American Harris leads Yao, China into Olympics

Updated: July 24, 2004, 11:27 AM ET
Associated Press

DALLAS -- When Del Harris sees his point guard out of position, he rushes nearly to midcourt, ready to start screaming instructions before covering his mouth with his hands.

Del Harris
American Del Harris looks to improve on China's 12th place finish at the 2002 World Championships.

Catching himself in midbreath, the longtime NBA coach doesn't say a word. He just walks back to the bench, shaking his head.

Harris knew exactly what to say, but only in English.

His players speak Chinese.

So goes the biggest challenging facing the first foreigner to coach any of China's national teams.

"I know lots and lots of phrases, but it seems like the one I need at the time, I can't think of," Harris said, chuckling. "It's not terrible. It's just frustrating at times."

Chinese basketball officials broke from tradition to hire Harris for this summer's Olympics in Athens in hopes of improving on a 12th-place finish at the 2002 world championships and, ultimately, being ready for the 2008 Beijing Games.

With Yao Ming at center, a 16-year-old with NBA lottery-pick potential at forward and a former NBA coach of the year, their chances seem good to at least reach the quarterfinals for just the second time.

Yet optimism is tempered in China, where some are reluctant to embrace an outsider and others wonder how much impact a coach can have.

"He has brought something new to the Chinese players, including concepts," said Wang Qi, a sports reporter in Beijing for government-run China Radio International. "But because of the existing problems of the Chinese players -- for example, inexperience, the lack of strong physical strength and weakness in basic skills -- it is not easy for Harris' new concept to be digested by the players."

Basketball is booming in China, spurred by Yao's Jordan-esque popularity. He's the third player from the nation of 1.2 billion to play in the NBA, all centers who arrived since 2001.

It's no coincidence that all are big men. The irony of China's burgeoning basketball machine is that so much emphasis has been placed on developing 7-footers that there's a shortage of capable guards.

With few great ballhandlers, Harris instead is relying on experienced ones. The three oldest players on his 12-man roster are guards.

The roster also shows China's eye on 2008 as seven players are 24 or younger. Among them are Yao and 7-foot slasher Yi Jianlian, a 16-year-old whom scouts expects to be a high pick when he becomes eligible for the draft in two years.

"I can't believe how he's grown on the court," Yao said. "One day, he can do something big."

Wang Zhizhi, who three years ago became the first Chinese player in the NBA, is not on the team because of a falling out with China officials. However, he's still part of the story of how Harris wound up as coach.

Wang broke in with the Dallas Mavericks, thanks mostly to team executive Donnie Nelson's persuasion of Chinese authorities. When the same officials thought about hiring a foreign coach for Athens, they asked for Nelson's advice. He recommended Harris, who has been a Mavs assistant since 2000.

"They were looking for a certain profile and Del was a perfect fit," Nelson said. "It took absolutely zero selling."

Harris, 67, has been drawing up Xs and Os for 45 years, more than 13 as an NBA head coach. He's known for leading Moses Malone and the Houston Rockets to the finals, guiding the Milwaukee Bucks to five straight winning seasons and coaching the Los Angeles Lakers when Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal arrived.

His international experience includes seven years of coaching in Puerto Rico and serving as an assistant to the Canadian and U.S. teams at the 1994 and '98 world championships. He'd never worked an Olympics or with players who primarily spoke a different language.

Although Harris jokes that "pick-and-roll is pick-and-roll in any language," he was serious about trying to learn his players' native tongue.

He sent a list of about 300 basketball terms to Xia Song, who was Wang's translator in Dallas and now does the same for Harris. Harris uses as many phrases as he can, but it's tough when the ball is in play.

"The communication needs to be rapid-fire in basketball," Harris said. "It's not like baseball or football, where they stop all the time."

Harris was hired in February but didn't start until May, after the Mavericks were out of the playoffs. Associate head coach Jonas Kazlauskas, who guided Lithuania to bronze medals at the last two Olympics, ran training camp until Harris arrived, along with two assistants from the Chinese Basketball Association.

In June, the team played three games against the Mavericks' summer league team. China won the opener but lost the next two when Yao sat out with a toe problem. China was hardly competitive in those games, against a team featuring only two legitimate NBA players, rookie point guard Devin Harris and swingman Josh Howard.

The team has 15 more games before facing international foes in Athens.

"Everybody is getting better," Yao said. "We're learning a lot of new things. I believe we will improve."


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press