BEIJING -- After two years of negotiations, Wang Zhizhi, China's 7-foot-1 star center, is headed for the United States to play for the Dallas Mavericks and become the first Asian player to join the NBA.
The Mavericks and Chinese government officials signed a letter of understanding yesterday that will allow Wang, 23, who competed in the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, to play the rest of the regular season and playoffs.
He was scheduled to leave for the United States late yesterday. Wang and China's other towering centers -- 7-6 Yao Ming and 6-11 Menk Batere -- are known as the "Walking Great Wall."
After a news conference in which Chinese reporters here mobbed him as if he were a movie star, Wang said he hoped he wouldn't let down his countrymen.
"I'm the first to go to the United States. People have put a lot of hope in me," said Wang, surrounded by an eager crowd of reporters who came up to his ribs. "So, I will not disappoint them, and I will try to do my best."
The signing marked a big step for Wang and perhaps a major boost for basketball in China, where the game is wildly popular. For years, Chinese have watched NBA games on TV, cheering the likes of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Soon, they may be able to take pride in one of their own.
"Basketball in China is ready to explode. All it needs is a spark," said Mavericks assistant coach Donnie Nelson. "I hope today is that spark."
Along with Hollywood movies, the NBA has become a cultural reference point for Americans and Chinese here. Step into a taxi and the driver may strike up a conversation about Karl Malone, the Utah Jazz forward the Chinese call "Ma Long," or "Horse-Dragon." Mention that you come from Philadelphia, and someone might blurt out "Iverson!"
Basketball is popular throughout China. Even some small villages have wooden backboards and concrete or packed-dirt courts. Just east of Tiananmen Square lie four, outdoor full-courts equipped with Plexiglas backboards adorned with the Nike "swoosh" logo. Players jam the place on warm weekends. A few wear NBA jerseys.
China's enthusiasm for the game was evident at yesterday's ceremony, where photographers followed Wang about the room in a scrum whenever he left his seat. After the signing, Wang pulled a No. 16 Mavericks jersey over his argyle sweater and shook hands with Nelson.
Although the event was ostensibly about basketball, there was a political subtext as well. After donning his Mavericks jersey, Wang held up another one that read, "Beijing 2008 Olympics."
Competing against Beijing to hold the 2008 Summer Games are Toronto; Paris; Istanbul, Turkey; and Osaka, Japan. The International Olympic Committee will choose a city in July.
Many human rights advocates oppose giving Beijing the Olympics because of the authoritarian regime's poor human rights record. On Wednesday, the U.S. House International Relations Committee said China should not get the Games unless its human rights record dramatically improves.
Wang plays for the Bayi Rockets, the Chinese People's Liberation Army team, which had resisted letting him go to America. The government hopes that its willingness to part with Wang will make the regime seem more open.
Amid all the excitement yesterday, Nelson sought to dampen expectations about Wang's performance in the NBA. Wang averaged about 23 points, 11 rebounds, and two blocked shots this season. He was China's top scorer, with 13 points, in a 119-72 Olympic loss to the U.S. national team in Sydney, Australia, last year after getting into early foul trouble.
Nelson said Wang could see playing time during the playoffs, depending on how quickly he learns and develops.
The Mavericks chose Wang in the second round of the 1999 draft. His actual contract will be negotiated after he arrives in Dallas. He is expected to receive the rookie minimum salary of $316,969.
After this season ends, Wang will return home and play for China's national team. He is confident, though, that he will be allowed to return to Dallas next season.
The first step is the hardest, Wang said. "The second step should be much easier."