The Step Back

The NBA’s forgotten Chinese pioneer

Last night — just three games into his young NBA career — 21-year-old Chinese big man Zhou Qi added his name to the history books by becoming only the sixth Chinese-born player to record points in the NBA.

The Houston Rockets big man connected on 1-of-2 free throws for his first taste of NBA scoring, and followed up shortly thereafter with an alley-oop that wasn’t as much athletic as it was impressive, showing a brief glimpse to the potential of Zhou.

It’s easy to compare Zhou to Chinese legend and Basketball Hall of Famer Yao Ming. They are both 7-feet tall, they both played for the Rockets, they both combined impressive athleticism and slick shooting with traditional big man skills.

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But that’s too easy a comparison and really, it’s unfair. Yao came into the league as one of the most hyped international players of all-time. When it was all said and done, he had a Hall of Fame career. Though his NBA run was marred by injuries and untapped potential, he remains one of the NBA’s pillars of international expansion.

Zhou is coming into the NBA as a project. A former defensive player of the year in China, Zhou is a work in progress rather than the polished product ready to step in as a star. Because of this, I don’t see Yao when I see Zhou. Instead, I see the pioneer of Chinese-born NBA players. The flagship. A man who dazzled and intrigued NBA audiences a year before Yao stole the spotlight.

I see Wang Zhizhi.

The Dallas Mavericks selected Wang with the 36th pick in the second round of the 1999 NBA Draft. Dallas assistant general manager Donnie Nelson (son of head coach Don Nelson) had coveted the Chinese big man since seeing him play professionally all the way back in 1993. More than just Nelson’s recommendation, then-Mavericks owners H. Ross Perot Jr. aimed to make history by signing the NBA’s first Chinese player. On June 30, 1999, they did just that.

Drafting Wang wasn’t an easy process — stolen military identifications, forged birth certificates and more led to tenuous negotiations between Wang’s camp and the Bayi Rockets, his Chinese team. Finally, with 10 games remaining in the Mavericks’ 2001 season, Wang was able to come stateside, playing and scoring in his first NBA game against the Atlanta Hawks on April 5, 2001 (6 points, 3 rebounds).

Things didn’t come easy for the Chinese big man, as he was held scoreless in his next two appearances before breaking out for five and 13 points in the final two games of the season.

After appearing in a handful of playoff games for the Mavericks (quickly eliminated in the Western Conference Finals by the San Antonio Spurs), Wang returned to China to play in the 2001 East Asian Games, an agreement between Chinese authorities and the Dallas Mavericks.

Wang returned to the NBA for the 2001-02 season but again struggled to find his footing. To make matters worse, he had to miss the first two months of the NBA season and training camp as he was still playing in China, this time for his Chinese team Bayi in the National Games. Wang led his Rockets to a championship over the Shanghai Sharks (and their star Yao Ming).

Unfortunately, by the time he returned to America, he had missed a valuable offseason for a young, developing big man. Though he scored nine points in his first game of the season (Dec. 8 vs. Washington), it would take until the 11th game of the season for Wang to reach double figures. More disappointing perhaps was the lack of rebounding the Mavericks received from Wang. At 7-foot, Dallas and many others expected Wang to crash the glass and be a tenacious big man not unlike their starter Shawn Bradley.

Instead, Wang excelled with a slick shooting touch. His 44 percent from the field didn’t jump off the page but his 41.4 percent from deep — for a 7-footer— was startling. A commonplace in today’s NBA, Wang’s sharp shooting from downtown was a sight to be seen and as unique as you could get in the early 2000s NBA landscape.

Ultimately, Wang appeared in 55 games for the Mavericks in 2001-02, averaging 5.6 points, 2.0 rebounds in 10.9 minutes per game. Wang’s contract with the Mavericks expired after the 2001-02 season and with his NBA future in doubt, he opted to stay in the United States and train in Los Angeles rather than return to China.

The Mavericks had promised as a condition of his signing, of course, that Wang would go to China in the offseason. This wasn’t going to end well. Wang responded by firing his agent Xia Song and moved to Los Angeles without telling either the Mavericks or his Chinese contingent. It was soon rumored that Wang would officially defect to the United States. In 2002, Wang was dismissed from the Chinese national team for failing to return to the country.

This would have massive ramifications on Wang and his future in the NBA.

Nike would soon drop from his endorsement contract and the Mavericks followed soon after, breaking off any negotiations with Wang for the upcoming NBA season.

“When he broke the promise to go back, he not only broke the promise to them, but he also broke the promise to us.” –Don Nelson

The loss of Wang wasn’t seen as a tremendous blow for the Mavericks. They were a team on the rise, fresh off a 57-win season with an emerging superstar in Dirk Nowitzki, the steady point guard play of Steve Nash and the veteran leadership of guard Michael Finley.

Finley, in particular, wasn’t sorry to see Wang go, stating “we’ll find the two or three points from somewhere else.”

Wang signed with the Los Angeles Clippers in 2002, but like with Dallas, couldn’t seem to find his rhythm, playing in only 41 games and averaging a career-low 4.4 points per game and only 1.9 rebounds per contest. Wang’s 3-point shooting also suffered away from Nelson’s high-tempo, run and gun system as he shot one less 3-pointer per game and saw his percentage drop to just 34 percent.

Two games into the following season, Wang was waived by the Clippers. The Miami Heat, eager to see if they could extract anything out of Wang, signed him to a multi-year contract. There was still intrigue in the Chinese big man, fueled by the tremendous play of his country-mate Yao Ming.

At this point Yao had burst onto the scene, and after some rough patches in his few contests broke out in a big way against Shaquille O’Neal and the Los Angeles Lakers:

By 2003-04, Yao had been a two-time All-Star and saw his scoring rise to 17.5 points per game. He was shooting over 50 percent from the field and grabbing nine rebounds and blocking nearly two shots per game. He was playing starter’s minutes and was featured on the Rockets but this is what people wanted from Wang. Instead, the narrative that Wang was yet another “soft” international player was impossible to escape. Add in the tumultuous relationship to his first NBA team, his country and his national team, and it was a recipe for disaster and disappointment.

Following the 2005 season, one in which Wang averaged a career-low 2.2 points per game and played in only 20 games (4.6 minutes per game), he became a free agent. That’s the last we would see of Wang Zhizhi in the NBA.

Thankfully, Wang was able to return to China. In 2006, he apologized for his past mistakes and stated his intention to represent Chinese in international player moving forward. Now quickly approaching age 30, Wang was no longer the dominant, athletic big man the world marveled at in his early 20s, but he did help his national team win gold in the 2006 and 2010 Asian Games and the 2011 FIBA Asia Championship.

His retirement in 2016 was a grand affair with a ceremony, jersey retirement and an appearance by his oldest foe, Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian.

Wang may not have reached the massive potential some saw in him, but he started a legacy that gave us one of the greatest international players in NBA history and has opened doors for players like Zhou Qi.

And for that, he deserves to be remembered.

If you’re interested in learning more about NBA history, check out our NBA history podcast, Over and Back, and the rest of our great podcasts hosted on The Step Back.

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