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Chinese TV audience for first Yao vs. Yi game may far exceed Super Bowl

HOUSTON -- Patriots vs. Colts? That's nothing.

In China, Friday night's game between the Milwaukee Bucks and
Houston Rockets is expected to draw TV ratings that would put even
a Super Bowl to shame.

It's Yao Ming vs. Yi Jianlian, the nation's greatest player
facing his highly touted rookie countryman for the first time.

"It's the two best basketball players in the country coming to
play in the best basketball league in the world," said Wang Meng,
a sports writer who covers the Rockets for Titan Sports, a
Beijing-based newspaper. "It doesn't matter who wins. It's the
best thing that can happen in China, because people will be excited
either way."

The game, starting early Saturday morning in China, will air on
19 television stations, including CCTV-5, the country's
government-run network. It also will be available on two Webcasts
and on video-enabled, wireless phones.

The NBA also is throwing a viewing party for fans in Beijing.

Wang said the game is expected to draw more than 200 million
viewers in China. By comparison, last week's New
England-Indianapolis game in the NFL drew an average audience of
about 34 million. Last year's Super Bowl drew an average of 93
million.

"The numbers are just extraordinary," said Heidi Ueberroth,
the NBA's president of global marketing partnerships and
international business operations. "It's very significant. It's
showing how much the globalization of the league is on the rise."

Seems the only people not overly psyched about the game are the
players themselves.

"You really have to ask fans," Yao said. "I'm playing on the
court. I'm not really going to feel how they feel. I know they're
excited, very excited."

The two may not even guard each other much, if at all -- the
7-foot-6 Yao matches up with Bucks center Andrew Bogut and the 6-11
Yi will likely draw one of the Rockets' forwards, either Chuck
Hayes or Shane Battier.

"Just another game for me," Yi said.

Not for China.

The Rockets drafted Yao with the top overall pick in 2002. His
first matchup with Shaquille O'Neal drew over 200 million viewers
back home.

He's since developed into one of the game's top centers, a
five-time All-Star who's increased his scoring average every
season. He had 28 points and 13 rebounds against Tim Duncan and the
San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday night.

And now comes Yi, the No. 6 pick in the draft. The two played
together in Athens and Yao sensed immediately that 6-11 Yi would be
a star.

"The first time I saw him, in 2004, for Olympic training camp,
I know one day he would play here," Yao said. "He has huge
talent. Already, he's shown some part of it, in his first four
games."

The two haven't kept in touch much since Yi arrived in
Milwaukee. When they did speak, Yao didn't give him much advice on
life in the NBA.

"Just try to work hard," Yi said Yao told him. "First season
is going to be not easy."

Yao said Yi is going to have to learn on his own, like he did.

"He's going through it in a different place," Yao said. "I
don't know much about Milwaukee, I can't tell him too much. I don't
want to give him too many pressures, or the wrong messages.
Different people get different experiences."

Yi was reportedly disappointed that he wasn't picked by a team
in a city with a larger Asian population. He seems to be adjusting
just fine, scoring 16 points and grabbing eight rebounds in the
Bucks' 78-72 win over Chicago last weekend.

They'll meet in Milwaukee on Feb. 2 and will team up in the
Olympics in Beijing. Neither is thinking that far ahead.

"It's the NBA season," Yi said.

But they can't wait in China, where Wang thinks Friday's game
will be long remembered as historic.

"When people talk about this, they will think about the game
they watched where two Chinese players started in an NBA game,"
Wang said. "This will help Chinese basketball a lot, just like
Luis Scola and Manu Ginobili watched Michael Jordan win the
championship back in Argentina.

"Every kid who loves basketball has a basketball dream. For
them right now, maybe some of them want to be like Kobe. Maybe some
of them want to try to be LeBron James. Now, why not think about
being like Yi? This will open their eyes. This is such a great
thing."