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Yao offers NBA a shot at world's largest market

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SHANGHAI, China (AP) _ The two dozen junior high students playing hoops on the outdoor courts at the Nike Basketball Garden share a dream and a hero.

They want to play in the NBA, just like Houston Rockets rookie Yao Ming.

``Someday, there'll be no Americans left in the NBA,'' said 12-year-old Xing Tao, who joined his school's team two weeks ago after watching Shanghai's own Yao in a televised NBA game.

``The players will all be Chinese, like Yao!''

To China, Yao is a homegrown superstar who helped pry open the doors of the world's premier basketball league to Chinese players. To the NBA and companies such as Nike and Reebok, the 7-foot-6 center offers an opening of a different sort _ into the world's largest untapped market.

Excited about reaching 1.3 billion potential fans, the NBA more than doubled the number of its games broadcast in China this season. The total will be up to 170, 30 involving the Rockets.

The first regular NBA game aired in China in 1989.

Yao's NBA debut against the Indiana Pacers in October, carried by government-run China Central Television, reached 287 million households. By contrast, there are only about 105 million TV households in the United States.

That game might have been a bit of a letdown to Yao's fans: He played just 11 of the 48 minutes, had two rebounds and didn't make a basket in a loss.

Compare that with his performance Wednesday night, also against Indiana: 29 points, 10 rebounds and six blocked shots

``This was one of the most exciting games I've had,'' Yao said after Houston's 95-83 victory.

The NBA has to be excited about his on-court success. Maturing with each game, it seems, he's averaging 12.7 points and 7.7 rebounds, quite solid for a rookie. And he leads the league in shooting percentage (59.9).

Yao just might be an NBA All-Star, too. Through Thursday, he ranked second among Western Conference centers with more than 470,000 votes _ fewer than 10,000 behind Los Angeles Lakers star Shaquille O'Neal. Fans can vote on the Internet, and ballots are available in Mandarin this year for the first time.

The league recently opened an office in Beijing and already had one in Hong Kong, plans to start a Chinese-language Web site and fan magazine, and is working with a Chinese travel agency to put together package tours to the United States for NBA games.

``Yao Ming has brought the NBA closer to the Chinese,'' said NBA spokeswoman Cheong Sau Ching, who is based in Hong Kong. ``One of them has now made it to the NBA. That makes the dream seem achievable for other people in China.''

The 22-year-old Yao is not the country's first player in the NBA; Wang Zhizhi broke that barrier as a role player with the Dallas Mavericks in April 2001. But Yao's combination of modest demeanor and serious Rookie of the Year candidacy makes him a favorite back home.

``Yeah, I know Wang Zhizhi. But he's not Yao Ming. Nobody plays like Yao Ming,'' said Xing, pausing alongside a concrete court surrounded by decaying apartments and new skyscrapers.

``He's so awesome as a player and a person. He makes me proud to be Chinese,'' said Cheng Kanzhang, also 12.

Despite his popularity, Yao has only a minor advertising presence in China, appearing in few TV commercials or billboards. He has only one endorsement deal with a big U.S. company _ Nike _ and that dates to his days with the Shanghai Sharks of China's pro league.

Some companies try to capitalize on the Yao phenomenon in less direct ways.

Coca-Cola signed on as chief sponsor of NBA games broadcast on Shanghai Television immediately after Yao joined the NBA, said Liu Jing, a manager at Shanghai Yuan Tai Advertising.

Reebok issued a new line of sneakers with NBA logos, endorsed by players such as the Chicago Bulls' Jalen Rose. In at least one Shanghai store, Sports City, the shoes have been best-sellers since hitting the shelves two weeks ago at a cost of up to $100.

``Yao Ming doesn't endorse them. But if you look at how the popularity of the NBA is rising, that's definitely because of Yao Ming,'' saleswoman Hong Jing said.

There's no shortage of attention for Yao in China's increasingly commercial but still government-managed media.

The Shanghai-based Life Weekly magazine runs ``Keeping Tabs on Yao Ming,'' a regular column updating readers on everything from Yao's performance to his dinner. The popular Web site sina.com.cn has a page dedicated to Yao, with charts of statistics and translations of U.S. media coverage.

Shanghai Television's Sports Channel, which airs two NBA games a week, sent reporters to the United States to cover Yao _ the first overseas sports reporting by the municipally owned network.

``Yao Ming is the most popular athlete in China,'' Sports Channel senior producer Ye Li said.

``He is a source of pride for millions at home.''
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