Harris comes to China's aid

Updated: October 5, 2004, 10:47 AM ET
By Ric Bucher | ESPN the Magazine

Taping ankles, foraging for video equipment, dreaming of scouting reports and working with a mixed bag of talent sounds like a typical summer for an overworked, underpaid, eager-to-succeed summer-league coach.

It also describes exactly what Del Harris did as head coach of the People's Republic of China in the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

I couldn't believe someone 67 years old could do as much as (Harris) did. He helped us a lot.
Yao Ming
"It was a good experience, overall," Harris said, "but it did take me back to the way life was quite a few years ago."

Harris helped China to an eighth-place finish, matching the country's best showing ever in men's basketball with wins over defending world champion Serbia-Montenegro and Australia. (For comparison, its 2-6 record in Atlanta to finish eighth included a three-point squeaker over Angola and came before the dramatic evolution of Argentina, Spain and Italy into world-class squads. Since then, the Chinese team has marched steadily backward, finishing 10th in the Sydney Olympics and 12th in the 2002 World Championships in Indianapolis.)

The Athens' achievement is particularly notable considering Harris didn't join the team until late May because of his NBA duties as a Mavericks' assistant coach. He then promptly lost his top assistant, former Lithuanian national team coach Jonas Kazlaukas, who had been overseeing practices in March and April, to back surgery.

Kazlaukas rejoined the team in Athens, but Harris had other hurdles. Rockets center Yao Ming was the only player who spoke English. Seven players were getting their first taste of international competition. And there were more than a few figures behind the scenes who weren't all that eager to see a foreign coach succeed.

"I couldn't believe someone 67 years old could do as much as he did," said Yao Ming. "He helped us a lot."

Most of Harris' 14 suggestions for the Chinese Basketball Association, if it hopes for a strong showing when it hosts the 2008 Games in Beijing, can be boiled down to this: Don't put all of that on the head coach again. He also suggested Chinese officials schedule more games between now and then with non-Asian national teams, develop a system for weight-training and conditioning, and employ video editing for teaching purposes. None of those elements currently exist.

Harris, in fact, had to teach the team doctor the latest technique in taping ankles -- only to have officials try to leave the team doctor off the travelling party of 600 going to Athens. Harris protested and won, but that's an example of the mindset he faced.

"They just have to be realistic," he said. "There's a lot of work to be done. It's going to be tough to close the gap."

While other NBA personnel have been recognized for contributions to the game's global development -- Mavs president Donn Nelson working with Lithuania and Suns coach Mike D'Antoni coaching in Italy, to name two -- Harris has been spreading the good roundball word since 1969, when he started a seven-year stint coaching Puerto Rico in world competition. He also worked with Team Canada in the 1994 World Games and assisted Rudy Tomjanovich in capturing a bronze medal with non-NBA players in the '98 World Championships.

But helping China has been his most rewarding -- if challenging -- experience. He credits new CBA secretary general Li Yuanwei for realizing the nation's basketball program needed to go outside its borders if it hopes to emerge as a dominant force. There's also no question the players are willing to improve, after submitting to five months of two-a-day practices to prepare for the Olympics. (For comparison, the NBA now has legislated that teams can only have a total of five days of double sessions.)

The by-product, though, is Chinese players who, Harris said, could beat the Mavericks right now in a game of "Horse" but can't score while being bumped or create a shot under pressure. Until foreign coaches, trainers and conditioning experts teach their Chinese counterparts the latest techniques and methods, all that practice won't equate to victories.

"It was a big thrill to be associated with a reasonable measure of success," Harris said. "It felt like something I was supposed to do. And I'd really like to help in some capacity as long as they want me. But if they don't make some improvements, there's no point in going back."

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine and collaborated with Rockets center Yao Ming on "Yao: A Life In Two Worlds," published by Miramax and available in bookstores beginning Sept. 29. Click here to send him a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Ric Bucher

NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer