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China drives hard bargain for Ming's exit pass

No-one puts on a rehearsed May Day showpiece with more finesse than the Chinese, a script detailed right down to the final Red Army bootstrap. So there was something ironic that Yao Ming should have chosen this date of all days to ignite a process which could see him march clear of his
native country en route to becoming the world's most recognisable sportsman.

Never heard of him? You soon will. 

At seven feet and five inches tall, Yao is hard to miss. But it is his potential as the Next Big Thing  which drew a standing room only crowd of coaches, scouts and media to Loyola University's small gym in Chicago last Wednesday, all eager to satiate their curiosity of whether this much-hyped -but little seen - 21 year old from Shanghai can truly become China's greatest sporting export since ... well, Fan Zhiyi last wowed Selhurst and Dens Park's with his footballing majesty.

Over exactly 74 minutes, Yao was put through his paces during a very public showcasing. Nothing too stressful but sporting a pristine pair of Nikes already bearing his personal logo, this was no mere audition. It was the opening gambit of what is likely to become an unquenchable frenzy. 

First picked up on the radar when he shone for China against the United States at the Sydney Olympics, the NBA has been drooling ever since at the prospect of luring him across the Pacific to basketball's most glamorous stage. 

For the increasing number of Europeans in the NBA, such emigration comes easy. Pay your club off. Send back the odd signed shirt. And enjoy the instant upgrade in salary.

For Yao, who is expected to be chosen with the first or second pick in this summer's NBA Draft, the path to secure an exit visa has been longer than the Great Wall, diplomacy, negotiation and downright blackmail all utilised to barter for his belated release. 

"Yao Ming doesn't belong to any team," explained his translator. "He belongs to the world." 

Reality begs to differ. He is Chinese property and like any good estate agent, the authorities there want the best deal possible before handing over their prized asset. 

His current club, the Shanghai Sharks, would like a player in return from whichever NBA team ends up with the right to offer Yao an initial £7 million contract. The Chinese Basketball Association would like 30 per cent of his total earnings, including those from endorsements. And the Chinese government apparently would like a further 20 per cent slice of what could be the creamiest of cakes.

There is some disquiet over such constraints. 

"We'd certainly be uncomfortable with a situation where one of our members did not have control over his own career," stated a spokesman for the NBA Players Association. 

Likewise there remains some concern among club owners that China could exert influence to secure Yao's release for international duty, a privilege not accorded to any of the league's other non-American imports.

NBA international spokesman Terry Lyons relates any claims on Yao's earnings "would be between him and the Chinese officials." 

Privately, the league is drooling over the prospect of recruiting a probable superstar from the world's most populous nation. A billion potential fans / viewers / merchandise buyers. 

Yao opens the doors to a laden bank vault.

"It's exciting," NBA commissioner David Stern said. "As a league, to see world-class players coming into our league from Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, Western Europe and Asia is an exciting thing for our league. And to think that there will be a generation that will grow up watching their countrymen play in the NBA."

At the last Olympics, Yao was a lithe, occasionally tentative basketballer, prone to fouling out early from his country's games. Two years on, the new Yao is bulkier, quicker and unquestionably capable of making the grade. 

"For a guy this size, he can shoot the ball. He has a wonderful feel for the game," said Jerry West, the NBA legend who last week joined the Memphis Grizzlies as their president of basketball
operations. "This is not a kid without talent. He has talent." 

Yao may not be an A-List genius in the mould of a Shaq or Iverson. It will not matter. He'll instantly have more fans than anyone else in the NBA. Period.

Full steam ahead then. Well, almost. 

The Chinese authorities have just one final request. Could our boy please play for a team in a city with an large Asian community where he'll feel at home? It's a great theory, if you're part of a centrally-controlled regime. In the land of the free market, Yao will be sent to wherever he is chosen, beholden to the NBA's lottery which favours the weak over the strong. 

Following the practice, there were no questions allowed. Just a statement despatched to the media from all four corners of the globe.

"It's been a dream of mine to play in the NBA ever since the first time I saw a game on TV many years ago," Yao enthused. "To almost touch that dream today fills me with a sense of joy that words simply cannot describe."

Plus an unashamed bribe to the press. 

"I promise to take each of you individually out to dinner." With one caveat. "The cheque is on you if
the reporting makes me look bad," he added. 

Can dunk, shoot, has a nice line in comedy. Duly noted. 

And with a billion good reasons to have him on board, one lucky team will celebrate its immense fortune when Yao eventually makes his reservations to dine on his allotted slice of American pie. 

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