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Yao-Yi NBA showdown serves as China's Super Bowl
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China's two National Basketball Association superstars, Yao Ming and rookie Yi Jianlian, meet for the second and last time this season on Saturday in a major show for Chinese sports fans.

On the eve of American football's Super Bowl spectacular that galvanizes US attention, the matchup between Yao's Houston Rockets and Yi's Milwaukee Bucks is expected to attract 200 million viewers in their Asian homeland.

"I look at it almost as the Chinese Super Bowl," said Bucks coach Larry Krystkowiak. "We'll have the American version of the Super Bowl the next night, which will be watched by about half as many people. It's hard to fathom really.

"It means a lot to Yi and Yao and the NBA."

Not that Yi was going to admit that.

"No, it's just a game," Yi said of "Yao versus Yi II", which is not by accident a Chinese New Year attraction.

Being an attraction, and even a source of relief given brutal snow that has snarled transportation in China, is not on Yi's mind.

"I don't think about that," Yi said. "I just focus on the game. Of course (China supporters) are really excited to see two Chinese players come together and play. They want to support us."

Yao scored 28 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in Houston's 104-88 home victory last November when the Chinese stars first played against each other in the NBA. Yi had 19 points and nine rebounds in the tension-filled meeting.

"(Yi) played a nice game," Krystkowiak said. "He's productive when he's got a set of fresh legs and I think he does now. He remains pretty constant with his emotions and his approach. He's always working his tail off."

Chinese reporters follow Yi's every move but he has handled the attention and the new challenges of an 82-game NBA schedule well.

"He has a lot of people pulling him in a lot of different directions, but his demeanor really hasn't changed from Day One," Krystkowiak said.

Yao will be the starting center for the Western Conference in the NBA All-Star Game later this month. He matched season highs with 36 points and 19 rebounds in a home victory Tuesday over Golden State.

"I look at Yao Ming's performance this season as a big improvement and now he has become a leader on the Rockets team," Yi said. "It's through his hard work. He has had a really good year."

Australian 7-foot center Andrew Bogut will have the challenge of trying to stop 2.2m giant Yao for the Bucks.

"He got a lot of criticism when he went number one (in the 2002 NBA Draft) and now he's an all-star year in and year out, the best center in the league," Bogut said. "He will be one of the all-time greats, I think.

"No one will ever be 7-foot-6 and have the touch and feel for the game that he does."

(Agencies via China Daily February 3, 2008)

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