NEW YORK (AP) — Han Xu understandably grew up idolizing Yao
Ming, mesmerized by the giant shadow the 7-foot-6 Hall-of-Famer
cast each time he stepped onto an NBA court.
Standing 6-foot-10, Han would like to emulate Yao’s impact —
including his influence on the sport in China. The New York Liberty
post player wants to be a female beacon of basketball in her native
Han is on her way. Fans can’t seem to get enough of the
22-year-old budding star.
“Han and Li (Yueru) have been creating hype online and offline.
Many girls have been inspired by Han and Li, and we have numbers to
show that more girls have started participating in basketball on
all levels,” said China basketball analyst Michael Yuan, founder of
Team Fountainhead. “We can also clearly see more news coverage and
other kinds of user-generated content on China’s social-media
Han’s highlights have garnered millions of views on streaming
platforms in China. Kuaishou, a global social media platform,
recently hosted a livestreaming session with her that generated
about 1.6 million views.
Han and the 6-foot-7 Li, who is with the Chicago Sky, are the
latest of a half dozen Chinese players to have spent time in the
WNBA. The first to have an impact in the league was Haixia Zheng,
who averaged 8.9 points in two seasons with the Los Angeles Sparks
in 1997 and 1998 — starting 21 games her first year.
“Homegrown players like Han Xu and Li Yueru succeeding at the
highest level drives interest among China’s passionate basketball
fans and inspires Chinese youth to play the game,” said Jonathan
Li, senior vice president of NBA China.
Chinese fans became aware of Han and Li Yueru during their
stints with the Olympic team that finished fifth in Tokyo. But
their fan base has grown since both were drafted in 2019 — Han in
the second round, Li in the third.
“I was very honored to be able to come here to make my dream
come true in 2019,” Han said through a translator. “At that moment,
I just wanted to grow up gradually, to learn from the veteran
players who compete in the world's highest-level basketball
“And I also hoped to be able to promote the sport in China with
my influence here.”
Like her childhood hero: the 7-foot-6 Yao.
“He had a very successful career in NBA and he also promoted the
culture of the sport in China so that now more Chinese people like
to watch basketball,” Han said. “I hope I can also make some
influence in WNBA and then transfer my influence back to my country
and let more fans to see the performance from a Chinese
Neither Han nor the 6-foot-7 Li, who turned 23 in March, were
born when Zheng was doing her WNBA thing in L.A. And neither have
Yao’s skills — very few players do.
The Houston Rockets made Yao the No. 1 overall pick in the 2002
NBA Draft. He has become an ambassador of the game in China and is
currently a Chinese basketball executive.
Though Han and Li are still honing their skills, their
popularity is on the rise in China.
Han is averaging 9.2 points and shooting nearly 54% from the
field while playing about 18 minutes a game with the Liberty. Li
hasn’t had as much success, averaging just 2 points a game in
When they played in New York last month, a handful of Chinese
media were on hand. Interviews with the players drew millions of
views in China. They will square off again on Saturday and it will
be broadcast live in China.
“The population of Chinese basketball fans is huge,” Li said
through a translator. “Fans in China, while they are watching me
and Han Xu highlights, will get to know more WNBA players and WNBA
teams. I think this is a thing that could benefit me and Han Xu but
also could benefit the WNBA as well.”
Both Han and Li have excelled in the offseason in the Chinese
Basketball League that has had WNBA players such as Maya Moore and
Sylvia Fowles play in it.
“When I was growing up there were a lot of WNBA players who I
looked up to,” Li said. “There is a lot of WNBA players who I think
no matter in what aspect in life or in their career, I think (in)
all those aspects they are doing a great job. They are
Han has shown flashes that she could be dominant force in the
WNBA. She scored a career-high 24 points against Las Vegas earlier
“I think it’s a great honor that domestic fans can watch WNBA
games on TV in China,” Han said. “I think when fans in China watch
my play in the league, they can get a better idea about the
development of this sport in overseas.”