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Tipoff time: US open vs. Yao, China

Aug. 09, 2008, 12:10 p.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Wondering why Yao Ming wasn't the one soaring over the Bird's Nest, bestowed with the honor of igniting the Olympic flame?

Maybe China wanted to make sure he was ready for the opening game Sunday against the United States.

OK, so there were other reasons, from the difficulty of getting some his size to fly to the shrieks the mere idea would've drawn from his corporate sponsors and his NBA team.

Still, don't underestimate the importance of keeping the big guy in one piece for this game and this tournament.

Yao's first Olympic home game would've been a big deal regardless, but having it against LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and the rest of the Americans ratchets everything up. The atmosphere inside the arena should be pretty amazing as the NBA-loving locals celebrate their national team, as well as the heroes they usually only see on television.

"Everybody cares about it," Yao said. "It is a great event, and nobody can be slack."

The game tips off 10:15 p.m. Sunday in Beijing, but that's mid-morning back in the States. So NBC, the network that brings you Breakfast at Wimbledon, will now offer up Brunch from Beijing.

In prime time Sunday, the stars of the show will be at the pool and on the floor, vault, bars and beam.

Shawn Johnson, Nastia Liukin and the rest of the U.S. women's gymnastics team come in as world champions, but they're stepping on the turf of their top rivals. The action this time is only qualifying, but you can be sure the Americans will be watching the Chinese and vice-versa.

The swimming headliners are the usual big names: Michael Phelps, fellow Baltimore native Katie Hoff and Natalie Coughlin. Phelps will be part of the 400-meter freestyle relay, looking for his second gold or trying to bounce back from a disappointment in the 400 individual medley.

Phelps and the gymnasts will be ratings magnets every time they're on the docket. But all their events combined may not draw as many viewers as the Yao-U.S. basketball game.

Remember, China is a country with about 1.2 billion people, so if only 1 in every 25 watch, that's still 48 million. And the ratio is expected to be a lot stronger than 1-in-25. (By comparison, the most-watched game of the NBA finals was under 18 million. The Kansas-Memphis NCAA title game was under 20 million.)

"It's staggering," Krzyzewski said.

Krzyzewski's club has picked up the moniker "Redeem Team" because it is trying to clean up an international image gone sour. A loss to China certainly wouldn't help things, especially since the Chinese never have finished higher than eighth.

But things are different now. In addition to being at home, China is coached by Jonas Kazlauskas, who guided Lithuania to a bronze medal in 2000. Plus, Yao is joined in the starting lineup by Yi Jianlian of the New Jersey Nets and former NBA player Wang Zhizhi. They have more quality players in Wang Shipeng and point guard Liu Wei.

China probably isn't deep enough to win a medal. But one great effort? Sure.

The good news for American fans is the NBAers are expecting to feel like underdogs.

"It's going to be electrifying," James said.

China and the U.S. are both in Group B, so there's added importance to this game. Well, a little.

Four of the six teams in each group advance to the medal round. Since Angola is in the group, only one other team has to fall. Expect the U.S., Spain and Greece to go on, so that leaves China and Germany battling for one spot.