BEIJING -- It was class time at Beijing University, but at 10 this morning, seven guys in shorts and T-shirts crowded around a large-screen color TV in dorm Room 511, a spare concrete cubicle decorated with three metal bunk beds and yesterday's laundry. Nine student "shareholders" had bought the TV last month in anticipation of just such an occasion, and hoots and jeers filled the air.
"Aya, that Malone, he plays dirty."
"Nice ball. Go Rodman!"
"They're losing with three minutes to go. I can't stand it. Hit me with a hammer!"
Minutes later, half a world away, the Chicago Bulls clinched their sixth National Basketball Association championship with a swish of the ball passing though the net with five seconds on the clock. The students jumped to their feet and began a refrain: "Chou Dan, Chou Dan, Chou Dan."
Chou Dan, of course, is Michael Jordan. Sure, Bill Clinton is about to visit China. But to the Chinese, Michael Jordan is America's king.
Clinton's state visit this month has brought out citizens' interest in all things American, from books to clothes to movie stars. But these all seem like passing fancies compared to the intense passion that Chinese, especially young Chinese, have developed for Jordan and basketball.
"Michael Jordan is much more famous than Clinton here," said Cheng Qian, 20, a management major at Beijing University and a Bulls fan who is a shareholder in the TV set.
The Chinese have named him "kongzhong feiren" -- "space flier." And, in the past week, businessmen, retired teachers, students and government officials have all paused to watch him, live on state-run television, as he led the Chicago Bulls to their 4-2 series victory over the Utah Jazz.
When Beijing Meilande Information Co. asked 1,000 urban Chinese to identify the best-known Americans ever, Jordan came in second, trailing Thomas Edison by just a few percentage points. Behind him were Albert Einstein, Mark Twain and Bill Gates.
On the sidewalks of Jianguomenwai Avenue, street vendors sell Jordan posters. In department stores, Jordan books and calendars sit beside those featuring Hong Kong movie stars and the late Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung.
State television began broadcasting prerecorded NBA games in the early 1990s and recently switched to live broadcasts. Yesterday, Chinese viewers had three opportunities to see the game, which the Bulls won 87-86. The first was live at 7: 30 a.m., followed by a recording at 9 a.m. for the late-risers, and finally a replay at 9 p.m.
Chinese are hard-pressed to say why they adore the Bulls and Jordan. But U.S. basketball is certainly more colorful than the home-grown variant, where the People's Liberation Army's August 1 team (named for the day the army was founded) is the reigning champion.
And U.S. sportscasts have other attractions.
The students who forsook their studies to gather in Room 511 oohed when they saw Leonardo DiCaprio, star of the film "Titanic," sitting at courtside. And in a room full of young college men, the Jazz's cheerleaders, dancing in skintight black leotards, got a thumbs up as well.
Heads nodded in approval as Cheng Qian opined, "In this way, the Jazz are better than the Bulls."
Pub Date: 6/16/98