During a recent trip to Shanghai, I had a chance to see the city’s basketball team, the Sharks, and watch 22-year-old star center Yao Ming in action. The next day, checking out of my hotel room, I unfolded my minicam and showed the desk clerk some video of the Chinese phenomenon. She asked me how I knew of Yao. When I told her that he was very popular in the U.S., that the Chicago Bulls might select him in the NBA draft, she gave me a puzzled look. “But the Bulls are no good anymore, yes?”

You know you’ve got an image problem when a hotel clerk 8,000 miles away is aware that your team stinks. Bulls general manager Jerry Krause has been nicknamed “the Sleuth” for his talent at scouting new players, and he’s twice been named NBA executive of the year. But more recently, Krause–who once declared, “Players don’t win championships, organizations win championships”–has dismantled one of the most revered dynasties in basketball history, only to have his team become the laughingstock of the NBA. Over a three-year stretch in the 90s the Bulls won more games than any other team in the history of the league; in the last four years they’ve accomplished the opposite, losing more games than any other team.

Now, like President Nixon in the 70s, Jerry Krause is going to China. With some reluctance the People’s Republic has released Yao Ming to play basketball in the NBA, and he visited Chicago in early May for a workout before hordes of drooling scouts and NBA general managers. Many speculate that the seven-foot-six, 290-pound player will be the first or second pick in this year’s draft, which takes place June 26. The Houston Rockets have the first pick, but Yao’s managers have stated that they want him to play in a city with a large Chinese population–namely Chicago, New York, or San Francisco–and the Bulls have second pick. Krause has made multiple visits to Shanghai in the past two years, and while Yao was in town, Krause held a private workout to evaluate his skills.

On the surface Yao may seem a sure thing, but there are many valid concerns Krause will have to weigh. Yao is being touted as a new breed of basketball player, tall and lanky but as agile as a small player. When I saw him in Shanghai, his agility on the low post was unique for a man his size, and his shooting touch was excellent (12 for 12 from the free-throw line). But players over seven-foot-three have a history of struggling to compete in the superathletic NBA. Playing for the Sharks, Yao was over a foot taller than the next biggest man on the floor, yet he only managed one dunk. NBA players must get off the floor quickly to jump or block shots, but Yao stood planted like a tree, tipping balls to himself to outrebound his shorter opponents, and he fumbled many entry passes. If Yao finds himself outclassed by the explosive athletes of the NBA, the Bulls will have squandered a top pick and set themselves back for another year.

An even larger concern is the cultural gap between China and the U.S. Ten years ago Jerry Krause helped pioneer the NBA’s international scouting when he drafted Toni Kukoc of Croatia. That move paid off handsomely, and several other NBA teams have recruited tremendously talented players from Europe and Canada. The NBA currently has two Chinese players, both of average skill: Zhizhi Wang of the Dallas Mavericks and Mengke Bateer of the Denver Nuggets, who came to the U.S. without the fanfare and market demands that have greeted Yao’s arrival. To Krause the PRC must seem like a vast and untapped reservoir of talent, unfamiliar with the hype of American sports, and having a Chinatown near the United Center only strengthens his hand.

But China tends to be indifferent toward individual accomplishment. After the playoff game that sent the Shanghai Sharks to the Chinese Basketball Association championship, the local papers didn’t even publish Yao’s final stats, focusing instead on the team effort. In a city of 16.7 million people, the gymnasium that hosted the semifinal playoff contest was the size of a high school gym and only three-quarters full, even with ticket prices as low as $3. Compare that to Ohio: as a junior in high school, NBA lottery pick LeBron James drew so many spectators that his team’s games had to be moved to the University of Dayton. The great pro basketball players have farewell tours that last nine months, with ticket prices reaching the four-figure mark. Yet Chinese culture has conditioned Yao to be a team player, not a superstar. Whether he can handle both the fame and the pressure of being a top NBA draft pick is an open question.

The Chinese won’t make Krause’s decision any easier. The CBA has stated that it will take half of Yao’s earnings in the U.S. (both his NBA salary and any money he makes from endorsements) and that it may require Yao to play for the Chinese national team through mid-August, which would prevent him from taking part in the NBA training camp and the exhibition games of the team that drafts him. The Shanghai Sharks reportedly want the team that drafts Yao to pay the CBA a seven-figure sum, to play an exhibition game in China, to set up training camps for Chinese coaches in the U.S., and even to send the Sharks an American player in exchange for Yao.

All this leaves Krause in a precarious position should he draft Yao. He knows the risks involved, but he also knows the possible rewards of having a superstar player. If Yao performs well on the court, the enormous publicity could boost the team’s image and bring a new stream of revenue from international markets for Bulls merchandising. At this point Jerry Krause has nothing to lose: He’s been ridiculed and roasted by his own city. NBA players and coaches shake their heads at his mishandling of the Bulls dynasty, and potential free agents slap him in the face. If he succeeds in kicking down the Great Wall, he might be remembered not as the man who blew it all, but as someone ahead of his time, who made basketball a truly international game. The Chinese might even erect a statue of him, sub sandwich in hand, in Tiananmen Square.

After all, even a man as despised as Richard Nixon was for his role in Watergate is now hailed by some as a visionary statesman for his diplomacy in China. Jerry Krause can’t destroy communism or alter the global balance of power, but he may still be able to turn the Bulls around. In a sports-crazed city like Chicago the last few NBA seasons have been pretty hard to accept, and most Bulls fans would rather see him emulate the late president by flashing twin V-for-victory signs, getting on a helicopter, and mercifully disappearing.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.