The NBA season has just kicked off, but for Chinese fans the big game is almost here. On Friday night (or Saturday morning if you’re watching in China) the country’s biggest basketball export, Houston Rockets center Yao Ming, will meet its newest star hope, Milwaukee Bucks forward Yi Jianlian. The game is expected to draw 200 million viewers in China. In Beijing fans are eager. Last night I met a young migrant worker from Liaoning province in northeast China. He plans to wake up, watch the first half, then sprint to his job at a high-end spa to catch the second half. “It’s a great schedule for basketball,” he says. “There won’t be any customers; everyone will be watching the game.”
As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel notes, this isn’t the first time two Chinese players have matched up in an NBA game. That was five years ago when Chinese hoops pioneers Wang Zhizhi and Mengke Bateer faced off. But those guys were small fry compared to Yao, a five-time All Star, and Yi, the sixth pick in the 2007 draft. Yi has found it a little tough going in the NBA and has frequently been in foul trouble. But he had something of a breakout game against the Bulls last week, scoring 16. He’s now the Bucks fourth leading scorer. Yao, of course, experienced similar difficulties adjusting to the NBA. He says he always follows Yi’s progress, and told the AFP, “When Yi plays well, I’m very happy.” That might not go for Friday, though.