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JAKARTA, Indonesia – He may no longer be playing but ex-Houston Rockets star Yao Ming remains a talismanic figure in Chinese basketball as he inspires a generation of Chinese NBA stars toward a gold medal at the Asian Games.
A China team featuring Rockets center Zhou Qi and Dallas Mavericks guard Ding Yanyuhang looms as a heavy favorite to win men's final against Iran on Saturday.
The men's basketball tournament has been somewhat overshadowed in Jakarta by the success of the combined Koreas women's team, which is also playing for gold.
Yao even took time out to watch the joint Korean women's team, but his focus is clearly on one thing.
Now president of the Chinese Basketball Association after an eight-year NBA career with the Rockets, Yao is still very much the driving force behind basketball in his homeland and is credited with China's resurgence at this Asian Games after the men failed to make the medal rounds at the previous edition in 2014.
"I think the most important thing is he introduced the two national teams system," Zhou Qi said of Yao's decision to bring more players through the national programs in order to broaden the talent pool. "It gives the young players a lot of chances to play more matches to gain experiences. We get better by playing these competitive matches."
Ding credited Yao's experience at the highest level as the main benefit for lifting the current Chinese team.
Yao "has spent all these weeks with us. He is there to give us the feeling of security, which is very important," Ding said. "He shares his experiences with us, gives us a lot of tactical advice. He helps the team a lot."
China was pushed all the way by a Philippines team led by Cleveland Cavaliers guard Jordan Clarkson in the group stages, but recovered to breeze through the quarterfinals and semifinals against Indonesia and Taiwan.
For Zhou, the final presents the chance to cap off a successful two weeks.
"The Asian Games is not over for us," said Zhou, who scored 22 points and had 16 rebounds in the 86-63 win over Taiwan. "We will do everything we can to win in the last match here. We need to fight for this gold medal."
For Iran, Saturday's final presents an opportunity to go one step further than it did at the 2014 Asian Games in South Korea, where it was beaten 79-77 by the hosts in the gold medal match.
"Iran is an opponent which is quite similar to a European team," Ding said. "They are not like Taiwan or South Korea who focus on the techniques. So we must face the strong physical challenge. We will prepare everything we can to face this difficult opponent."