Former LSU coach Dale Brown has given clinics in Asia for years. He recently claimed there were 100 basketball players over 7 feet tall and under age 24 playing organized ball somewhere in China. He even suggested there was something suspicious about the presence of so many big men.
Brown can rest assured. If the Olympic opener was any indication, the basketball world is safe for now. China took the floor with three 7-footers against the United States on Sunday night, and it made no difference. They would have needed a dozen more giants to provide the latest Dream Team a decent game.
The USA fell behind early, 13-8, allowing hoop fans to hallucinate about an upset. Then the Dreamers got their defense and fast break into high gear and blew out the Chinese, 119-72. Ray Allen scored 21 points and Vince Carter 16 as the Americans put seven players in double figures and had a 70-18 advantage in the ever-popular "points in the paint."
That should tell you how effective China's big men were inside. They've been dubbed The Great Wall because of their size. But 7-5 Yao Ming, 7-foot Menk Batere and 7-foot Wang Zhizhi weren't much of an obstacle to the merciless wave of athletic big men at coach Rudy Tomjanovich's disposal.
The Chinese discovered what NBA followers have known for years -- that raw height doesn't guarantee anything. Not in a league populated by 6-6 to 6-11 players who run and jump and play like guards. The question isn't how many 7-footers live in China. It's whether they have any Vince Carters or Kevin Garnetts. Or, for that matter, any point guards who can penetrate and defend.
"We have an awesome team," Allen said. "I even marvel at times over our talent. Our starting five gets the other country's five tired, then we have five fresh guys coming off the bench, hungry to pound them even harder."
This Dream Team might not have the experience or star power of previous editions. But they have more players with a full array of skills. The coaches (Tomjanovich, Larry Brown, Gene Keady and Tubby Smith) have them playing aggressive defense. No pass goes uncontested, no dribble unchallenged.
"I was extremely pleased with the defensive intensity we showed, right to the final buzzer," said "Rudy T.," the Houston Rockets' head coach. "I was also pleased with our unselfishness, the way we found the open man."
The Americans had 29 assists, many the lob-and-dunk kind so popular with fans of the Dream Team's flamboyant, bludgeoning style. It didn't hurt that Yao had four fouls in the first six minutes (he fouled out one minute into the second half), or that Wang, their leading scorer, also had four fouls before halftime.
The Great Wall did have its moments. Wang, 21, a finesse player who can step back and hit three-pointers, hurt the USA early with his outside shooting. Yao, who turned 20 last week, ran the floor well, blocked a Vince Carter shot and showed a deft passing touch. He resembled a young Arvydas Sabonis. Sabonis, who was a star for Lithuania before joining the Trail Blazers late in his career, is Yao's favorite player. He even uses the password "Sabonis" in chat rooms.
Asked if the officials had called an especially tight game, Yao tersely replied, "Yes."
Of course, the Chinese will have to learn the nuances of physical post play if they hope to play professionally in the United States. Both have been closely scouted by NBA teams. Wang, in fact, was the second-round draft choice of the Dallas Mavericks in 1999. Yao would be a high draft choice if he made himself available.
Tomjanovich was especially impressed with Yao, marveling at his ability to handle the ball at such a young age. Tomjanovich said both Yao and Wang have futures in the NBA. And yes, both have agents looking out for their interests in the U.S.
The question is when they'll become available. Wang plays for an army team. Yao is tied to his hometown club team in Shanghai.
"It is very hard to say when I'll go," Yao said. But he seemed determined to make his way to the West sometime soon. He suggested that Chinese officials will eventually bend and let him take a shot at the best league on Earth.
"I don't think they worry about their best players leaving for the NBA," he said, "because they realize we will come back to China and spread the knowledge."
There's a lot to know for an NBA big man. It's safe to say the Great Wall got a great first lesson on Sunday night.