China's hopes of challenging for a gold medal in the men's basketball at the Beijing Olympics have received a timely boost with the successful return of superstar centre Yao Ming.
|China's Yao Ming, right, gets some much needed match practice in [AFP]
The Houston Rockets centre marked his return from injury with 11 points in just over 12 minutes of play for the Chinese national team in an Olympics warmup against a young Serbian squad.
Entering six minutes into the first quarter to huge applause from the crowd in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou, Yao appeared a little rusty and off his rhythm, but made a solid contribution to China's kickoff 96-72 victory in the four-team Stankovic Cup tournament.
The game was Yao's first since he suffered a stress fracture to his left foot in February that ended his NBA season and threatened his star turn as part of China's team.
The injury has caused major concern among Chinese Olympic organisers expecting him to become the face of the games and his return was certain to help them sleep easier.
Among other roles, Yao is considered a leading candidate to carry the Olympic torch on its final leg into Beijing's grandiose new National Stadium.
Yao shot a sub-par 70 percent from the free throw line, where he racked up seven of his points.
He also collected three defensive and one offensive rebound and seemed to find his groove defensively, despite being scored on twice by 2.22-metre Boban Marjanovic, an experience not soon to be forgotten by the Serbian player who idolises Yao and sleeps in a room pasted with his pictures.
A playing privilege
Serbian captain Dusan Katnic said the 2.26-metre Yao's presence made the clash extra special, and extra educational.
"It was an honour,'' Katnic said.
"You don't play against Yao everyday and it was a great experience that will make us a better team.''
China's notoriously taciturn coach Jonas Kazlauskas was practically gushing in his praise for Yao, or at least by his standards.
"Yao tried very hard,'' the Lithuanian said. "He had no big problems on defence.''
Yao himself walked off the court at game end without speaking to reporters.
Xue Zhen, basketball editor for leading newspaper Titan Sports, said Yao's appearance at the games served as a massive confidence booster, even if his
form wasn't 100 percent.
"This is Yao's Olympic mission,'' Xue said. "His presence is extraordinarily powerful, and the team is built around him.
"Without Yao, China will become a totally different team,'' he said.
Former Dallas Mavericks center Wang Zhizhi led the Chinese team with 18 points, with 14 more added by Yi Jianlian, recently acquired by the New Jersey Nets.
China is also scheduled to play further warm up games against Angola and Russia.
Yao returned to light training late last month after X-rays and an MRI scan taken in Houston showed his recovery was on schedule, at about 80 percent healed.
Such injuries usually take a year to fully heal.