The 1999 NBA draft marked a turning point in the dance between China's socialist sports system and the West's most hyper-capitalist leaguea minuet that would help turn the Middle Kingdom into the multitrillion-dollar global sports industry's promised land. At the time, though, nearly everybody was taken by surprise. Wang's superiors in the People's Liberation Army (P.L.A.) reacted angrily to the news. Even if the NBA draft was an invitation to play and not a form of recruitment (as the generals naturally first believed), how could a group of Americans presume to lay claim to their soldier? The NBA brass was baffled, too. The few executives who had heard of the sharp-shooting Chinese star assumed he was too young for the 1999 draft. Beijing, after all, had hidden Wang's true age, listing him as two years younger to extend his participation in international junior tournaments that could bring glory to the motherland. But the Mavericks obtained proof that Wang was born in 1977, not 1979, thus making him eligible. When the moment came, the Mavericks' then owner H. Ross Perot Jr.the 41-year-old son of the eccentric American billionairetold Wang on the phone: "We'll be coming over to get you real soon!"
On its simplest level, China's great leap to the NBA is the tale of two young menWang and his better-known successor, Yao Mingfulfilling the most innocent of hoop dreams. But the accidents of time and place have turned their story into something far more significant: a symbol of China's ambitious opening to the outside world and the world's equally powerful desire to get a piece of the massive Chinese market. Yao, of course, is now the center of attention. Since his debut for the NBA's Houston Rockets in 2002, the lantern-jawed 2.26-m giant has become the most famous living Chinese citizen on the planetand one of the richest, too. Yao has put up impressive numbers, scoring 18.3 points a game last season and earning the most All-Star votes in NBA history. But it is his marketing appeal that truly dazzles. Yao has already signed multimillion-dollar endorsement deals with a parade of blue-chip companies, including McDonald's, Pepsi and Reebok, and his commercial value will only rise over the next three years in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Yao's success might not have happened without Wang's trailblazing. When Perot Jr. and his entourage landed in Beijing in August 1999, the Chinese army refused to meet with them until the final day of their visit. Even then, the P.L.A.'s message was blunt: China's best player would not be allowed to play in the U.S. As the icy encounter ended, Mavs' assistant coach Donnie Nelson pulled out some cowboy hats and persuaded the P.L.A. leaders to try them on. The wide-brimmed hats looked ludicrous atop the green army uniforms, but it marked the first step in the Mavs' long march to win Wang's release. Nearly two years later, in a gesture partially influenced by Beijing's desire to win the 2008 Olympic bid, the authorities finally agreed to let the lanky lieutenant become the first Chinese player in the NBA.
Although a prolific scorer in China, the left-handed center has struggled in the NBA, riding the bench on three different teams in four years (most recently with the Miami Heat). In 2002, fearing the end of his fledgling NBA career, Wang ignored his army bosses and stayed in the U.S. to hone his game in an NBA summer leaguemaking him AWOL in America. The erstwhile hero was branded a traitor in China, and his NBA appearances have been blacked out on Chinese TV. "I've paved a bloody path, haven't I?" Wang reflected to a friend recently. But the former soldier seems reconciled to his new life in the shadows. Wang and his Chinese wife now have a 1-year-old child"an American," he saysand though it's not clear whether his NBA career will continue next season, Wang knows that his choice, however painful, made basketballand Chinesehistory.