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Michael Jordan fever sweeps across China

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It was class time at Beijing University, but at 10 a.m. 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 now 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 basket with only five seconds to play. 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, president of the world's most powerful nation, is about to visit China. But to the Chinese, Michael Jordan remains 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 Michael Jordan and U.S. basketball.

"Michael Jordan is much more famous than Clinton here," said Cheng Qian, 20, a Bulls fan and shareholder in the TV set who is a management major at Beijing University.

The Chinese have named him kongz-hong feiren - "space flier." And, in the last 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. recently asked 1,000 urban Chinese to identify the best-known Americansever, Michael 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 Jian-guo-menwai Avenue, street vendors sell Michael Jordan posters. In department stores, Michael Jordan books and calendars sit beside those featuring Hong Kong movie stars and Chairman Mao.

"Of all American things, basketball is the most popular," said Li Fa, a junior, who could not join the crowd in 511 because he is a Jazz fan. "Everyone knows Michael Jordan."

State television began broadcasting prerecorded NBA games in the early 1990s, and recently switched to live broadcasts. On Monday, Chinese viewers had three opportunities to see the final playoff game, which the Bulls won 87-86. The first was live at 7:30 a.m., then there was a taped game at 9 a.m. for the late risers, and finally a replay at 9 p.m.

Chinese are hard pressed to say why they so adore the Bulls and Michael Jordan, who scored 45 points in the final game and was named Most Valuable Player.

"I don't know - because of his skill, and because he alone carries half of the Chicago team," said Li Qixing, 20, another of the TV's share-holders.

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. In skill and in entertainment value, Chinese players are no match for the likes of Dennis Rodman, who played the game with a green design dyed in his hair.

Said Han Bai, a junior, sitting on his bunk bed in jeans and a T-shirt, "I couldn't accept this from a Chinese player, but he's an American, so we expect it."

And U.S. sportscasts have other attractions.

The students who forsook their studies to gather in room 511 on this steamy summer morning, ooohed when they saw Leonardo DiCaprio, star of the film "Titanic," sitting at courtside. And, in a room full of male college juniors, the Jazz's cheerleaders, dancing in skintight black leotards, got the thumbs up as well. Heads nodded in approval as Cheng Qian opined, "In this way, the Jazz are better than the Bulls."