His name might as well be Zelig. Nearly every time China has opened up to the world over the past century, Mou Zuoyun has been there, nudging the door open even further with the only tool he possesses: basketball. Born in 1913 near Tianjin, Mou developed his love of the game and his fascination with the West playing on courts run by American missionaries. In 1936, the agile 1.82-m youngster joined China's first full delegation to the Olympic Games, marching into the Berlin stadium under the gaze of Adolf Hitler. Mou then married into sports royalty his father-in-law was the Nationalist sports minister and traveled to America to study at Springfield College, Massachusetts, where basketball had been invented more than half a century earlier when the school was known as the YMCA international training center. So formative was the experience that, even today, one of the sprightly 93-year-old's most treasured possessions is the trove of coaching manuals he brought back from America.
Mou rose to even greater public prominence after the communists' 1949 takeover, when those manuals and their American tactics became taboo, and Chinese coaches could be persecuted for deviating even slightly from the accepted coaching methods. Nimbly adjusting to the new reality, Mou became an influential force in the formation of Chairman Mao's massive sports system. (As head of the so-called "big ball" sports football, basketball and volleyball Mou issued a decree calling for the recruitment of all girls who might grow taller than 1.8 m and all boys over 2 m.) His American connections made him an object of persecution during the Cultural Revolution, but Mou like his country emerged stronger. Rehabilitated as a sports leader, he not only helped spearhead China's return to the Olympic fold after a three-decade absence but also, in 1985, chaperoned the Chinese basketball team on its first U.S. tour. In so doing, he introduced a nation of cloistered hoopsters to the likes of Michael Jordan and set in motion a process that would result in the export of 2.26-m Yao Ming to the National Basketball Association. Building that kind of bridge is a fitting legacy for a man who has fought his entire life not for an ideology but for a simple idea: that sports should help propel China into the world.