'Frustrated' Liu caught in Catch-22

Originally Published: December 30, 2004
By Ric Bucher | ESPN The Magazine

SHANGHAI, China -- While the rest of the Sharks are on the floor preparing to face the defending champion Guandong Tigers, Liu Wei is curled up in the far corner of the locker room, head down, lost in the music bumping through the headphones nestled on his head. At first glance, he looks like an NBA player air-dropped into this tiny room -- and perhaps he could be. But, as is, the odds are long that he'll ever find out.

Liu Wei
Liu Wei, now with the Shanghai Sharks, played six preseason games for the Kings.
Liu is back with the Sharks after his attempt to be the first Chinese guard to make the NBA fell short this fall with the Sacramento Kings. They kept him through six preseason games, including two against the Houston Rockets and his close friend and former teammate, Yao Ming, in China. His minutes played -- 29 of 34 in the games in Shanghai and Beijing -- would suggest the Kings added him to the roster simply as a marketing ploy. His overall statistics -- six turnovers, one assist, two points -- would suggest he doesn't deserve a second look.

Kings assistant coach Elston Turner says otherwise. While the China Games angle certainly was an initial factor in inviting him to camp, Liu demonstrated that he has the requisite savvy and competitive fire to make the NBA grade.

"He was our best passer in training camp," Turner says. "He was creating and finding people even more than our regulars. There wasn't a real glaring weakness. Run the offense, penetrate and pass it -- he can do all that as well as some of the backup point guards in the league now. He's one of those guys who just needs a shot."

Which is why Liu Wei's smile disappears when asked what it's like to be back in China after his stint in the NBA. The Sharks coaches are on the other side of the room, but he doesn't feel comfortable talking within their earshot about his NBA experience or the stumbling block the Sharks pose for getting another one. First, it's extremely bad form in China to openly complain or place blame on anyone beyond yourself. Second, officials with the Sharks or CBA might take the complaints personally and, as retribution, block Liu Wei's path to another training camp.

Vindictive as that might sound, don't think they wouldn't. With such young stars as Yi Jian Lian, a Chinese version of KG, and Chen Jian Hua, a Chinese version of AI, already drawing interest from the NBA, the CBA already implemented a rule this fall that prohibits players from leaving the country to go pro until they're 22. The new rule doesn't affect Liu, 23, but the sentiment behind it does -- the CBA doesn't want to see players sitting on the bench elsewhere when they could be selling tickets and entertaining fans in China.

Never mind that it truncates the chance of individual players reaching their full potential or undermines the overall development of Chinese basketball.

"I'm very frustrated," Liu Wei said through his agent and interpreter, Frank Sha. "I really think I can make an NBA team. But the difference between the NBA and the CBA is tempo. Here it's so slow."

Liu's frustration is even greater after a 96-72 loss to the Tigers. He tries to do it all, roaming the floor for steals, pushing the ball on fast breaks and relentlessly attacking the rim. He repeatedly finds teammates with passes, only to watch them clank a jumper or blow a layup. Time after time, he gets the ball back with the shot clock about to expire and fires up a desperation shot. He keeps the Sharks within striking distance for 2½ quarters, but it's only delaying the inevitable.

Stat-keeping beyond points and rebounds not being an exact science in the CBA, Liu is credited with 16 points, four rebounds and no assists in 25 minutes, even though he never leaves the floor and appears to have a hand in nearly all 23 of the Sharks' baskets. (The Tigers are a passing machine but only credited with eight assists on 32 field goals.)

"It's tough right now because I have to help the team and work on my weaknesses," said Liu Wei, listed as 6-foot-3 and 198 pounds. "I need to improve my physical strength and organizing the offense. I can get stronger, but I can't know if I'm getting strong enough because I'm already stronger than anyone in the CBA. Coach Jeff Van Gundy told Yao that was I good but not prepared for the tempo of the NBA game. I think I can play that tempo, but I can't play it here. Most of our young players can't play at that speed."

Therein lies the mother of all Catch-22s: With proper year-round training, he probably could make the NBA grade as a third or fourth guard. But he can't get that training in China as the lone star of a 3-12 Sharks team, and Chinese officials aren't going to let him leave without some guarantee it's going to pay off.

What's the chance the Rockets would give Liu Wei a look as a favor to his friend and their star, Yao? Remote. It's not a good fit because Liu doesn't have three-point range, which is a prerequisite to create space for Yao and Tracy McGrady. Besides, that wouldn't sit well with Liu Wei.

"I wouldn't want them to bring me there for that reason," Liu Wei says. "I'd want to be there because they think I can play for them."

That Liu doesn't speak English also is a problem. Yao arrived with a grasp of the language and Mengke Bateer and Wang Zhi Zhi, as big men, have survived without one, but a point guard has to be able to communicate with his coach and the other four players on the floor.

"There is a language barrier," Turner says. "He understands what you tell him during timeouts and in practice, but when things happen on the court, he has to be able to recognize and react to them quickly."

That said, if Liu Wei were playing in the U.S. right now, the Kings would look to bring him in while Bobby Jackson recovers from ligament surgery on his wrist. Extricating him from China on a temporary contract makes that a moot point.

"I don't make those decisions, but I'm sure we'd consider it," Turner says. "He knows our system and he can play."

Those are the kind of opportunities that turn into careers for players on the NBA fringe. Instead, Liu is left to start his day at 7 a.m., watching Yao on TV, and end it in a Shanghai Starbucks sipping a mocha Frappucino, faced with the riddle of getting better playing with and against players who are far worse.

"I'd rather not think about how I do that," he said.

For good reason. He can't.

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