Wang Zhizhi was born in Beijing, China. The 7’ 0” tall center became the first-ever Chinese-born player to play in the NBA. Even though his NBA career wasn’t as memorable as other Chinese-born players after him, he still made history in the league and had a very successful Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) career.
Zhizhi’s parents were former basketball players themselves. Growing up he watched NBA broadcasts and idolized stars like Hakeem Olajuwon. He started playing the game at the age of eight years old. When he was 14 his parents signed him up to join the People’s Liberation Army, their facilities and coaching staff were considered to be some of the best in the country.
First CBA Run
Although, he was born in 1977, his age was changed to two years younger when his travel documents were processed, in order for him to play youth sports for a more extended period of time. In 1994 he signed with the Bayi Rockets. When the CBA began in 1995, he was one of the youngest players in the league, and he quickly became a star player on a dominating team. The team won the first six CBA championships from 1996 to 2001.
In his first tenure in the CBA, he was named CBA MVP in 2000. He won six championships with the Rockets. He was named 2000 CBA Finals MVP. He led the league in blocks from 1996 to 1999 and led the league in slam dunks in 1996 and 1998.
Move to the NBA
Zhizhi was selected 36th overall by the Dallas Mavericks in the 1999 NBA Draft. Zhizhi’s move to the NBA was a rocky one. His agent had to prove that he was 22 years old, the Rockets were caught by surprise, and they wouldn’t let him leave the team for two years.
Zhizhi finally arrived in Dallas with less than 10 regular season games left in the 2000-01 season. He had some trouble adjusting to the NBA style of play but got used to it over time. In his five regular season games played, he averaged 4.8 points per game (PPG) and 1.4 rebounds per game (RPG). The Mavericks finished the season 53-29 and clinched the fifth seed in the Western Conference. In the first round of the playoffs, they defeated the Utah Jazz, in five games. The Mavs then fell to their rivals, the San Antonio Spurs, in five games. Zhizhi got minor playing time in five of the playoff games and averaged 2.0 PPG, 0.4 RPG, 0.2 assists per game (APG), 0.2 steals per game (SPG), and 0.2 blocks per game (BPG).
The following season, in his first full season with the team, he played in 55 games, coming off the bench in all of them. Zhizhi averaged 5.6 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 0.4 APG, 0.2 SPG, and 0.3 BPG for the season. The Mavericks went 57-25, while finishing fourth in the West. The team swept the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round of the playoffs. The Sacramento Kings then got the upper hand over Dallas in the second round of the playoffs and the Mavs fell in five games. Zhizhi played in all eight playoff games and managed to put up 2.5 PPG, 1.0 RPG, 0.4 APG, and 0.1 BPG.
Final Years in the NBA
Zhizhi got in some trouble with Chinese officials when he decided not to return to practice with the Chinese national team in 2002 and decided to stay in the United States.
During the 2002 offseason, he signed with the Los Angeles Clippers as a free agent. He spent a little bit over a year with the team before getting waived. In his time as a Clipper, he averaged 4.3 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 0.2 APG, 0.2 SPG, and 0.3 BPG. He played in 43 games in his one and a half seasons there, but only started in one game, his only start in the NBA.
The Miami Heat signed him over a month later in December 2003. He spent two seasons in Miami, where he played in 34 regular season games and averaged 2.5 PPG, 0.9 RPG, 0.2 APG, 0.2 SPG, and 0.2 BPG. Miami made it to the playoffs both years Zhizhi was on the team. They made it to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2005, but were eliminated by the eventual champions, the Detroit Pistons. Zhizhi only played in three playoff games with the team, all of which were in his first year there. In his three playoff games with the Heat, he only had one assist, no points, and no rebounds.
The 2004-05 season would be his final one in the NBA.
During Zhizhi’s time as a Maverick, he averaged 5.5 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 0.4 APG, 0.2 SPG, and 0.3 BPG. It took him some time to find his footing in the league, but once he did he assisted the Mavs off the bench any way he could.
Second CBA Run
After finishing up his time in the NBA Zhizhi returned to the CBA. In his first season back, 2006-07 season, with the Rockets he made an immediate impact on the team. He led the Rockets to their eighth CBA championship, his seventh with the team. He was also named CBA Finals MVP for the second time in his career. At the end of the 2013-14 season, he retired but made a brief return the following season with the Rockets. In 2016, he officially retired as a basketball player.
He finished his 15-year CBA career having averaged 22.3 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.3 SPG, and 2.0 BPG.
He became an assistant coach of the Rockets in 2015 and was promoted to head coach prior to the 2018-19 season. In his first season as head coach, the team finished 18th in the league, with an 11-35 record, and missed the playoffs. The following season the team did worse, going 6-40 and finishing last in the league. The 2019-20 season would be the Rockets’ final season in the CBA due to the team folding.
In 1996, he became the first Chinese player to play for the World team in the Nike Hoop Summit. Zhizhi started the game, scored six points, and grabbed six boards.
During the 1996 Olympics, Zhizhi played on China’s men’s national team and helped them finish in eighth place. In 1999, he assisted the Chinese national team to win the FIBA Asia Championship. During the 2000 Olympics, he once again played for the Chinese national team, but they finished lower than they did in the previous Olympics, finishing in ninth place.
Zhizhi returned to the Chinese national team in 2006 when he made his return to China. He was expelled for four years due to his problems with the Chinese officials but he apologized and was allowed to join the team again in 2006. He contributed in games leading up to the 2006 FIBA World Championship but suffered a torn ligament in an exhibition game against France. He recovered in time to participate in the FIBA tournament.
Zhizhi’s best years were during his time in the CBA. During his time as a player, he led the Rockets in dominating fashion over the rest of the CBA. Even though his NBA career didn’t go as planned, he still made his mark in the league when he became the first Chinese-born player to play in an NBA game, that in itself is a big accomplishment.