Sun, Jul 11, 2004 - Page 23 News List

Del Harris readies Chinese team for Olympic basketball


When Del Harris sees his point guard out of position, he rushes nearly to midcourt, ready to start screaming instructions before covering his mouth with his hands.

Catching himself in midbreath, the longtime NBA coach doesn't say a word. He just walks back to the bench, shaking his head. Harris knew exactly what to say, but only in English. His players speak Chinese.

So goes the biggest challenging facing the first foreigner to coach any of China's national teams.

"I know lots and lots of phrases, but it seems like the one I need at the time, I can't think of," Harris said, chuckling. "It's not terrible. It's just frustrating at times."

Chinese basketball officials broke from tradition to hire Harris for this summer's Olympics in Athens in hopes of improving on a 12th-place finish at the 2002 world championships and, ultimately, being ready for the 2008 Beijing Games.

With Yao Ming at center, a 16-year-old with NBA lottery-pick potential at forward and a former NBA coach of the year, their chances seem good to at least reach the quarterfinals for just the second time.

Yet optimism is tempered in China, where some are reluctant to embrace an outsider and others wonder how much impact a coach can have.

"He has brought something new to the Chinese players, including concepts," said Wang Qi, a sports reporter in Beijing for government-run China Radio International. "But because of the existing problems of the Chinese players _ for example, inexperience, the lack of strong physical strength and weakness in basic skills _ it is not easy for Harris' new concept to be digested by the players."

Basketball is booming in China, spurred by Yao's Jordan-esque popularity. He's the third player from the nation of 1.2 billion to play in the NBA, all centers who arrived since 2001.

It's no coincidence that all are big men. The irony of China's burgeoning basketball machine is that so much emphasis has been placed on developing 7-footers that there's a shortage of capable guards. With few great ballhandlers, Harris instead is relying on experienced ones. The three oldest players on his 12-man roster are guards.

The roster also shows China's eye on 2008 as seven players are 24 or younger. Among them are Yao and Yi Jianlian, a 16-year-old whom scouts expects to be a high pick when he becomes eligible for the draft in two years.

Wang Zhizhi, who three years ago became the first Chinese player in the NBA, is not on the team because of a falling out with China officials. However, he's still part of the story of how Harris wound up as coach.

Wang broke in with the Dallas Mavericks, thanks mostly to team executive Donnie Nelson's persuasion of Chinese authorities. When the same officials thought about hiring a foreign coach for Athens, they asked for Nelson's advice. He recommended Harris, who has been a Mavs assistant since 2000.

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