Yao, China exceeded expectations in Athens
Next Stop: Beijing

By Randy Kim

Even with Yao Ming in uniform, they weren't supposed to do this well.

Simply by reaching the quarterfinals of the 2004 Olympics, China's performance in Athens can be considered a success. After all, this was a team that most experts considered too young to advance out of group play; other than captain Li Nan, who is 28, every player on China's roster was 24 or under. Yet China managed to beat both New Zealand, who finished fourth in the last World Championships, and a very talented Serbia & Montenegro team that won the 2002 World Championships.

Yao and his teammates were ecstatic to reach the second round in the Olympics.
(Stuart Hannagan/NBAE/Getty Images)
But with the 2008 Games in Beijing, expectations for China's performance in the next Olympic basketball tournament will be much higher, especially now that they finished among the top eight in this year's competition. In fact, there's speculation that Chinese officials are aiming for a top-three finish in the next Olympics.

So can this team win a medal in 2008? China coach Del Harris thinks that, while it is going to be difficult, they have a chance.

"On the one hand, yes there's really good hope for 2008," said Harris. "On the other hand, it's not going to be easy. It's not going to just naturally follow what's been started here; it's going to take some hard work."

Harris, who has ample international coaching experience with teams from Puerto Rico to Canada to the United States, went on to say that the key to China's development is playing other countries more often.

"If they only play against these other countries two years from now in the World Championships and then again in the Olympics, then it might be tough," said Harris. "Unfortunately, the Chinese team only gets to play against this type of competition every other year. They don't get the chance to play world competition like the European players do, who play in the Euroleague all year, every year."

The Chinese players themselves know how valuable this tournament was to their team's future, as it gave them a chance to square off against the world's best players. Yao Ming, for one, saw the Olympic experience as vital for his country's basketball development.

"Now, we should know how to play with teams like the Europeans at this level, and how we can reach that level," said Yao. "We now know what we have to do to improve and get to that level."

Entering into the job, Harris knew how important it was for his players to grasp the style of play favored by the Europeans. From the first day of practice, Harris, who is an assistant coach with the Dallas Mavericks, made it his top priority to familiarize his players with the international game, not the American game.

"People at first said I was trying to bring the NBA to China, but that wasn't it at all," said Harris. "I was trying to teach them how the high level of international basketball is played. I said from the beginning that I just wanted to try to get them into the international basketball culture, and out of the Asian basketball culture, because they're played two different ways. Our players have accepted that, and I think we made progress, but there's much more progress to be made."

But will Harris be around to see this progress? That has not been decided yet. But regardless of whether Harris returns to continue coaching the team into the 2008 Olympics, his players are grateful for what he has taught them.

"This was the first time China has hired a coach from abroad," said an emotional Li Nan after China was beaten by Lithuania. "Del taught us how to play the international game, because before him we didn't have much experience or contact with international rules and the international style of play. More than anything, his positive attitude is what we as players should emulate. He was our role model. Having had this experience, we actually changed our attitudes."

Besides a lack of international experience, some of the biggest criticisms of the Chinese team were with its perceived lack of aggression and its lack of scoring punch from the perimeter. To the first point, Harris was adamant that his team does not have to be dirty or nasty to triumph in the international arena.

While the Chinese team has made great strides, they still have a long way to go if they want to medal in 2008.
(Stu Forster/NBAE/Getty Images)
"I wouldn't say the [Chinese] players need to be tougher," said Harris. "They bark back at me sometimes. You don't have to be a punk, or you don't have to be a thug, or have an attitude to play the game of basketball. We need to be stronger and we need to be more physical, and we need more experience against this kind of play, but as far as attitude goes, I think you can still be a very fine human being and win a basketball game."

As for the team's skills on the perimeter, Harris believes that will come with experience and better conditioning.

"Our guys are better shooters than they showed in this Olympics, but as you could tell, we're a little outmanned physically, so we're not as able to get open for shots against world competition like we are against ourselves in practice," said Harris. "They really can stroke the ball [in practice], but naturally against bumping and grinding and with the good defense, that's different.

None other than Lithuanian sharpshooter Arvydas Macijauskas, whom some call the best pure shooter in the world, agrees with Harris' assessment that China has a strong collection of marksmen.

"[China's perimeter players] are very good shooters," said Macijauskas after Lithuania's win over China. "Maybe they lack some skills in driving and passing, but the more they play together, the more they'll become a great force."

While the Chinese team probably does need more experience playing together against tough competition, Harris, for one, feels that the amount of progress China has made already is very impressive.

"Europe 30 years ago wasn't any good, but gradually they got really good," said Harris. "I think that China's way ahead. What they've done in the last 10 years, it probably took Europe 20 or 25 years to do. So China is going to make it."

Now it's just a matter of whether they can make it by 2008 in Beijing.