For U.S., it’s truly one for the road

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Times Staff Writer

BEIJING -- Now this is a road game.

Never will a U.S. men’s basketball team be farther from home, facing a team with a bigger home-court advantage, than in today’s opener against China.

Despite the fact the U.S. players are icons here, China’s yearning for its own place among the world’s powers attaches to its own basketball team, led by Yao Ming, its star of stars, the flag-bearer in Friday’s opening ceremony.

With basketball the No. 1 sport here, members of China’s men’s team have carried the flag at the last seven Olympics. The U.S. is just fortunate the game is in Wukesong Arena, which holds 18,000, instead of the 90,000 they could have gotten if they had put it in the Bird’s Nest . . . or the 400,000 they might have gotten in an empty field like Woodstock.


This game is expected to -- unofficially -- blow away the TV record for the most-watched basketball game ever, the 1979 Magic Johnson-Larry Bird, Michigan State-Indiana State NCAA Finals.

That game got a 24.1 rating with 37.5 million viewers.

This game, which starts at 7 a.m. PDT, would be lucky to get a 2.0 rating in the U.S. but may draw an audience in the hundreds of millions in China.

With President Bush planning to attend and China’s president, Hu Jintao, visiting his team while it trained, anticipation is running high.

Chinese fans are excited. U.S. players are excited. The Chinese players are presumably excited, but no one can be sure since Yao and the team are off-limits to the media.

An exception is being made to allow Yao, who’s not only gracious but droll in his other day job with the Houston Rockets, to talk to one media outlet, the official-line-hewing China Daily.

In yet another nod to cultural exchange, the China Daily sometimes does a Western-style self-promotion number, congratulating itself on its scoop by noting that Yao made his comments exclusively “to the China Daily.”


Unfortunately, the paper seems to be dealing more in Yao’s retractions than the good stuff he was giving other outlets before he was shut down.

After joking about retiring if China beats the U.S., Yao told the China Daily: “That I said I would retire if we beat the U.S. team was a joke. I just wanted to clarify how difficult it is to win them.”

The Chinese, once sacrificial lambs -- the U.S. beat them by 48, 51, 63 and 47 in four meetings -- now have a legitimate Olympic team, although they’re not expected to medal.

Aside from Yao, they feature 7-foot Yi Jianlian, the No. 6 pick in the 2007 NBA draft; 7-foot Wang Zhizhi, China’s first NBA player and a former Clipper; and 22-year-old Sun Yue, an athletic 6-foot-9 small forward the Lakers drafted in the second round in 2007.

However, international basketball dilutes the advantage of China’s huge size and, aside from that, it’s in trouble. Noting the U.S. team’s pressure defense, Lithuania Coach Ramunas Butautas said he gave China “no chance.”

U.S. Coach Mike Krzyzewski, coming from a different place -- the U.S. program he took over having lost six games in the 2002 World Championships and the 2004 Olympics -- regards this as a welcome challenge.


“We felt it was the best thing that could happen for us,” said Krzyzewski, “not necessarily can we win or how we’re going to play but to feel the Olympic experience and to feel what an opposing crowd might be and the intensity might be. . . .

“To have that experience right out of the chute, I think, is good for us.”

It’s a wake-up call, all around, for Chinese who dream and Americans who want to make sure, as Kobe Bryant put it, “I can come home.”