Hallelujah chorus reigns down on Bonzi Wells in China

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Jan 13 2009 10:55 AM | Updated as of Jan 13 2009 11:59 PM

TAIYUAN - When Handel's Hallelujah chorus blares out of the gymnasium loudspeakers here it means only one thing - Bonzi Wells has slammed home another dunk.

Wells, 32, has received a warm welcome since coming here last month to play basketball, with the state media dubbing the former NBA star the best player ever to grace the Chinese Basketball Association.

Last week, in a badly needed win against the Beijing Ducks, Wells scored 19 of his 44 points in the fourth quarter as Shanxi turned a close game into an impressive 98-83 win.

In the final period, the 1.96-metre (six-foot-five-inch) guard/forward repeatedly played off the screens of his Nigerian teammate Olumide Oyedeji to beat his defender and race down the lane for slam dunks.

That's when the public address system blared a five-second snippet of Handel's Hallelujah chorus as the frenzied crowd -- few of whom were likely to know the classic's homage to the resurrection of Christ -- stood and cheered.

"In all my years, I have never heard the Hallelujah chorus at a basketball game," Shanxi's American coach Bob Weiss, formerly of the National Basketball Association's Seattle Supersonics, told AFP.

"The crowd has really welcomed us, the reception has been great."

Ironically, Shanxi's 14 win, 11 loss record in the 50-game CBA season is largely due to the efforts of Weiss and Oyedeji, while Wells has won in six of the 10 games he has played in.

But while Weiss has brought basketball knowledge and has helped Shanxi improve to sixth in the standings from a last place finish in the 2007-2008 season, Wells has brought star power.

He is currently averaging 32.6 points and 9.4 rebounds a game, notching a season high 52 points in his homecourt debut in late December.

After going through a strategy session at a practice last week, Wells spent the rest of the afternoon at a photo shoot for the Chinese edition of Sports Illustrated magazine.

Wells is expected to grace the cover of the magazine for its Chinese New Year's edition -- an impressive accomplishment for a new comer to the country.

"I just want to thank God that I am able to play," Wells said after the Beijing game.

"I'm very proud of my teammates, we have been working very hard on a few things over the last few days."

In his 10-year NBA career, Wells averaged 12.5 points and 4.6 rebounds with Portland, Memphis, Sacramento and Houston but he was dogged by troublesome on-court behavior and various run-ins with coaches.

Since arriving in China he has vowed to shed his "badboy" image and help his team rise to a higher level even if it means risking injury by playing the entire game, something NBA players rarely do.

"I have been playing this game and I am old enough to understand that injuries are a part of the game and you have to know how to play through them ... I am not going to sit and leave my team out to dry," Wells said.

For Weiss, the key for Shanxi is to keep his foreign stars healthy and develop a team concept that has the Chinese players taking up more of the scoring burden.

Like on many CBA teams, Shanxi's foreign players once provided up to 70 percent of the team's scoring, but that changed in two weekend games when Wells averaged 22 points a match -- both wins.

Much of Wells' star power in China comes from his days with the Houston Rockets when he played with the nation's iconic center Yao Ming.

Yao's tremendous success has made China the hottest market for the NBA outside of the United States. Now many of his former teammates are playing in China and helping to develop the game here.

Besides Wells, Yao's former teammates Kirk Snyder and Mike Harris are among the roughly one dozen many former NBA players playing in China.

But the cross-cultural exchanges are not always easy as players struggle to come to terms with a new country, culture, cuisine and language.

"I have been here about a month, so I am kind of getting adjusted to it. It was a big cultural shock to me for the first few weeks," said Wells.

"But I am starting to understand my surroundings. Since I have been here it has been all business and I haven't had any fun yet, so I am looking for some fun."