- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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In the little sporting hamlet of Dallas, the town renowned for its
super-sized D, you have America's Team. And then you have Team We Are The
Guess which group is the playoff team?
Wrong. Not the 'Boys who have reduced Troy Aikman to an Opening Day,
first-pitch dignitary. Try the team which starts a German (Dirk Nowitzki)
and a Canadian (Steve Nash). The gang with backup from Mexico (Eduardo
Najera) and Nigeria (Obinna Ekezie). The traveling band of national heroes
who had to squeeze out an Australian (Chris Anstey) and a Croatian (Bruno
Sundov) to make room for the newer foreigners.
Try the Dallas Mavericks, who commemorated their first postseason berth
since 1990 -- since Nowitzki was 12 -- by signing the first Asian in NBA
history the very next day. Wang Zhizhi, going one step beyond 1995 Clippers
training-camp hopeful Ma Jian, will make his NBA debut Thursday night
against Atlanta ... with the club that could field a full team of non-Yanks,
if Don Nelson decided to stray any further outside the box.
A whole starting five and a sixth man of un-Americans, actually, if you
count German-born Shawn Bradley.
"We've got a melting pot, just like New York," observed veteran forward Mark
A more prominent Mark, the Cuban owner who's actually a rare American around
here, sagely points out that "if we ever have to play anyone in soccer as a
tie-breaker, we'll probably kick their butts."
And Nash, whose hair alone is so out there that it needs its own passport,
jokingly calls this crew "the United Colors of Benetton."
Funny thing, though, about the Dallas Mavericks, when you sift through all
the wisecracks. They're winning way more than the Cowboys and most of the
teams on the Association map. They're doing much better internationally than
the commissioner of their league, Emperor Stern.
At a time when El Commish has been forced to reduce his north-of-the-border
membership by 50 percent, when domestic turmoil has forced Stern to focus on
making things right at home before conquering territory outside US borders,
the Mavericks are still spanning the globe, Jim McKay-style. They're never
satisfied with the number of polyglots on the payroll.
"It's a little arrogant to think, especially with a quarter of the world's
population in China alone, that the only real talent will be found in our
country," asserts Donnie Nelson, the Mavericks' minister of foreign
Only now, mind you, are Los Mavericks being applauded for such ambition. Now
that they're winning, rival teams are wondering where they might be able to
score themselves a Nowitzki. Long-suffering Mavs observers and fans have
welcomed the Wang era, suddenly prepared to give the kid a couple years to
develop before making any hasty judgments. Don't hear much sniping any more
about the Nelsons, who were rapped repeatedly for 2 1/2 seasons after foisting
a procession of overseas unknowns on the local citizenry. Infatuated with
the exotic, it was said. Too smart for their own good, critics charged. Just
draft an American already, fans wailed.
To Wang's benefit, the Mavericks were much more beloved in Beijing than they
were in Big D lo' those lean years. Donnie, Don and then-owner Ross Perot
Jr. made a few goodwill junkets to China, offering to run clinics and armed
with Mavericks gear as the first NBA management personnel to visit. They
also invited Wang's club coach, Wang Fei of the Chinese army's Bayi Rockets,
to spend much of last season traveling with the Mavericks as an unpaid
By the time Nowitzki and Nash blossomed, alongside Michael Finley and the
newly annexed Juwan Howard on a team suddenly no one wants to see in the
playoffs, plenty of Wang's countrymen were already on the Mavs' bandwagon.
Which is how the Mavericks managed to convince reluctant Chinese authorities
to let Wang officially join the Nelsons' foreign legion for the rest of the
season and most likely next season, barring unforeseen complications. Stern's
office also played a part, sanctioning the Mavericks' unprecedented request
to let Wang miss the first two months of the 2001-02 campaign to lead a
Chinese army all-star team against other select squadrons from all over the
country in a regional competition known as the National Games. The NBA has
never allowed a foreign-born player to shuttle between the States and his
home nation while under contract over here.
But the landscape is clearly changing. In the surest sign of acceptance, the
only jokes about the latest Nelson experiment are coming from the Mavericks
And you can honestly say, turning gravely serious, that the biggest
front-office guy in Texas has to be envious of Ambassador Nellie's level of
cooperation from the Chinese.
Isn't that right, President Dubya?
So, Can He Play?
Sorry. Almost forgot the Wang scouting report.
The timing of his arrival, to be fair, isn't the best. And not only because
the 7-1, 255-pounder has arrived almost simultaneously with a Navy
surveillance plane and its US passengers going down on Chinese soil. And
with George Bush warning Wang's government that its refusal to release the
Americans has "the potential of undermining our hopes for a fruitful and
productive relationship between our two countries."
From a purely team perspective, even Nelson calls this "a terrible time for
a guy to join our team," with the Mavericks in the midst of a long-awaited
playoff drive and a wholly unexpected bid for home-court advantage in the
first round. Not the time to be hand-holding a long-term project. Especially
one who doesn't speak English yet ... yet who commands maybe more worldwide
media attention than anyone else on the roster. Good thing they have a small
army of assistant coaches to watch over Wang.
Like most newcomers to this country, Wang has an outstanding outside touch.
His favorite player is David Robinson, but he'll remind you of more silky
southpaws like Toni Kukoc or Raef LaFrentz. He'll actually bank 'em in off
the window more than any of those guys.
Also like most foreigners, though, Wang has lots to learn about the rigors
of NBA post play ... and rebounding ... and defense. He's also not yet in
NBA shape, and doesn't play with anything reminiscent of Alonzo
Mourning-type intensity. Which is why, Don Nelson says, he won't play in
Dallas' final eight regular-season games unless "the game's not in jeopardy
in any way."
It has been widely speculated, incorrectly, that Wang was immediately placed
on the Mavericks' active roster as some sort of deal they cut with the
Chinese military to secure the player's release. Not so. It's just that, as
per NBA rules, a newly signed player can't go straight onto the injured
list. So Bryant sprained a thumb (wink, wink) to give Wang the opportunity
to scrounge for a garbage-time debut against the Hawks.
"He shoots the ball significantly better than I was expecting," Donnie
Nelson says. "He's got better range than I thought, although he's not used
to shooting the NBA three.
"He also has a street toughness to him. But this is a long-term process. We
made the mistake with Dirk two years ago, setting expectations too high."
Said Dallas special assistant Morlon Wiley, who played in two-on-two games
with Wang over the weekend while the Mavericks were completing their recent
4-1 fairy tale on the road: "We were kind of telling Wang that he basically
can write his own ticket if he's willing to work and compete. It's very
physical, and a fast game. He's got to learn as fast as he can."
It's easy for the surging Mavericks to take the pragmatic approach, for a
couple reasons. A) Unlike with Nowitzki, they no longer need an immediate
contribution from their draftees. And B) Dating all the way back to their
first brush with foreign imports and communism, starting with the
groundbreaking Sarunas Marciulionis in Golden State, they've been through
this a few times.
As always with the Nelsons, the combination of size and skill has them
drooling. They see every lanky lad who can handle it a little as a potential
next Paul Pressey. That said, they know how long it's going to take.
They had an up-close view for the pre-Olympic exhibition game in Dallas last
August, when the full Chinese Olympic team -- led by Wang and Yao Ming --
couldn't handle Germany without a flu-ridden Nowitzki. Trust us: Germany
sans Dirk is not a group the ESPN.com staff squad should struggle with.
Especially given all the hype those Yao and Wang generated from Larry Brown
and a fawning US media just a month later at the Sydney Olympics.
Trust us: Even the team that drafts Yao, the likely No. 1 overall pick if he
gets permission to declare by May 13, better not expect too much too soon.
With both of these pioneers, it's going to be a while.
Around The League
Good morning, Wild Side: In our latest update from the most fearsome
Western Conference of all-time, we discover what happens when a record seven
teams approach 50 wins, from San Antonio (already there) down to No. 7
Phoenix (needs a 4-4 finish).
No one wins 60.
One more loss from San Antonio would leave the NBA without a single 60-win
team for the first time since 1978-79 -- the year after Washington won the
championship with a 44-38 mark.
Don't be stunned if Mike Dunleavy walks away from the Blazers even in the
unlikely event they pull together to win a championship. Surely there's
somewhere else better to coach, with a few less head cases. And suffice it
to say that a coaching change probably won't be the only offseason
alteration for a club that's sliding again, looking like it's trying to
avoid a first-round match with the Lakers more than anything.
Congratulations to Le Grizz on tying their franchise record with, ahem,
22 victories. Next up on the milestone watch: Vancouver's last-ever NBA
game, on April 14. Against guess who? Right, Houston and British Columbia's
favorite point guard: Steve Francis. Bitter Grizz-watchers will also get to
bid farewell to the greatest player who loves their province, Hakeem
Olajuwon. Just more cruelty for some nice folks and the most beautiful city
on the NBA map. Trading Vancouver for Memphis? Criminal.
Marc Stein, who covers the NBA for The Dallas Morning News, is a regular
contributor to ESPN.com.