While fans try to guess how many points Yao Ming will score in the opening Olympic match against the US, the center himself has only one thought in mind - staying on the court until the end of the game.
The 2.26-m all-star center fouled out in his Olympic debut against the US eight years ago in Sydney, a game the US won 119-72. This time Yao hopes the referees give him a break on home soil.
"All I want is to stay on court until the last second. Hopefully they treat the host team better," Yao joked during a teleconference from Houston, which allowed him to see reporters in Beijing and New York.
Staying out of foul trouble will be important if Yao's team is to realize its Olympic goal of advancing into the quarterfinals in what local media have called a "group of death" because it includes powerhouses like the US and Spain.
"We have a very clear goal, which is we have to make the top eight," Yao said. "There are not any weak team at the Olympics because all of them consist of the best players from their continents, so I don't really care about whether we are in a 'group of death' or not.
"I am a player, so I just want to play as hard as I can and try to lead my team to realize the goal for Chinese people.
"Certainly there are teams in our group that we are not on the same level with, but I believe there are opportunities and they are there for us to pursue."
Yao underwent surgery in March to repair a stress fracture in his left foot and he is working out on an Alter-G treadmill, which helps him control the amount of body weight he puts on the foot.
"I'm 80 percent OK right now," he said. "The rehab process is very challenging mentally so I try to calm myself down and do what doctors and trainers tell me to do."
Yao missed 32 games last NBA season with a fractured right tibia and 21 games during the 2005-06 campaign, with a toe infection that required surgery. He also missed four games at the end of that season with a broken foot but he came back in time for the World Championships in Japan in August and was the tournament's leading scorer with 25.3 points per game.
"I feel kind of depressed because it is very hard for me to return to my usual form after the injury, but I am more confident this time because I've had a lot of experience to deal with injuries at the end of the season," he said. "Even though we didn't make it to the final six in 2006, we did very well.
"Hopefully this time in our homeland we can give our people a surprise and for ourselves too."
Yao averaged 22 points and 10.8 rebounds this season before his injury and led the Houston Rockets to 12 consecutive wins, which became a winning streak of 22 games despite his absence.
(China Daily May 13, 2008)