It wasn't as lengthy as, say, the Xia Dynasty, which lasted about 500 years. It wasn't even comparable to the Ming Dynasty, which lasted nearly three centuries.

Even so, former Ute Ma Jian's wait to become a worldwide basketball figure must have seemed an eternity.

In the results-oriented world of big-time basketball, 15 years is a long time.

But at last his dream is being fulfilled.

That's him, commentating on worldwide television during the USA-China Olympic basketball game. There he is on CNN, discussing his role in bringing hoops to China. The Washington Post calls him "an oft-forgotten story in China's basketball history."

Ma Jian, they're saying, is China's basketball pioneer, the first to play for an American college or pro team.

Before Wang Zhizhi, before Yi Jianlian and before Yao Ming, there was Ma.

Now a television commentator in China, he has finally been discovered in other countries, too.

"I'm really proud of myself," he said on CNN, "because, you know — think about it — I am the one. If you say I am making history, well, maybe that's too big, but I did, actually."

Thanks in large part to Ma, a billion people in China really do care.


When Ryan Hunt, of Holladay, got the call from Utah assistant coach Tommy Connor in 1993, it was clear the Utes wanted him on their team. Yes, he had experience playing at Skyline High and Salt Lake Community College.

"But more important," added Connor, "we understand you speak Mandarin Chinese."

The Utes had signed a promising 6-foot-7 kid from China who didn't speak much English. So they needed Hunt, who served an LDS mission to Taiwan, to translate.

Ma had come to the United States to make his name after starring on the Chinese Olympic team. He was recruited to UCLA by coach Jim Harrick, who advised Ma to first attend Utah Valley State College, where he could upgrade his English and his understanding of American basketball.

But during his stay in Orem, Ma met Utah's coaches and decided to transfer there, instead.

It seemed a good plan at the time. Ma had found a college basketball program where he could learn from a legendary coach, Rick Majerus. In return, the Utes acquired a strong, agile, good-shooting forward.

Ma played fairly well his first year at Utah, starting 27 of 28 games, averaging 8.2 points and 3.7 rebounds. But even then, things didn't go smoothly. They seldom did with the demanding, obsessive Majerus. Ma was a foreign star whose game flourished in a free-flowing attack. Majerus built his teams on meat-grinder defense and exhaustive, screen-heavy offense.

Meanwhile, other stars were quickly arriving. By the time Ma was a senior, Majerus had added key players like Alex Jensen, Keith Van Horn, Andre Miller and Brandon Jessie. Van Horn was the meal ticket, not Ma.

His confidence already shaky, Ma started the first three games of the 1994-95 season but ended up playing in only nine more.

"Ma played in the Maui Tournament that second year and made a couple of mistakes, and for whatever reason, from that point on, I think patience was lost, at least on Majerus' end," said Hunt. "Ma got in a funk and couldn't come out of it."

American basketball was far more defense-oriented and aggressive than Ma was used to. His average minutes dropped from 22 in 1993-94 to six the next year.

Like many other players, Ma was sometimes the recipient of Majerus' profane tirades at practice. Seems he was learning more English than he anticipated.

"Ma learned some pretty good words at the U.," laughed Hunt. "I hadn't heard half those words, either."

But in Chinese culture, being publicly shamed is an even bigger affront than in the West.

"It was definitely exaggerated in Ma's case," added Hunt. "You come from China, and he just had a hard time fitting in and playing that style. Majerus really gave up on Ma."

It wasn't that Ma had no skills. Hunt said that in pickup games at the U. and summer ball with Jazz players, he was "awesome," a "very good player" and "unstoppable." He could handle the ball like a point guard, shoot, jump and he had "a perfect NBA-type body."

Hunt said Ma "could dominate any type of pickup game."

But in the detailed, ponderous system that made Majerus successful, Ma couldn't breathe.

After college, he was invited to try out with the L.A. Clippers but didn't stick. He returned to China, where he was still disliked by officials who resented his departure. Nevertheless, he played the rest of his career in the Chinese pro basketball league.

Though still virtually unknown in America, in China he was an enduring star.

Five years ago, Hunt went to Shanghai to see his old college friend play.

"I knew who he was and his background, and that he played in the Olympics," said Hunt, "but I never really grasped who he was in China. I didn't realize who he was until I was there and saw the way he was treated. It was like the way people treated John Stockton and Karl Malone when they were here ... He's a celebrity. It would be like Deron Williams walking down State Street here."

Hunt said Ma doesn't bad-mouth Majerus, even today, and Ma has said he doesn't regret the decision to play in America.

"He was one of the classiest, nicest people you'd ever meet," said Hunt. "There's not one person that was on that team who would say anything bad about Ma Jian. He was a great guy and was trying to live his dream ... And he did in many, many ways. He didn't get the recognition and fame that Yao and others got, but he was the one that paved the way."


E-mail: rock@desnews.com