Yao returns at Stankovic Cup, raises hopes for China

HANGZHOU, China -- Yao Ming is back, transforming China's basketball team and providing a big relief for Olympic organizers.

The Houston Rockets center marked his return from injury Thursday with 11 points in just over 12 minutes of play for the Chinese national team in an Olympics warmup against a Serbian squad.

Entering six minutes into the first quarter to huge applause from the crowd in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou, Yao appeared a little rusty, but made a solid contribution to China's kickoff 96-72 victory in the four-team Stankovic Cup tournament.

The game was Yao's first since a stress fracture in his left foot ended his NBA season in February and threatened his star turn as part of China's team.

The injury has caused major concern among China's Olympic organizers expecting him to become the face of the games and his return was certain to help them sleep easier. Yao is considered a leading candidate to carry the Olympic torch on its final leg into Beijing's grandiose new National Stadium.

Yao shot 70 percent from the free throw line, where he scored seven of his points.

He also had four rebounds, one of them on the offensive end, and seemed to find his groove defensively, despite being scored on twice by 7-foot-3 Boban Marjanovic.

Serbian captain Dusan Katnic said his team benefited from playing against Yao.

"It was an honor," Katnic said. "You don't play against Yao every day and it was a great experience that will make us a better team."

China's taciturn coach, Jonas Kazlauskas, was practically gushing in his praise for his 7-foot-6 center.

"Yao tried very hard," the Lithuanian said. "He had no big problems on defense."

Yao walked off the court after the game without speaking to reporters.

Xue Zhen, basketball editor for leading newspaper Titan Sports, said Yao's appearance at the Stankovic Cup served as a massive confidence booster, even if his form wasn't 100 percent.

"This is Yao's Olympic mission," Xue said. "His presence is extraordinarily powerful, and the team is built around him.

"Without Yao, China will become a totally different team."

Former Dallas Mavericks center Wang Zhizhi led the Chinese team with 18 points, with 14 more added by Yi Jianlian, recently acquired by the New Jersey Nets.

China is also scheduled to play test games against Angola and Russia.

Yao returned to light training late last month after X-rays and an MRI scan taken in Houston showed his recovery was on schedule, at about 80 percent healed. Such injuries usually take a year to fully heal.