By DOUG FEINBERG
AP Basketball Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — Han Xu understandably grew up idolizing Yao Ming, mesmerized by the giant shadow the 7-foot-6 Hall of Famer cast each time he stepped onto an NBA court.
Standing 6-10, Han would like to emulate Yao’s impact—including his influence on the sport in China. The New York Liberty post player wants to be a female beacon of basketball in her native land.
Han is on her way. Fans can’t seem to get enough of the 22-year-old budding star.
“Han and Li (Yueru) have been creating hype online and offline. Many girls have been inspired by Han and Li, and we have numbers to show that more girls have started participating in basketball on all levels,“ said China basketball analyst Michael Yuan, founder of Team Fountainhead. “We can also clearly see more news coverage and other kinds of user generated content on China’s social media platform.”
Han’s highlights have garnered millions of views on streaming platforms in China.
Kuaishou, a global social media platform, recently hosted a livestreaming session with her that generated about 1.6 million views.
Han and the 6-7 Li, who is with the Chicago Sky, are the latest of a half dozen Chinese players to have spent time in the WNBA. The first to have an impact in the league was Haixia Zheng, who averaged 8.9 points in two seasons with the Los Angeles Sparks in 1997 and 1998—starting 21 games her first year.
“Homegrown players like Han Xu and Li Yueru succeeding at the highest level drives interest among China’s passionate basketball fans and inspires Chinese youth to play the game,” said Jonathan Li, senior vice president of NBA China.
Chinese fans became aware of Han and Li Yueru during their stints with the Olympic team that finished fifth in Tokyo. But their fan base has grown since both were drafted in 2019—Han in the second round, Li in the third.
“I was very honored to be able to come here to make my dream come true in 2019,” Han said through a translator. “At that moment, I just wanted to grow up gradually, to learn from the veteran players who compete in the world highest-level basketball league.
“And I also hoped to be able to promote the sport in China with my influence here.”
Like her childhood hero: the 7-6 Yao.
“He had a very successful career in NBA and he also promoted the culture of the sport in China so that now more Chinese people like to watch basketball,” Han said. “I hope I can also make some influence in WNBA and then transfer my influence back to my country and let more fans to see the performance from a Chinese player.”
Neither Han nor the 6-7 Li, who turned 23 in March, were born when Zheng was doing her WNBA thing in L.A. And neither have Yao’s skills — and they may never be as good, not many are.
The Houston Rockets made Yao the No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 NBA draft. He has become an ambassador of the game in China and is currently a Chinese basketball executive.
Though Han and Li are still honing their skills, the players’ popularity is on the rise in China.
Han is averaging 9.2 points and shooting nearly 54% from the field while playing about 18 minutes a game with the Liberty. Li hasn’t had as much success, averaging just 2 points a game in Chicago.
When they played in New York last month, a handful of Chinese media were on hand. Interviews with the players drew millions of views in China.
“The population of Chinese basketball fans is huge,“ Li said through a translator.
“Fans in China, while they are watching me and Han Xu highlights, will get to know more WNBA players and WNBA teams. I think this is a thing that could benefit me and Han Xu but also could benefit the WNBA as well.”
Both Han and Li have excelled in the offseason in the Chinese Basketball League that has had WNBA players such as Maya Moore and Sylvia Fowles play in it.
“When I was growing up there were a lot of WNBA players who I looked up to,“ Li said. “There is a lot of WNBA players who I think no matter in what aspect in life or in their career, I think (in) all those aspects they are doing a great job. They are excellent.”
Han has shown flashes that she could be a dominant force in the WNBA. She scored a career-high 24 points against Las Vegas earlier this month.
“I think it’s a great honor that domestic fans can watch WNBA games on TV in China,“ Han said. “I think when fans in China watch my play in the league, they can get a better idea about the development of this sport overseas.”