Homecoming is always sweet.
But it was much sweeter for Chinese basketball player Wang Zhizhi.
"It's like a dream," said Wang, who returned home yesterday from the United States after four years and the same number of years after his expulsion from the national team.
"I miss my parents and I am so happy to be back home again."
Wang, the first Asian to play in the National Basketball Association (NBA) when he joined the Dallas Mavericks in 2001, was welcomed by the country's top basketball officials amid a media frenzy at Beijing Capital International Airport early in the morning.
"I realized I had made a big mistake. I want to say sorry to my fans and to the Bayi team which trained me and gave me the chance to play in the NBA," he said.
The Dallas Mavericks drafted Wang in 1999, and signed him on a three-year rookie contract in March 2001.
After his debut season in the NBA, Wang refused to join the national team training for the 2002 World Championships and then skipped the tournament for the NBA summer league.
The act went against the agreement the Mavericks had with the CBA, under which he had to play major international competitions for China during the NBA off-season. His status in the Chinese military also complicated the situation.
Wang was expelled from the national squad in October, 2002 after he refused to come back for the Busan Asian Games.
"I was too young to make the right decision. I hope I can make up for my fault this time and win back my place in the national team," Wang said.
Since 2002, the CBA has tried to seek Wang's return in many ways, but the efforts failed due to his attitude. The turnaround came in 2005 when Wang, who missed the Athens Games in 2004, contacted the CBA through a Chinese reporter, expressing his willingness to compete in the Beijing Olympics.
And his meeting with CBA chief Li Yuanwei in the US this February is seen a catalyst for his return.
"I will try to play my best basketball in this year's World Championships and the 2008 Beijing Games to pay back my fans," he said.
Wang averaged 22.8 points and 8.9 rebounds when he led the Chinese military club, the Bayi Rockets, to consecutive CBA titles from 1996 to 2001. He was widely believed to man a crucial position as a power forward in the Yao Ming-led Chinese national team.
He played in the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, averaging 13.5 points and 5.0 rebounds at Sydney, when he teamed up with Yao as part of China's "Walking Great Wall."
But he has played sparingly in a lackluster NBA career that began with the Dallas Mavericks in 2002, and then was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers before he was cut from the Miami Heat late last season.
The CBA welcomed the return of the problem star.
"It's a crucial move for him to return in an answer to the motherland's call. He has enough time to reunite with his parents and friends in China, and think about how to start a new future here," the CBA said in its official press statement.
In an online survey conducted by China's leading website Sina.com, 78.81 percent of participants said they still love Wang despite his abandoning his side; and 88.72 percent believe he will earn a spot in the national team and improve it as a whole for the coming World Championships and the Olympics.
(China Daily April 11, 2006)