By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Preview of an upcoming Mavericks game in mid-April as multiple teams, including Dallas, scrap for playoff position: Reunion Arena is absolute bedlam. Everyone stands, looking on with half-crazed, desperate stares. If you didn't know better, you'd think our fine republic had dissolved at the incapable hands of G.W.--or that it's Chalupa Night again--and that anarchy presides. Turns out it's just a close game. The Mavs are down one with fewer than 10 seconds remaining. As Steve Nash deftly works the ball across midcourt, zigzagging west-east as he is prone to do when searching frantically for an open man, the crowd screeches in ear-piercing unison. The tension is almost tangible. Television play-by-play man Jim Durham and easily excitable color commentator Bob Ortegel have the call.
Durham: Nine, eight... Nash, working near the top of the key now, looks for Finley on the left wing, but he can't shake himself free...
Ortegel: Oh no. Come on.
Durham: Seven, six...Nash cuts right, searching for Dirk on the other side. No luck there, either, as the defense surrounds Nowitzki...
Ortegel: Oh nooo. Come ooon!
Durham: Five, four...Nash flashes into the lane...he's blocked from the hoop by two defenders...
Ortegel: Aw crapper.
Durham: Nash lobs a pass inside for the 7-footer. He reels it in and turns...three, two...the shot's off and...one, zero...
While Ortegel is strapped down and injected with powerful narcotics in a fruitless attempt at sedation, the Mavs swarm each other in celebration. Smiles abound. The playoffs are near, they can feel it. And it's all thanks to their big man. No, not Shawn Bradley (a month earlier, he was loaded onto a garbage trawler and set adrift in the Gulf), Wang Zhi Zhi.
Uh, Wang Zhi Zhi?
Who knows? It could happen.
If it does, thank, in part, Bill Duffy. Recently, while Michael Finley, Nash, and Nowitzki were hoisting jumpers during All-Star weekend in Washington, D.C., Duffy entertained the Chinese ambassador. Duffy is an agent employed by BDA Sports Management. His clients include, among others, Nash, the T-Wolves Terrell Brandon, the Raptors Antonio Davis, and the 7-foot-1 Big Wang, whom the Mavs selected with the 36th pick in the '99 draft. But, unlike with his other clients, Duffy can't simply settle into comfortable conversations with the organization on behalf of Wang. Can't plop himself down at an oak conference table opposite Cuban and talk contract. It's not that simple. Not yet.
For the moment, the path to making Wang the first Asian-born player to don an NBA uniform is littered with "land mines" constructed by ever-maddening foreign-relation procedures. Makes for slow going.
"Before you implement, you have to educate," says Duffy, 41, who has made five trips to China in the past few years while helping BDA establish an office in Beijing. "It's time intensive. You have to educate on every aspect from sports marketing to the NBA, how the NBA works, how the draft works. It's very, very extensive, because it's very laborious, because it's like teaching a class. You can't expect them in the first week to grasp the whole curriculum. So it takes time.
"You're dealing with an administrative setup that they have to adhere to. Here, you can go directly to a player or coach. There, you deal with the government or the teams, because they've got to release him. You have to work from the top down."
The 24-year-old Wang currently plays for the Red Army (Bayi) Rockets, who have seemed less than willing in recent months to release their star from his national obligations. Earlier this year, the team's coach made it known that Wang would be playing next season in China.
To further stress an already delicate situation, there is valid concern that U.S. foreign policy could adversely affect Duffy's endeavor to bring Wang stateside. Some feel Dubya may turn hardass with overseas matters--or something like that; who am I, Henry Kissinger?--and if China is smacked around too much, it may just take its ball and, uh, stay home.
While the Mavericks have been monitoring the situation and have had "some contact" with Chinese officials, Cuban thinks seeing Wang in Dallas this season is a "long shot."
Still, Duffy and his cohorts remain optimistic. Aside from developing a rapport over time that has left the Chinese receptive to placing players in the NBA, Duffy and others believe China's desire to host the 2008 Olympics could expedite the process. The feeling in hoops circles is that by granting Wang and other top prospects--such as 7-foot-6 center Yao Ming, who would almost certainly be a high lottery selection, if not the top pick--their release, the Chinese would generate positive publicity and curry favor with the International Olympic Committee (it will choose the host city in July), which can be partial to good deeds. However transparent.
"I think there's some validity to that," Duffy says. "I think they think it would be favorable action in the IOC's eyes. On the other hand, I think they've come to understand that it's great for Chinese basketball for the top players to be playing in the NBA among the best players in the world. For instance, German basketball is a lot better off with Dirk Nowitzki playing over here than it is if he's playing for Würzburg."
If the Chinese do relent and send Wang packing, it will certainly benefit the Mavericks. Wang has been compared to Sixers forward Toni Kukoc, a big man with soft hands, the ability to dish or spot up or drain a long jumper. Although Chinese basketball is unrefined--inferior competition and suspect coaching have created a contingent of detractors--there aren't too many Wang bashers floating about.
"Look," says one out-of-town NBA beat writer, "he did well in [the Olympics] in Sydney, and he's got tools. It's tough to find a 7-footer, let alone a 7-footer with a jumper. And even if the Mavs don't use him, if for some reason he doesn't fit in, they can dangle him in a trade next year. Do you know how many teams would love a big guy with coordination? The line forms way in the back."
With all the bureaucratic b.s. involved, it's unlikely Wang will be here this season unless a whole lot of things go right. And quickly.
But what if they do? What if the United States and China stop being such punks? What if everyone takes a step back, inhales deeply, and figures out that this should be about basketball, about seeing if Wang can hang? Surely, it would benefit the Mavericks as the season funnels into the playoffs. Surely, it would be a good move for both countries and for Wang. Surely, it would create a worldwide buzz, at least among the hardwood set.
(Happy music here) Surely, the world would be a better place.
Well, a better place for everyone but Ortegel. He'd surely have to be permanently restrained.