In her first week as a professional athlete, 19-year-old Han Xu is experiencing what some players might need a whole week to get used to.
Her every waking move is documented by reporters from both sides of the globe. She shared an emotional reunion against former teammates. A clutch performance led her team to a big victory on a prominent stage.
To top it all off, she’s playing in the city with the brightest spotlight in the world.
Thanks to the New York Liberty’s publicized sale, Han gets a chance to make her mark in the so-called Capital of the World. Most of the Liberty’s games will still be held at the cozy Westchester County Center in White Plains. But new ownership allows Han to stretch her massive wingspan across basketball on both sides of the globe.
The Liberty are now under the ownership of Joseph Tsai, who knows a thing or two about the American success story. Born in Taiwan, Tsai has turned his Alibaba Group into one of the most successful multinational conglomerates in the world. The Liberty aren’t his first foray into sports. As a minority owner of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, Tsai helped the team earn their highest win total since 2014. His National Lacrosse League squad, the San Diego Seals, reached the playoffs in their expansion season. It’s safe to say he knows victorious talent when he sees it.
This spring, Han joined that exclusive group.
“Han Xu’s joining (the WNBA) is like Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian,” Tsai told Jonathan White of the South China Morning Post, referring to a pair of China-born basketball stars chosen in the top six of the NBA draft. “It will definitely play a positive role in Chinese basketball and will become a role model for young people, encouraging them to work hard to realize their dreams.”
Tsai’s words were brought to life in numbers. Thursday marked the Liberty’s Barclays Center debut. Looking to spoil the party was Han’s former comrades from the Chinese national team. The Liberty made up an early deficit thanks to Han’s clutch intervention. She won the opening tip and scored the first points of the Liberty’s new era, their first Barclays Center basket. When the 89-71 victory was completed, Han was tied for the scoring lead at 19 with Kia Nurse.
Other victorious figures were released on Monday. The NBA announced that the game’s Chinese broadcast attracted 1.2 million viewers. Social media views added 6.3 million more.
Typical of almost anyone seeking to leave a mark on their field, Han isn’t looking to be the next incarnation of her predecessors. She’s not above learning valuable basketball lessons from the Houston Rockets center, but she wants to be her own unique talent.
“I’m glad and I’ll learn from Yao Ming how to be better,” Han said through her translator Hannah Rothkuo. “I wish to learn from Yao Ming, but develop my own skills and be the best of myself.”
“I hope I can be an inspiring player and motivate people to come out and watch games, and really bring some attention to women’s basketball.”
Upon entry, Han apparently has the potential growth of an entire league and country on her shoulders. She has handled it with the utmost grace thus far. But a reassuring factor in the grand scheme of her New York story’s opening chapters is that she doesn’t walk alone.
Tsai’s support has already meant much to Han. Rothkuo has helped take down a language barrier. The most vital assistance, however, may come on the court, through the other ladies clad in light blue.
There have been no issues in terms of making an international transition with Han in the early going. Her teammates have sung her praises and are looking forward to working with her this season. Head coach Katie Smith added to the accolades after witness Han’s performance on Thursday.
“The one thing we love about (Han) is that she’s able to score the basketball in a variety of ways, whether it’s around the rim or knocking down 15-17 footers,” Smith said. “I thought China was physical with us. They were the aggressors…we became as aggressive as they did and eventually were able to wear them down.”
Han returned the affection as she chalked up Thursday’s win to a team effort.
“I definitely have a lot of fun playing basketball with them,” she said. “It’s been such a cool experience and they’ve all been so supportive and so helpful to any of the questions that I have.”
The victory over China was one of two Liberty games scheduled to go down in Brooklyn (the other comes in August against Seattle). A fanbase more or less sent into exile upon the Westchester news is being rebuilt and has hope thanks to new names both on the court and in the front office.
Asked for her thoughts on Brooklyn after one of her first New York practices, Han displayed one of the most contagious sights of training camp: her infectious smile.
“I like it here. It’s a big city! (I like that) it’s convenient and the big beautiful sky.”
At this rate, that sky is the only limit on Han’s horizon.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffMags5490