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Battier Fired Up by Playing with Yao
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How does it feel to play alongside Yao Ming for the Houston Rockets? Ask Shane Battier, small forward and "glue guy" on the play-off bound team, and he'll say it's awesome.

In an exclusive interview with China Daily, Battier spoke at length about China's All-star center Yao, his ambitions for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games and the dedication young hoopsters need if they want to make it to the very top.

Acquired in a trade with the Memphis Grizzlies last summer, Battier has been at the core of a revitalized Rockets line-up. Last season they slumped out of playoff contention while franchise players Yao and Tracy McGrady struggled with fitness, but this season they lie 5th in a competitive Western conference despite Yao missing 32 games with knee trouble.

Houston have the league's second stingiest defense, giving up a miserly 91.3 points per game, and at the heart of this is Battier, a player famed for the type of unselfish, team play often lacking in the NBA.

"I feel as if what I bring to the team is appreciated. My teammates and coaches have really helped put me in positions where I can succeed," he said. "I just try to make plays. Yao and Tracy are our stars, so my job is to play hard and bring energy, play good defense."

Battier averages a respectable 10.6 points per game, but it is what he does off the ball that has made him such a valuable addition: "Sometimes I am called upon to score, but I like to think I can really help my team without filling up the stat sheet."

His solid work in the background has been a factor in Yao's emergence as the league's dominant big man this season. Averaging 24.6 points and 9.2 boards, Yao is finally living up to his promise. And off the court he is earning fans' and players' respect, after years of being something of a curiosity.

According to Battier, it couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

"Yao is awesome! He works tirelessly. He's a professional. Even more so, I think Yao really takes pride in his teammates' success. That is a rare quality in a superstar.

"Yao is a great guy. He's really affable, and just has a great sense of humor. He's also really adapted well to American culture.

"Everyone respects him. I think he is one of the few players you just don't hear anything bad about. Everyone knows what a burden he carries - having the weight of China's expectations on his shoulders. He is just awesome."

Battier's ambitions don't end with a playoff push this season: High on his agenda is winning gold for his country at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

After the USA claimed a disappointing bronze at the 2004 Athens Olympics the team went back to the drawing board. Team officials hired respected Duke basketball "Coach K", Mike Krzyzewski, as coach, and issued rules to ensure that the players would remain committed in the entire 3-year build-up to the tournament.

Stars like Dwayne Wade, Lebron James and Carmelo Anthony all feature, but Battier, who played for 4 years under Coach K at Duke, was a key component in the team during the World Championships in Japan last summer. USA were beaten by Greece in the semifinals.

In Battier's eyes, Team USA has what it takes to retake its place at the head of the world basketball table.

"It's very simple. We need to play more as a team. I think we have the best players, but it's the best team, not the best players, that wins it all. In Japan, the Spanish team played the best team basketball."

His place on the team is not yet guaranteed as more try outs remain, but his impressive play for the Rockets make a 2008 Beijing appearance a near-certainty.

Dream team

"If I make the team, it would be a dream come true. Everyone remembers the first Dream Team. If I could count myself in their company, then that would be a dream come true. Also, Team USA has been falling short recently. We need to win back that gold!"

While the team's main competition will come from European sides Spain, Greece and Italy, as well as 2004 surprise winners Argentina, Battier is not ruling out Team China.

"The Chinese team is very good. They are young. With more experience, they will get better and better And, of course, they have the big guy."

Battier's China connections run deeper than playing alongside Yao. He came to Guangzhou before the World Championships last summer when Team USA faced China in a warm-up game, and he has a blog on Sina.com.

"Yao had said it (basketball) was popular, but it was still exciting to see. I went to a Chinese university to see a 3 on 3 tournament. It was a blast. All of the players were imitating these street basketball moves. It's exciting to see how basketball has become a global game.'

However, he warned, talent will only get you so far. To make it to the NBA players have also got to be 100% dedicated.

"My dream, from day one, was to play in the NBA.I certainly have some natural gifts, but I worked very hard. I think young people should look themselves in the mirror and ask: Can you work hard consistently? Not just one week or one month, but year round for many years."

(China Daily March 21, 2007)

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