It is a January morning in old Shanghai, and the sky is the color
and density of oatmeal, feebly lit by an orange disc as vague as
a watermark. In urban China in the 21st century, this is known as
a sunny day. At an outdoor marketplace, a teeming tenement of
narrow stalls and alleys, clamoring vendors peddle knockoff Rolex
watches and Nike sneakers, pirated videos, severed ducks' heads
and trussed pink pigs. Into this tumult strides a seven-foot
alien from the imperial courts of the U.S. But he is no tourist.
Daniel Raymond McClintock is a 25-year-old pro basketball
player out of Golden West High in Visalia, Calif., and the
University of Northern Arizona, a former Denver Nugget who lasted
only six games in the NBA. He has been hired this season by the
Shanghai Sharks of the Chinese Basketball Association to do nothing
less than replace the irreplaceable Yao Ming at center. That makes McClintock the man in the middle of the biggest sports story in the
most populated anthill on earth.
While "Young Giant Yao," as the Chinese lovingly call their
paramount sports hero, contributes a stunning rookie season to
the Houston Rockets, McClintock is expected to reciprocate. Last
season, with Yao at center, the Sharks won 23 of 24 league games,
earning their first CBA championship. Anything less than
commensurate dominance will be considered a failure and a loss of
face for McClintock. At the market everybody seems to know his
name, perhaps because every Sharks home game is aired on
television. So are most of Yao's games in Houston, beamed live at
9 a.m. Shanghai time from the Lone Star to the Red Star state.
"Dan-ni-er! Dan-ni-er!" the dealers shout, rushing toward
McClintock and his six-foot, green-eyed blonde wife, Alisha,
holding up satchels of compact discs and videos and fake Cartier
timepieces as high as their arms can stretch and barely reaching
the big man's kidneys. "CD! DVD!" they cry as one.
A half hour later Dan and Alisha and their new DVDs are
compressed into a Volkswagen Santana taxi, bound for the condo
that the Sharks have leased for them in a complex of rococo pink
high-rises that look like the Leaning Tower of Pisa dipped in
Grenadine syrup. "You!" Dan commands, using Mandarin for turn
right. Then, after passing through the gates, he says, "Ting!"
which means halt. The driver lets them out in front of a fountain
topped by a plaster nymph with breasts the size of cantaloupes.
McClintock is a sweet-tempered evangelist of the Christian faith,
and like every Westerner who has journeyed to Cathay since Marco
Polo, he finds himself bedazzled by China's masses and her
mystery. He is asked if he is a bit overwhelmed by his new life
in Shanghai. "I came here to play the game," says the Man Who
Would Be Ming. "No matter where you are, basketball comes down to
one thing. Put the ball in the hole."
At 9:30 the next morning McClintock and a fellow Shark, 6'10"
Kevin Byrne out of the University of Idaho, are watching tape of
that night's opponent, the Guangdong Southern Tigers. The two
players are in Room 301 of a dormitory at the Hui Feng Training
Center of the Shanghai Technical Sports Institute, where all the
Sharks save three--the two pampered imports and one Chinese
player with U.S. college and pro experience--are made to dwell,
dine and train.
The institute is a remnant of the Soviet sports system as adapted
by the People's Republic of China. A year ago Yao Ming was living
in Room 305. At this very moment, in the little restaurants and
motorbike repair shops just outside the gates of the institute,
his proud and excited countrymen squat in front of televisions
and watch him battle the overmatched Minnesota Timberwolves half
a world away. Yao's NBA debut on Oct. 30 was reported to have
been seen in 287 million households in China.
After a half hour of video McClintock and Byrne join the rest of
the Sharks in an unheated gymnasium across campus for the pregame
shootaround, which is endured by the shivering players in parkas
and toques. Outside it is 45°; inside it feels about half as
warm. During the halfhearted workout the coaches' infrequent
instructions are translated for McClintock and Byrne by an
exceptional teammate: Ma Jian, the 6'7" power forward who, a
decade ago, became the first mainland Chinese to play basketball
at a major U.S. college, Utah. Like McClintock, Ma--whose given
name, Jian, means Healthy--had a brief taste of the NBA: a
handful of preseason games for the Los Angeles Clippers in 1995.
He was the last cut, and he cried like an orphaned child.
Healthy Ma has a one-year contract with the Shanghai Sharks, a
shaved skull, a black Fubu 'do rag, a red Phat Farm sweatshirt, a
U.S. green card and an American wife and two little sons in
Henderson, Nev. At 33, balanced on a weak right knee, he yearns
for one last NBA dance.
"Do you think you'll still be playing when the Olympic finals are
in Beijing in 2008," he is asked, "and Yao Ming scores 66 points
against the U.S. Dream Team?"
"He could score 66, and China would still lose," Healthy Ma snaps
back. "It's a team game."
Like many Americans before him, McClintock arrived in China with
fears of deprivation and isolation. He brought a four-pound tub
of peanut butter from the Safeway in Flagstaff, Ariz. "We figured
that would hold him," his wife says, "until I could get there
with the Hamburger Helper." Alisha shows off the well-stocked
larder in the condo: Welch's Strawberry Spread, Bush's Original
Baked Beans, Franco-American Gravy and Post Cranberry Almond
Crunch cereal, all of it personally delivered by Alisha--who is
completing her nursing studies at Northern Arizona--when she
arrived on Christmas break.
"I expected pure Third World," her husband says with a shrug, but
Alisha needn't have troubled. In Shanghai there are a dozen
Western-style supermarkets--and a Starbucks on nearly every
corner, plus Tony Roma's and T.G.I. Friday's and Hard Rock Cafe.
On this day, however, Dan walks to a sidewalk noodle stand on
Diligent Study Road. This is his training meal: a 40-cent bowl of
steaming pasta in broth, topped with slivers of beef. Chinese
street food is more likely to repeat than the Los Angeles Lakers,
but it suits the big man, as does the comfort of ritual, six
hours before the game.
"I knew the basketball in China was good and that good Americans
had played here," he says as he slurps his meal. "I was more
worried about the culture--I had no idea what to expect. What I
feared most was religious: How would they react to my Bible? I
just brought it, and if they took it away, they took it." They
didn't take it. The religious revival in China, whether in
government-sanctioned churches and temples or in clandestine
"house Christian" gatherings, is one of the most extraordinary
features of the post-Mao era.
What about the pressures of being the heir to the departed Young
Giant? "As far as I'm concerned, they were just looking for a
good player to come in and help," Dan-ni-er replies. "Not as a
replacement--those are shoes I can't fill. Yao's larger than
Unlike Yao, the No. 1 pick in last June's NBA draft, McClintock
wasn't a first-rounder. The Nuggets chose him in the second round
in 2000, 53rd overall. They dumped him on Oct. 30 of that year,
and he played for the Kansas City Knights before Denver signed
him again the following April. "My first start--against the
Lakers at the Staples Center, when I was guarding Shaq--it kind
of hit me that I had made it to the top of the pyramid," says
McClintock, who in 22 minutes had NBA career highs of eight
points and eight rebounds. "I thought I did O.K., but that night
Shaq made 13 out of 13 free throws." It was McClintock's last NBA
After a lackluster season in Italy, he played in a summer league
in Arizona before getting a call from his agent with the offer to
play for Shanghai. He has average big-man skills and is not very
aggressive under the boards. "I'm going to try my hardest to get
back to the NBA, but this is still a great living," says
McClintock, who would not say how much the Sharks were paying him
but confirmed that it was six figures. "As long as I can play and
I'm getting better, I'll go anywhere."
Across town, while Dan-ni-er sleeps the pregame afternoon away,
the indoor and outdoor courts of the Lu Wan District Children's
Athletic School echo with the clamor of wannabe Yao Mings.
Teenage boys leap and shout and launch fadeaway threes, and a
dozen girls who can't be older then seven dribble two balls at a
time--perhaps the Olympians of 2020 and beyond. our dream is to
become a shanghai shark, reads a banner strung on the fence, but
it is out of date; the success of the Young Giant has trumped
domestic glory. Now, says a coach named Wu, "the NBA is the
Wu surveys the basketball court and confesses, "I don't see
another Yao Ming here. We X-ray their hands when they're quite
little, and from the length of the bones we can predict how tall
they will grow to be. They all have the dream, but the fact is,
we don't have anyone here who is going to grow above two meters."
That's not even 6'7", nearly a foot shorter than the orbiting
"This lad's mother is very worried," Wu says, pointing to a boy
named Xu. "Both his parents played for city teams, and the
mother, especially, wants him to be another Yao. But the X-ray
shows that he will be only 2.05 meters at the most, so there is
no hope for him."
At 7:25 P.M. the Shanghai Sharks dancers have finished flailing
to La Bamba and have sprinted back to their fur-trimmed
overcoats. (This arena isn't heated either.) A giant replica of
Yao Ming's No. 15 jersey has been hoisted to the rafters; the
starting lineups have been introduced to a working-class crowd of
fewer than 2,000 at the Lu Wan Sports Arena. In an egregious
performance the home team proceeds to lose to the Guangdong
Southern Tigers 130--101. It is the defending champions' third
defeat in a row, dropping them to an embarrassing 4--5, and
Dan-ni-er is partly to blame. By the middle of the first quarter
he had three fouls and had missed all three of his shots,
including an unopposed dunk on which he failed to jump high
enough and bounced the ball off the front of the rim.
At this Alisha hid her eyes in her mittens, and the Sharks
reserves sank deep into their parkas on the bench. Someone in the
green plastic chairs of the grandstand bellowed, "Get some black
The Southern Tigers, who are in first place, have two
African-American imports--Nick Sheppard, from Pepperdine via the
Harlem Globetrotters, and Jason Dixon, out of Liberty University
by way of Turkey, Israel, Argentina, Sweden and Cyprus. But as
Healthy Ma says, it's a team game. The visitors' homegrown guards
are as quick as cats, darting untouched among the grasping
In China the pro game has advanced to the point where a player
with a few games of NBA experience might prosper--but won't
dominate. CBA rules restrict each team's foreign players to a
total of five quarters of playing time per game. Usually, one
foreigner plays the entire game and the other joins him for the
final 12 minutes, but the Tigers are so far ahead by the end of
three periods that they sit both of their Americans.
Byrne, on the other hand, gets much more than his usual playing
time, peeling off his insulating outerwear when McClintock
commits his fourth foul early in the second quarter with the
Sharks behind by 21. Byrne has modest skills that are not enough
to rescue the drowning hammerheads. Later, over a late supper at
Pizza Hut, he says, "I'll probably be gone tomorrow."
The day after the Guangdong debacle it becomes evident that for
McClintock and Byrne, the Year of the Goat has begun about three
weeks early. "The players that we invited from the U.S.A. are not
doing well," says Sharks coach Liu Qiuping after practice.
"Usually we bring in one tall American and one short one. When
Yao Ming went to the NBA, we got two tall guys to take his place,
but it didn't work out as we had wished. They do not play as if
they are in a war. They should be full of spirit and energy.
Instead, they are not very smooth."
Even an 18-year-old forward named Wang Li Gang feels obliged to
throw his two fen in. "Not everybody can be like Michael Jordan,"
he says, "but I thought they'd be better than this."
The prestigious newspaper Wen Hui Bao is not quite as harsh in an
article headlined WORK HARDER, HOMEBOYS:
In the past, the Shanghai team gained the upper hand in the
center position because of Yao Ming. And his extraordinary
capability in defense also made up for the errors his teammates
made. The team's weaknesses have all surfaced since Yao Ming left
It is learned that the Oriental Club is planning to recruit a new
center from outside in order to substitute for Dan-ni-er, as a
result of his poor performance. However, it is neither fair nor
accurate to put all the blame on Dan-ni-er alone. It is also not
helpful for the team's future success.
"It's not their fault," says Ma, who, with his ailing knee,
played only a few minutes of the rout but drew the loudest
ovation from the faithful. ("Ma Jian jia yu!" they cried when he
took the court. Add fuel, Healthy Ma!) "It's tough for them," he
continues. "They come on short-term contracts. They are people
who love this game, and they make our league look better. But
their language is different, their culture is different, their
playing system is different--you can't expect a Chinese coach and
American players to work together so quickly.
"Our young Chinese players talk about Yao all the time--'Oh, I
wish he was here'--and I tell them that it's a waste of time
talking about him. Look up at the ceiling, boys: There's his
jersey. He's retired, and he's not coming back. Let's take care
of our jobs. Forget him. Work hard today."
This is not to say that the young Sharks wish they were Yao.
"They all want to be Kobe," Ma says. "None of the big guys' shoes
sells well here." Ma contends that he is not jealous of Yao. But
doesn't Ma wish he were the one in the NBA--even for one game?
"Just one game would resolve everything in my life," he says,
sighing. "I would know that I could play with the best. It would
make my dream come true." And he begins to silently sob.
The Sharks have two days to prepare for the Hong Kong Flying
Dragons. For the American players the writing seems to be on the
wall: According to the Shanghai Daily, a Nigerian center named
Uche Ejelu Okafor--declared ineligible by the NCAA a year ago
when he tried to play at Missouri--has been shanghaied for a
secret tryout with the Sharks.
The evening of the game, the Sharks break out of their desolation
with such intensity that they seem to have trained on maotai
liquor instead of boiled noodles. There is no sign of Okafor. If
his name was floated merely to warn the Americans--"killing the
chicken to scare the monkey," in the words of a Chinese
proverb--the ploy has worked, at least for one night.
Shanghai scores the first 10 points and leads Hong Kong 44--29
after one quarter. By this time gentle Dan McClintock has slammed
home three dunks and has dared to yelp in protest to a referee.
His wife is glowing with pride. When Dan-ni-er sits down in the
second quarter with 25 points (and Byrne--who will be cut in a
couple of weeks and replaced by an American guard--comes in to
score 20 points), he almost seems to smile. But this would be
The Sharks win 122--108, and for an instant Yao Ming is just a
little NBA experience MIGHT PROSPER--BUT NOT DOMINATE.
says of his U.S. teammates, "but I thought they'd be BETTER