The turn of the century brought about a series of firsts for the Dallas Mavericks. In the 2000-01 season, the Mavs saw their first 50+ win season since the late 80s, which kicked off a streak of eleven consecutive seasons with 50 or more wins. It was Dallas' first playoff appearance in over a decade. It was also the first season Dirk Nowitzki led the team in scoring (21.8 points per game to Michael Finley's 21.5 points per game), a title he has not relinquished since.
There was another first, too, one that didn't stop with the Mavericks, but extended to the rest of the National Basketball Association as well.
The first Chinese-born player in the NBA.
Enter: Wang ZhiZhi.
Born in Beijing, China in 1977, Wang grew up playing basketball, and he quickly grew above the rest of his teammates, sprouting up to 7-feet tall. At the age of 17 in 1997, Wang signed his first professional contract, with the Bayiof the Chinese Basketball Association. After five very successful seasons with the Rockets, which saw the team win six consecutive CBA championships, Wang was taken in the second round of the 1999 NBA draft, with the 36th overall pick, by the Dallas Mavericks. During his time with the Rockets, ZhiZhi had asserted himself as a dominant force in the CBA. Standing at 7'0", Wang never averaged less than 14.9 points, peaking at 27 points per game in the 1999-00 season. He paired that with 10 boards per game, 55.7% shooting from the floor, and an 87% free throw percentage.
However, he was still a major unknown to the NBA, and negotiations between Wang and his home-country team, as well as Chinese basketball officials, went south, keeping him from suiting up until the very end of the 2000-01 season.
When he finally did join the Mavs there were only ten games left in the regular season, and Wang saw limited action. The big lefty saw the court in just five games, averaging 4.8 points per game in 7.6 minutes per game.
2001-02 promised big things for the big man, before another promise got in the way. As a part of his deal to come to the United States, Wang had to go back to China in November of 2001 to play for Bayi in the National Games. Wang, in true baller fashion, didn't miss a beat, leading the Rockets to the championship over Yao Ming's Shanghai Sharks. The downside was that he missed months of working out in the Mavs system, learning about his teammates tendencies and the American style of play, and in the long run, it was detrimental to his season.
Wang appeared in 55 games in his second season with the Mavs, averaging 5.6 points and two rebounds in just under 11 minutes per game. He showed flashes of potential, scoring double digit points in ten appearances, including a career high 18 points against Memphis, when he went 4-for-4 from deep and 7-for-9 overall. Over the course of the season he shot 44% from the floor, including 41% from three-point range, but was blocked from getting more minutes by Dirk, as well as Shawn Bradley and Raef LaFrentz. Danny Manning and Evan Eschmeyer also took minutes away from Wang, who could never quite get comfortable playing the American game. (SIDENOTE: After reading the names in that last sentence, minus Dirk, would you believe the Mavs won 57 games that year? Thank you, Michael Finley and Steve Nash).
As a special treat, here are some ZhiZhi highlights from a 2001 game against the Washington Wizards, through the eyes of German announcers, naturally.
After the 2001-02 season Wang fired his agent, stayed in the United States against the wishes of Chinese officials and the Mavericks, and moved to Los Angeles. His contract had expired, and all signs pointed towards Wang's intentions of defecting from China. In the end, Wang didn't defect, but he was kicked off the Chinese national team for failing to return to the country.
Wang spent three more seasons in the NBA, one and a half each with the Clippers and the Heat, but he never managed to see more than seven minutes per game, and his scoring never again broke the five points per game mark.
However, his impact on the NBA stretched much further than his on-court performances. His negotiations with the NBA and Chinese basketball officials, as well as the Chinese Basketball Association, paved the way for future Chinese players to make their way to the United States, most notably Yao Ming in 2002, and Yi Jianlian (also briefly a Maverick!) in 2007.
After finishing his NBA career in 2005, Wang returned to China, and to the Bayi Rockets, where he once again dominated the CBA. In eight seasons with the Rockets, he averaged under 20.8 points per game only twice on his way to winning another championship in 2007. That's right, he has more rings than Jordan or Kobe. He also led China to two FIBA Asia championships and three Asian Games gold medals.
If you're doing the math, you'll realize that those eight seasons in the CBA ended just this season, as Wang quietly retired from basketball just a few months ago, back in February.
I can't quite explain why I was so enamored with this rotation player for the Mavericks, but I'll give it a shot. As a just-turned 15-year-old, I was finally reaping the benefits of being a "life-long" Mavericks fans. Dirk, Finley and Nash were establishing themselves as a force in the NBA, the Mavs were starting to win more and more games, and it was actually becoming fun to be a Mavs fan. Therefore, I was on high alert whenever Mavs news occurred, and the idea that Dallas was about to reap the benefits of yet another international 7-footer with range was very intriguing.
Despite being here for just a brief moment, ZhiZhi is worth remembering. His appearance in a Mavericks jersey is another testament of the organization's willingness to go overseas to find talent, and he's had a lasting impact on the international basketball landscape.
The fact that he was a Dallas Maverick should make us very, very proud.