TAIYUAN, China (AFP) — When Handel's Hallelujah chorus blares out of the gymnasium loudspeakers here it means only one thing - Bonzi Wells has slammed home another dunk.
Wells, 32, has received a warm welcome since coming here last month to play basketball, with the state media dubbing the former NBA star the best player ever to grace the Chinese Basketball Association.
Last week, in a badly needed win against the Beijing Ducks, Wells scored 19 of his 44 points in the fourth quarter as Shanxi turned a close game into an impressive 98-83 win.
In the final period, the 1.96-metre (six-foot-five-inch) guard/forward repeatedly played off the screens of his Nigerian teammate Olumide Oyedeji to beat his defender and race down the lane for slam dunks.
That's when the public address system blared a five-second snippet of Handel's Hallelujah chorus as the frenzied crowd -- few of whom were likely to know the classic's homage to the resurrection of Christ -- stood and cheered.
Wells' move to China has to be the best career-move for him. Over the course of his short career in the NBA, Wells had become one of the most dislikable players in the league.
Here is a snippet from GQ magazine and their "Ten Most Hated Athletes" article:
Not yet 30 years old, Bonzi Wells, shooting guard for the Sacramento Kings, has played for three NBA teams. “If you’ve got that much ability and you’re traded three times that early in your career,” says ex-NBA player and current ESPN commentator Tom Tolbert, “there’s obviously something wrong with you.”It sounds like Wells has had an attitude adjustment since coming to China. He's now "willing to sacrifice himself for the team" and "do anything it takes to win." Only time will tell if coming to China really can straighten out Wells, but at least he's making the effort to clean up his image and his game. If it takes coming to China to get that change, more power to Wells for making the leap across the Pacific.
Words like fumigate come up when people try to explain why GMs trade him. “It doesn’t bother him if his unhappiness infects the entire team,” says Memphis sportswriter Geoff Calkins, who recalls that when Grizzlies coach Hubie Brown was contemplating retirement (citing health reasons), “part of the calculus for Hubie was ‘It’s not worth it,’ and a big part of that was Bonzi. He helped bring Hubie down.”
When Brown’s successor, Mike Fratello, pulled Wells from a game at the end of last season, Bonzi threw a tantrum involving, characteristically, both profanity and projectiles. “This was in the final weeks of the season,” says Ron Higgins, another Memphis sportswriter, “when the Grizzlies were desperately trying to make the playoffs. Other players looked at him like, What the hell are you doing?”
Recalls sportswriter Jason Quick, who covered Bonzi in Portland: “He would flip off a fan and the next day say, ‘I blacked out.’ He’s such a con man. When the TV lights went on, he’d put on that million-dollar smile, then be an ass when they left.” He spat, infamously, on Danny Ferry. He bitched constantly at his coaches. He was fined for bad-mouthing his own fans in Sports Illustrated. He made a veiled threat after a reporter wrote a negative story about him. “He told me, ‘Don’t be surprised one day if you show up to practice with a steak over your eye,’ ” Quick remembers. “And I said, ‘If you want to do that, I’ll be a rich man.’ He said, ‘I’m not dumb enough to do it myself. I’ll have my posse do it.’ ”
As the article states, Wells already had some fame in China before coming to play in Shanxi. This fame was largely due to having played on the Houston Rockets.
Playing on the Houston Rockets takes you a long way here in China. One might wonder why playing in south Texas has anything to do with China.
Here's the connection between the Houston Rockets and China:
Chinese people love Yao Ming. Yet they love his teammates in Houston even more.
I often ask Chinese people who their favorite player in the NBA is. Very rarely do people say "Yao Ming." Instead, about half tell me "McGrady." They are, of course, referring to Houston Rockets' guard Tracy McGrady.
McGrady's popularity is objectively evidenced by the results of the most popular selling NBA jerseys in China. McGrady, not Yao, was number one (although this year Kobe is the top seller).
I find China's obsession with McGrady amusing. Most NBA fans see McGrady as an oft-injured player who has never lived up to his potential. Yet the Chinese see him as a top superstar in the league.
More evidence of the benefits of playing on Yao Ming's team can be seen in former Duke University stand-out Shane Battier.
Battier is a decent NBA player who was able to make the 2006 US FIBA squad that played in Japan. But he's no superstar. I'm pretty sure that no American is ever going to see Battier selling sneakers on their TV screens. But in China, he's a hero:
Wells, McGrady, and Battier all prove one undeniable truth: Being Yao Ming's teammate makes you leaps-and-bounds more popular in China than you are in America.