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Athens Flashback: Del Harris coaches the Chinese basketball team

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To say Del Harris stuck out at the 2004 Olympics is an understatement. The veteran NBA coach with the trademark white hair always turned a few heads on a bench full of Chinese players. Harris was brought in to jumpstart China's national basketball program before the Athens Games, but even then he knew what his real duty was. "My job was to try to get the younger guys ready for this year's Olympics (in) 2008 ... our goal (in Athens) was to see if somehow we could get in to the medal round."

Harris who has coached over 300 international games in his career (China, Puerto Rico and Canada) seems to treasure his 2004 Olympic experience most. "The chances of (China) beating Serbia (to advance to the medal round in '04) who had beaten (China) by 70 the last time we played them in the Olympics were pretty slim, but we ended up the greatest victory that (China) has ever had in its (basketball program's) history ... it was one of the great moments in my life."

This was just one of several stories that Harris recounted when I caught up with him last month at the Orlando Summer League. The current Chicago Bulls assistant knows how far China's basketball program has come in just a few short years. Along with former assistant and current Chinese head coach Jonas Kazlauskas, Harris (who was still working as an assistant with the Mavs at the time) implemented a fitness program just five months before the Athens Games that focused on strength training and running form among other things. "(The Chinese players) were not as well conditioned, weren't as strong particularly in the upper body, as the other international teams."

Aside from the conditioning concerns, the veteran coach also realized quickly that China's scouting department, or lack of one, was a problem. Luckily, he had some coaching friends from Lithuania and Australia (they were not in the same pool) who gave him some tape of China's opponents. "We didn't have a good scouting system and we didn't have a good video setup," he said. "When I went (to the '04 Olympics) I had no films of the other teams, I went out and bought two VCR's and a monitor in Athens, I was my own video coordinator."

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Harris found a way though, relying on Yao to help carry the team. Like he has done in Beijing, the 7'6 center had to fight through pain during the tournament. "Yao Ming was great (in Athens)," Harris said. "Yao Ming played that whole time with bloody feet, he had these toe problems that he ended up having operated on later on with the Rockets, but it didn't matter, the guy competed (even though) it was very hard (for him) to run, every game and after practice he'd take off his shoes and the insides of his socks would be red with blood."

Although Harris says he would have enjoyed coaching Yao and company in Beijing, he's realistic about the situation. He knew that he did not have enough time to commit to the team. "(Coaching the Chinese team) was a full time job," Harris said. "There's just no way I can do it, it's not something you go in every four years and do, so I recommended that if they wanted to do better they had to get a full-time guy and they hired my assistant (Kazlauskas)."

It was clear in talking to Harris that he still holds a soft spot for the Chinese basketball program. I have no doubt that he will be watching early this morning when China plays Lithuania in the men's basketball quarterfinals. "It's not realistic to think that I could be there (coaching in Beijing), but I want them to do well."

Photos via Getty Images

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