, they appreciated his loyalty during the saga. As a reward, they asked him to be the chief advisor to their national team.
¶ "I was really floored," Nelson said. "I think the most important thing was the trust factor. I'd known some of them nearly 10 years."
¶ His first task was finding a coach.
¶ Allowed to pick anyone in the world, he chose a guy down the hall: Del Harris, his dad's longtime best friend and an a Dallas assistant at the time. Previously, he'd coached the Lakers, Rockets and Bucks; spent seven years in Puerto Rico; and worked with the national teams of the U.S. and Canada.
¶ "He was the perfect guy, all the way down to his white hair," Nelson said. "They actually told me, `It would Nelbe really great if he had white hair, that's really respected here.'"
¶ Nelson also had a perfect assistant coach in Jonas Kazlauskas, Lithuania's national team coach from 1997-2001. Nelson couldn't take the job because, well, he was still committed to Lithuania.
¶ In Athens, China started 1-3, with each loss by at least 25 points. The only way to reach the medal round was to beat two-time reigning world champion Serbia.
¶ They did, 67-66.
¶ China was knocked out in its next game. By Lithuania, of all teams. Still, they matched their best finish at an Olympics, "a tremendous achievement and honor," Nelson said.
¶ Kazlauskas took over for Harris after the Olympics. Since then, a shakeup in the Lithuania federation freed Nelson to join his buddy on China's bench in Beijing.
¶ And guess who they'll have in the frontcourt with Yao? Wang, who was welcomed back to the national team after making a public apology in 2006.
¶ This will be Nelson's fifth Olympics, but first as part of the home country. He's already giddy thinking about the ovation "his" team will get during the opening ceremonies.
¶ He also knows how much he'll stand out among the Chinese delegation.
¶ "I'll be the gringo," he said.
¶ But when China plays its first game, Nelson will be watching on TV in his dorm room. See, China opens against the U.S., and Nelson has refused to coach against Americans since 2000, when Lithuania came within a missed shot at the buzzer of an upset.
¶ "I guess I'm old school in that when guys put on that uniform with those three little letters across the front, that just brings everything to a different level for me," he said. "I'll help beat every team but USA."
¶ While waiting for tipoff, Nelson could reflect on the odyssey that's taken him from Wedding Falls to the Olympic village.
¶ He could try counting all the trips he's made to this country that drew him in, yet pushed him away, when he was 16.
¶ He could wonder how many other people can say they won a negotiation with the People's Liberation Army.
¶ And, as the chief advisor, he could imagine the joy of helping bring China its first basketball medal.
¶ "We hope with home court and staying lucky, we're able to pull out our A performances in the right games," he said. "I can promise you one thing: When the dust settles, China will be very proud of their team."
¶ If so, the cobra gall cocktails will really be flowing.
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