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Monday, November 20, 2006
Updated: April 15, 3:42 PM ET
The Reeducation Of Lt. Wang

By Brook Larmer

"I'm sorry, I made a mistake. Please forgive me and give me a chance to start again …i won't let you down." -from Wang Zhizhi's apology to the People's Republic Of China; april 13, 2006

His name, Wang,means king. And the gifts he received befitted his royal stature. From his parents came the genes that would grow his lithe body to an astonishing 7'1". From the People's Liberation Army, he got the training that would help him win six national championships and rule his countrymen on the basketball court. And from the NBA scouts and Nike execs who crossed an ocean to see him? Promises of fame, riches and the honor of being the first Chinese man to walk across one of the brightest stages on earth. The one thing nobody thought to give him was the answer to a question that haunts him now: Once you've lost your crown, can you ever return?

For more than 1,600 days and nights, Wang Zhizhi (pronounced "Wahng Juh-Juh") has been looking for an answer. Finally, the possibility of finding it appears, seconds before the opening tip against Team USA at the World Championship in Sapporo, Japan, on Aug. 20, 2006. Four years after turning his back on his homeland and being banned from the national team, the king once again wears a jersey with "CHINA" emblazoned in yellow letters across the chest and his name—"ZZ WANG"—across the back.

He walks gingerly across the floor toward center court. His right leg, swathed in a bright blue neoprene brace, hasn't fully healed from an injury he suffered a month ago. At age 29, Wang aches to show the world he still has NBA talent. As the red lights on the courtside cameras blink on, beaming the game live to millions back in China, he also faces an even more daunting task: proving his loyalty to the motherland and, in so doing, finding redemption.

For a few moments, the king is back. On China's first possession, Wang fakes left, spins right and pushes a delicate lefthanded leaner over LeBron James. Barely 45 seconds into the game, Wang is in the flow. Energized, he prowls the defensive end with his teammate and lifelong rival, 7'6" Yao Ming, suffocating American forays into the paint. The Chinese fans who have made the trip to Sapporo roar their approval, chanting his name and waving a red banner with black characters that read "China's Great Wall, Reunited at Last!"

After five lost years, the applause that washes over Wang is so strange, yet so familiar, too. In 2001, the graceful giant with the deadly outside shot was a national hero, and the first Chinese player to make the leap to the NBA. Back then, it was the boyish-looking army lieutenant—not his flattopped teammate—whom fans, Chinese officials and NBA executives celebrated as the symbol of China's ambition to stand tall.

But in the summer of 2002, a mere 13 months after arriving in the NBA, the loyal soldier stopped following orders. Worried that his budding career in America might be cut short by the basketball powers in Beijing, Wang refused to obey his army's demand to return to China. His act of defiance so infuriated his bosses that they publicly branded him a traitor, and for the next four years Wang wandered the fringes of the NBA, a tormented soul averaging just 4.4 ppg for three different teams. In April of this year, without an NBA contract, he returned home, chastened. "Through years of painful reflection, I have a deeper recognition of the mistakes I've made," he said in an official apology to China's 1.3 billion people made through the staterun media. "Now I want to make up for my errors."

Redemption, however, is elusive. In Sapporo, Wang tries his spin move twice more, and each time the ball is stripped, leading to dunks for LeBron and Carmelo Anthony. When he fumbles a pass that goes out of bounds, China's Lithuanian coach, Jonas Kazlauskas, jumps angrily from his chair and Wang—who once possessed a confidence that bordered on arrogance—wilts. The most effortless scorer in Chinese history spends the second half on the bench, a blue-and-white towel draped over his head like a funeral shroud. When the buzzer sounds, signaling the end of a 31-point loss, he is the last player to leave the bench. "Wang is lost," says Kazlauskas. "It's late. I don't know if he'll ever be found."

WANG'S JOURNEY from prodigy to prodigal son began with a kidnapping. On a cold night in December 1991, an unmarked van eased up to the side gate of a Beijing sports compound. The city's top sports officials are sound asleep, unaware that their most prized basketball prospect is about to be purloined. The vehicle's lights cut off, its engine idles. By the gate, a rail-thin 14-year-old boy, who grew up in the shadows of the Temple of Heaven, murmurs a quick goodbye to his parents, two former basketball players who agreed to this rendezvous. The men in the van are members of the People's Liberation Army. Their mission is to steal the fleet-footed athlete, already 6'9", from their civilian rivals and make him a soldier in the nation's most prestigious institution, and a key piece of its most dominant basketball team. The boy climbs in. The van disappears.

At a military base on the western outskirts of Beijing, Wang left the innocence of childhood behind. The PLA's regimen is designed to break down ego, suck the pleasure out of play and build up an athlete's sense of service. The system works. The Bayi Rockets (Bayi means August 1, the army's founding date) are a championship machine that has won nearly every national title since the People's Republic was formed in 1949. Training is perpetual boot camp: Days begin at 5:30 a.m with three-mile runs and shooting drills. Six to eight hours of practice follow. There's political indoctrination every night and just one week off per year. Years later, Wang will reflect on how the training changed him: "Round turned into square and square into round."

The reshaping knows no limits. Wang's superiors even shave two years off his age, changing his birth year from 1977 to 1979. The deception, still common in China, means Wang can play two extra years on junior teams, bringing the country prestige in international tournaments in the process. His false age appears on every official document: passport, team rosters, Olympic programs, even, a decade later, the official guide to the 2006 World Championship. Only one item in Wang's possession bears his true age, the military identification issued when he became a soldier. The ID card becomes a talisman, a reminder of who he really is.

For all the hardships of army ball, the game itself comes easily for Wang. Even as he sprouts past seven feet, his first step gets quicker, his shooting touch softer, especially from long range. His name starts lighting up the radars of American college and pro scouts in 1996, when the teenager—the roster says he just turned 17—finishes second on the Chinese team in scoring at the Atlanta Olympics, averaging over 11 points and five rebounds per game. Nike soon signs Wang to a three-year deal worth roughly $75,000, a pittance by the company's standards but the highest athletic endorsement fee ever paid in China, and nearly triple Wang's army salary. His favorite perk came when a Nike rep delivered sweatshirts to Wang's parents to keep them warm through the bitter Beijing winter.

All along, Nike fuels the young man's NBA dream, even though it seems implausible. China holds onto its athletes so jealously that no Chinese player had ever been allowed to compete in a foreign league. Still, Nike pushes. Look how easily Wang dominates the CBA, barely shifting out of second gear while getting 23 points and nine boards a game. By 1999, young competition from Shanghai appears on the horizon, but Yao Ming, who has Wang by five inches and 30 pounds, is slow and mechanical. He will never defeat Wang on a CBA basketball court.

Just days before the 1999 NBA draft, Wang lets his Nike agent smuggle a copy of his military ID card to the Mavericks. The document is proof that Wang is old enough to be eligible for the draft. (A foreign player must turn 22 during the year of the draft.) The tall sharpshooter intrigues coach Don Nelson, but it's then-Mavericks owner H. Ross Perot Jr. who wants to make history by signing the NBA's first Chinese player. On June 30, 1999, Dallas selects Wang Zhizhi with the 36th pick of the draft. Moments after, a Nike agent patches through Perot Jr. to Wang. "We'll be coming to get you real soon," the Texan says. Wang cannot respond right away. He is weeping.

The draft surprises everyone, but nobody more so than Wang's military bosses. How could America lay claim to their prize asset? The generals and coaches refuse to meet with Perot Jr. when he comes to Beijing, and seem baffled by the Mavericks' gift of 10-gallon hats. "It's a nice thing that Wang was selected by Dallas," says an army official. "But we can't let him go because it's not the right time either for our team or for Wang himself." For two years, the Mavericks' efforts to free their draft choice go nowhere. Then, in early 2001, with Beijing's all-out bid to host the 2008 Olympics weeks away from a vote, the PLA releases Wang in a gesture of goodwill.

On March 30, 2001, China's towering immigrant arrives in Dallas. He trades his Charlie Brown-style sweater for a $4,000 designer suit with his name stitched into the silk. After a decade of shared dorm rooms, the 23-year-old rents a two-story town house for $2,400 a month, buys a Mercedes SL500 and, most revolutionary of all, moves in with his Chinese girlfriend, Song Yang. His prorated $317,000 salary is the NBA minimum, but he's flush. That night, at a steakhouse with his agent and girlfriend, he shovels down two 18-ounce steaks and a plate of chicken wings. "I can afford this," he says, smiling, pulling out two crisp $100 bills.

His first shot in the NBA, against the Atlanta Hawks, is a swish. And as the ball snaps through the nylon cords, it's easy to believe everything in Wang's life from then on will be nothing but net.

HOW CAN a seven-foot Chinese soldier disappear? Lieutenant Wang was scheduled to fly home to Beijing after the Mavericks' season-ending loss to the Sacramento Kings on May 13, 2002—a secondround playoff exit in which he played six minutes and scored two points, a performance much like all of the others in his first full NBA season. But when the flight takes off without him, his bosses in Beijing and Dallas, who solemnly agreed to Wang's immediate return as a condition of his release from China, panic. Mavericks staffers bang on his town house door. Nobody answers. There's no sign of his girlfriend. His Mercedes is gone. Calls to his cell go straight to voicemail, which answers, "His name is Wang." In English.

The soldier has gone AWOL.

How do you explain a decision that explodes like a bomb, obliterating your past and possibly your future? With no assurances that Dallas will invite him back next season or that Beijing will allow him to leave should he come home, Wang drives his Mercedes west toward Los Angeles and the NBA's summer leagues. A month remains on his contract, and not only has Wang not cracked the Mavericks' starting lineup, talk around the league says he's soft. Wang isn't turning his back on his homeland. He just wants one more chance to prove himself in his new country. Otherwise, his American dream may be over.

In China, his absence is tantamount to treason. A month later, when two PLA officers arrive in LA to bring him home, Wang states his demands: He will play for China in the upcoming World Championship in Indianapolis, but he won't return for the meaningless Asian Games in the fall. No other NBA player has to disrupt his season, why should he? Behind the bravado, though, is fear. If he returns to China, he could face a court-martial. Wang reaffirms his decision. He will not go back.

Staying in the U.S., though, carries its own price.

The Chinese basketball brass kick Wang off the national team, smear him as an "ungrateful traitor" in the state media and suggest that organizations associated with him will be treated as pariahs. Nike ends its six-year relationship with Wang, and the Mavericks do their best to distance themselves. "When he broke the promise to go back," says Nelson to the papers, "he not only broke the promise to them, but he also broke the promise to us." Adds the Mavericks' Michael Finley: "We'll find the two or three points from somewhere else."

The LA Clippers, however, ignore the warnings. After seeing him play that summer, they sign him to a three-year, $6 million deal in October 2002. "We felt he had terrific upside," says Clippers vice president Elgin Baylor at a press conference. "We hope it will do a lot for our Asian community."

The last-minute deal saves Wang's career and makes him wealthy beyond his imagination. But his world is cracked. Wang's fears about the Chinese army's desire to overturn his life continue to grow, and he mourns the conflict with his native country. "A mother and a son may have disagreements," he says, "but that doesn't mean the son doesn't love the mother." As if to prove his patriotism, Wang displays two Chinese flags in his home in the LA suburb of Arcadia and sets his cell phone ring to the tune of the Chinese national anthem. At night, he dreams he is back in Beijing, driving down the broad boulevard to Tiananmen Square. "I felt surprisingly happy," he says. "Then I woke up and realized it wasn't real."

With few American friends save his Chinese-American agent, he retreats to his $2.2 million mansion. "I did not read newspapers, watch TV or go online," he recalls. "I was living in a world of my own." One of his few connections to China, ironically, is his old foe Yao, who meets him for Peking duck when the Rockets come to town.

Separated from his family, Wang marries Song Yang, who gives birth to a son, Jerry. His English doesn't improve, so he becomes a connoisseur of Chinese takeout and a critic of Hollywood movies. "It's always the same plot," he says. "Day 1, life is normal. Day 2, the change. Day 3, back to normal."

The plot of Wang's life, however, doesn't get back to normal. The conflict with Beijing hovers over him on and off the court, rattling his confidence and sapping his motivation. One year into his deal, and with Yao already an All-Star, the Clippers ask Wang to clear out his locker. The Miami Heat quickly pick up his contract, but as Shaq's third-string backup, he gets beaten up every day in practice and sees little playing time. He rides the bench for two seasons before Miami drops him too. In the summer of 2005, a few teams invite Wang to work out, but none likes what it sees enough to sign him.

For the first time in his life, Wang is unemployed. He has no job, no work visa and, worst of all, no passport. The one he used to enter the U.S. five years ago is expired, and the Chinese army isn't about to issue a new one.

The AWOL soldier is out of options.

THE REEDUCATION of Lieutenant Wang began soon after midnight on April 9, 2006, under the neon lights in Los Angeles International Airport. A line of bleary-eyed passengers boards Air China Flight 984 for Beijing, Wang among them. He is joined by a human shadow: a tall, gruff-looking Chinese army official who won't let the disgraced soldier out of his sight until they land, 13 hours later. The man, a 50-year-old army basketball team leader named Kuang Lubin, is no stranger to Wang or to recovery missions. He came to LA four years ago in the first attempt to bring Wang home.

There will be no court-martial, no prison sentence. But there is also no guarantee Wang will be granted the passport he needs to travel freely out of China again. Nobody, Wang included, has any idea if he'll be released from his military obligations before the 2008 Olympics, when his country will surely need him. By then, though, he'll be 31, and any hope of returning to the NBA will be gone.

Playing the good soldier, Wang submits to rituals of shame and humiliation. In "self-criticism" meetings with military brass, he itemizes his sins against the motherland, expresses remorse and begs for forgiveness. Next comes "political reeducation": pedantic lectures from Communist party cadres and hours spent studying President Hu Jintao's manifesto, The Eight Glories and Eight Shames. Wang's public apology—for what is shame if it is not shared?—comes in a three-page letter published in Chinese newspapers. "I want to tell you that an impulsive teenager has become a father with a sense of responsibility," he writes.

His first month back with the national team has little to do with basketball. One morning, the team gathers at 3:30 a.m. in a tunnel underneath Tiananmen Square for the raising of the national flag. Four days of military training follow. Putting on his camouflage uniform one afternoon, Wang is in the front row as the team marches in formation. Afterward, he gives state media a patriotic quote: "It feels sacred to be in an army uniform again."

His parents, who've suffered his public humiliation in silence, greet him at their small apartment with tearful hugs. "They've gotten much older," Wang observes. "They worried a lot. I plan to spend more time with them so they can have a peaceful life." His wife and son arrive, and the family buys an apartment on Beijing's fashionable east side. Wang rarely spends time there, though; he's required to live by the sport system's "Three Togethers": eating, training and sleeping with the team.

With Yao sidelined by a foot injury most of the summer, Wang is the lone veteran on an inexperienced squad. "Everything has changed," he says, marveling at all the new faces. Nothing as much as his reputation. He pours in a national team-record 44 points in an exhibition against Japan, and fans show their support in an online popularity poll on China's leading website, Sina.com. Voit signs him to a three-year deal worth several hundred thousand dollars. In a Voit television ad, Wang flashes a steely look and shoots a ball that lights the Olympic flame. Then the company's motto appears: Forever, a champion's heart!

But Wang's heart, again, wavers. Stellar performances are followed by disappearing acts. Near the end of one game leading up to the World Championship, he signals that he's tired and wants to be taken out. Dumbfounded, Kazlauskas refuses. "He only had to last another 36 seconds!" the coach says. "I've never seen such a combination of talent and laziness." With both Yao and Wang on the court together in Sapporo, the tournament shows two former rivals heading in opposite directions. Yao dominates the paint, leading the tournament in scoring, while Wang shrinks into the floorboards, unable for long stretches to get off a shot. After three straight losses, including the one at the hands of the U.S., Wang gets on track, scoring 19 points in a must-win over Senegal. When the buzzer sounds, Wang and Yao leap together at midcourt in an ecstatic embrace.

When the team arrives back in China, Yao quickly boards a flight for the States, while Wang reports to army headquarters to suit up for Bayi. During his first week back with the Rockets, Wang racks up 51 points in one game, 41 in another, and earns the Chinese league's weekly MVP award.

ONCE YOU'VE lost your crown, can you ever return? Sitting inside a café at the national training center, a picture of Yao hanging on the wall, Wang Zhizhi is a little closer to answering that question. When mention is made of his former life as a Maverick, he laughs. "Not anymore," Wang says. There's a hint of sadness in his voice, but no remorse. "I've dreamed so long about coming back," he says. "Now, finally, I'm home."

He may be back for good. His long-standing request to be discharged from the army and granted a passport has been met with only vague promises. He has no idea how long it will take, how many championships he'll have to bring home, for his request to be granted. Will he ever get back to the NBA? "Hard to say," he says softly.

Later, in the gymnasium next door for a workout with Bayi, Wang spots up from behind the threepoint line. His teammates, all younger, stop to watch the prodigal son practice the shot that made him an NBA player years earlier. So too does his mother, who's arrived embracing 2-year-old Jerry. In the silence of the gymnasium, Wang lofts 33 arcing three-pointers at the distant hoop.

He makes all but three.