Big names rolling in for showdown in Sapporo as worlds set to tip off

by Kaz Nagatsuka

SAPPORO — The world’s best have finally found their way to northern Japan.

The FIBA World Championship gets under way on Saturday, and teams arrived their sites on Thursday, including the Hokkaido-based American and Chinese teams.

In Sapporo, the venue for Group D, all six teams — China, Italy, Slovenia, Senegal, Puerto Rico and the United States — held light one-hour practice sessions Thursday, trying to get the feel of the wooden floor at Hokkaido Prefectural Sports Center.

It was Asian powerhouse China which took the court first. The red corps were loose during practice, cracking smiles as they did running and passing drills.

Houston Rockets center Yao Ming, China’s biggest star, was not in his best form in Sapporo.

During Thursday’s practice, he often stopped to rest, placing his hands on his knees, indicating his physical condition is not perfect yet. Yao also missed the middle-range shots he is known for sinking in the NBA.

But Yao is recovering from an injury.

Yao, the top pick in the 2002 NBA draft, broke a bone in his left foot in a game with the Utah Jazz on April 10, which required surgery and threatened to knock him out of worlds after doctors said he may miss six months.

But he made a surprising progress and came back to the floor on Aug. 11 in a game against Germany in the Stankovic Cup in Nanjing, China, scoring 11 points in 22 minutes.

The 226-cm Yao played in two more warmup games against Brazil and Australia, scoring 16 and 21 points, respectively.

China plays Italy on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. for their first game in the tournament.

Meanwhile, the biggest attraction of Group D is obviously Team USA. It was the last of Group D’s six teams to take the floor Thursday.

The Americans have already played in China and South Korea before getting to Japan, and the U.S. players were lively, occasionally joking with each other.

But forward Carmelo Anthony, who injured his right knee in an exhibition against Brazil in China on Aug. 8, was particularly serious in the Thursday practice. Taking off his shirt, Anthony was working on his 3-point shots.

Dwyane Wade, a Miami Heat guard, showed up onto the court but did not even touch a ball, and he ended up sitting courtside throughout the practice.

The reason why he didn’t work out was not revealed.

Most teams had open practice for the first 15 minutes, but media could not talk to players and coaches. Slovenia’s practice was not open, however, while the U.S. team showed the whole session, although it was on the court for only half an hour.

Team USA, which was 5-0 in its tuneup games for the World Championship, will take on Puerto Rico at the opening game of Group D at 2 p.m. on Saturday.