Saturday, November 10, 2007

Yao v. Yi

The photographers pressed against each other, two rows deep, nearly 20 in all. The Chinese dignitaries also had taken their places about 30 feet away, flanking the man of the evening, the Houston Rockets' towering center, Yao Ming.

Together, they waited. This was supposed to be the standard NBA photo op: grip, grin, get out. But as a few minutes passed and the group continued to stand at midcourt, it became evident something was missing.

Yao's co-star.

Yi Jianlian, the Milwaukee Bucks' rookie forward and China's second-best basketball player, still was in the locker room. As a Bucks official hurried to fetch Yi, Yao continued to wait patiently.

"A rookie," Yao would later say, a smile beginning to stretch across his face, "should not do that."

The game was broadcast live on 19 networks and two web sites in China with a total audience expected to surpass 200 million viewers. In comparison, the Super Bowl is estimated to draw about 150 million watchers worldwide. The average audience during Sunday's much-hyped NFL battle between the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts drew an audience of about 33.8 million.

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