- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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While the Houston Rockets are optimistic they will get assurances from Chinese sports officials that Yao Ming will play for them next season without interruption, they won't draft him with the top pick without a signed letter putting their fears at ease.
The Rockets have no issues with Yao playing for China in the Olympics, the World Championships or the Asian Games -- tournaments that traditionally fall in the offseason -- but there is concern that he could be pulled from the team to play in tournaments during the regular season that don't carry as much global weight.
Multiple sources told ESPN.com that the Rockets are hoping to get a signed letter from three representatives in China -- from the government of sport, the Chinese Basketball Association and Yao's team, the Shanghai Sharks -- that assures Yao will be in uniform for the duration of the NBA's regular season and possibly the playoffs.
The Rockets would likely trade the top pick if a deal can't be struck with the Chinese. Houston isn't as interested in Duke point guard Jay Williams as the top pick because Steve Francis plays the same position.
Tuesday, the Rockets confirmed they are looking to send a delegation to China to discuss the Ming situation.
"We are working on getting a contingent together and we are
trying to finalize some details,'' Rockets spokesman Nelson Luis
said Tuesday. "We're still not set on exactly who is going. We're
not sure everyone's schedule can work.''
Houston television station KRIV reported Monday that general
manager Carroll Dawson, coach Rudy Tomjanovich and team attorney
Mike Goldberg could make the trip as early as this week.
The Rockets want to be able to announce that they will draft Yao with the top pick and that he has agreed to play with Houston and in the NBA in advance of the draft, something that is usually reserved for the top pick in the NFL, not the NBA.
It would be more beneficial to the Chinese government and the Shanghai Sharks if Yao is selected No. 1, considering they will get 50 percent of his salary based on the Chinese Basketball Association's agreement with Yao.
Yao's representatives -- John Huizinga, an economics professor from the University of Chicago, and Yao's cousin Erik Zhang -- visited Houston two weeks ago for an informational meeting with the team. Zhang traveled to China to seek out assurances that Yao would get released to play. The two reps are on board to get a deal done before the draft.
The 7-foot-5 Yao would be the first professional international player to be chosen No. 1, and the Chinese bureaucracy makes this a unique situation.
Houston helped its cause when the city's mayor, Lee Brown, coincidentally was in Shanghai, China, for a conference May 19 when the Rockets found out they won the lottery. The meeting was set up a year in advance. Shanghai Mayor Chen Liangyu told Brown that he would advise Yao's family that it probably would be good for him to go to the NBA.
Yao has a busy schedule over the next three months. He'll be playing in exhibition games in China this weekend. He'll play for China in a four-team tournament with Australia, Italy and Yugoslavia from June 30-July 4 in China, and again with the same teams July 5-9.
The NBA is still hoping Yao will be in New York for the draft June 26.
China will play in another tournament in Turkey from July 30-Aug. 10 before playing the United States in an exhibition game Aug. 22 in Oakland, Calif. The team will then play in Indianapolis the rest of the month until Sept. 8 at the World Championships. Yao is committed to play for China in the Asian Games in Pusan, South Korea, Sept. 29-Oct. 14.
That would mean Yao would miss at least the first two weeks of training camp and the first two exhibition games. The regular season is supposed to begin at the end of October or Nov. 1. The Rockets would be willing to get Yao after the Asian Games, but that means practices that would normally be in preparation for exhibition games would turn into more team-oriented drills so Yao could get used to the players and system.
In the coming years, the Rockets would like Yao in the United States at some points during the offseason so he could work with their strength and position coaches.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com. Katz covers the NBA draft for ESPN.com and ESPN. Information from the Associated Press is included in this report.
The Houston Rockets are optimistic they will get assurances from Chinese sports officials that Yao Ming will play for them next season without interruption.