Basketball was Han Qi Chi's game of choice. But in China, sport is not necessarily a matter of choice. And Shanghai's sports authorities saw things differently.
Badminton _ that game we think of as an amusing diversion while waiting for the franks and burgers to sizzle _ is China's passion. And the 12-year-old Han was an exceptional athlete. That was all there was to it. Han would be among the few hundred youngsters selected to participate in national badminton tryouts.
Six months later, Han was one of three boys assigned to the national junior professional program.
"I told my mom, "I don't want to play badminton.' She told me, "No, you must play badminton. Basketball doesn't get you no future.'
Eleven years later, in a country where basketball players make millions and badminton players make barbecues, Han Qi Chi is an American. He is 23-year-old Kevin Han now. He is No. 2 in the nation in singles and No. 1 in doubles (with Tom Reidy) in the sport he once despised. And he is an Olympian.
No income at all
When Han was 8, he said, his parents divorced "and my dad just took off."
"He wrote me once or twice _ that's about all," Han said. "The next time I saw him was nine years later."
Lian-Nian Han asked his son to join him in New York. The youngster had become a highly ranked badminton player, but he dreamed of coming to America.
The dream and the reality were poles apart.
"I thought there would be a big house waiting for me," Han said. "My dad would own a Lincoln Town Car. I would go in and register for my school and would start playing badminton right away."
Instead, he took a cab to a small apartment in Queens, N.Y. He was greeted by a father who had just lost his job as a cook in a Chinese restaurant. His father's wife was pregnant. And 17-year-old Han Qui Chi spoke virtually no English. And if he had been able to scare up a game of badminton, he wouldn't have had time to play.
"We had no money," Han said. "No income at all. I had to work. No school." He worked 11 hours a day (and night) in Chinatown as a busboy in one Chinese restaurant, a bicycle delivery boy for another. He was in a world peopled by prostitutes and pimps, junkies and roving gangs. "I was scared, all the time," he said.
As the months wore on, Han became a carpenter. There was money now, but he still considered going home. There was no badminton, no direction to his life, he said, "but I couldn't do it. If I went home," he said, "it would be as a failure."
He thought he would never play badminton again. But in the spring of '91, a young Taiwanese woman he met in the construction business told him about a club in Queens. Han began playing there and at the Columbia University Badminton Club.
When he won a tournament at Columbia, he attracted the attention of U.S. Badminton Association president Diane Cornell. She invited Han to train at the Olympic Education Center at Northern Michigan University.
In 1992 Han won the national junior championship. But after the Barcelona Olympics, the Northern Michigan badminton program was dropped. Shortly thereafter, at a tournament in Connecticut, Han met Jian Liu, a badminton coach who knew Han's coach in China.
Liu lived in New York and ran a badminton club. He welcomed Han into his house and put him on a training regimen that raised Han's game to world-class level.
"He told me I could win a national championship if I gave him six months," Han said. "I thought he was crazy."
Six months later, Han was the 1994 national champion.
And on Dec. 13 that year, Kevin Han was sworn in as a U.S. citizen. Remembering the date is easy: He has it stitched to an American flag he takes everywhere.
He won the national title last year as well. This year he lost in the final to Steve Butler, who resigned with the No. 1 ranking. Butler, a former British champion, will be the U.S. coach at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
Even before gaining citizenship, Han began Americanizing himself.
"When I started playing badminton," he said, "a lot of people had a hard time remembering my name. And I don't feel very comfortable saying my Chinese name. Since there are all these Chinese people here who have English names, I asked a friend if I could have one. She said yes and
gave me a list, and I said, "Kevin's nice.' "
China has about 5-million badminton players. The United States, which produced several world champions a generation or two ago, may have as many as 1-million _ but only 2,700 are registered with the U.S. Badminton Association.
Han said the American image of badminton is this: "You hold a hot dog in one hand and a beer in the other hand while you play in the back yard with a bunch of kids at a barbecue." And maybe that is how it is played here.
But world-class badminton is played at a frantic level that makes tennis look more like horseshoes. The court looks like a miniature tennis court, but with a high net. The game is more wrist, less arm. And unlike a tennis ball, the shuttlecock (also called a birdie) isn't allowed to bounce.
It is the world's fastest racket sport (the shuttlecock is clocked at 200 mph on a good hit) and, when it became an Olympic demonstration sport in 1988, it was the first sold out at the Seoul Summer Games.
At Barcelona, the first-time medals were awarded, and it was one of the most-watched sports on television worldwide. But not in the United States. Not one minute of play was televised here.
Han said he expects it will be 20 to 30 years before the United States medals in badminton. His chances of medaling this year are, well, slim at best.
Yes, Han is No. 2 in the United States. But he is No. 71 in the world.
"If I can win a couple of rounds," he said, "maybe make it to the round of 32 _ or 16 _ that would be great." No American made it past the second round at Barcelona.
As for what might have been Many of the world's top players are Chinese, some of them familiar to Han. "A lot of my friends are the Chinese national team," he said. "Part of me belongs there, but I don't regret it. I feel like an American. I have a lot of American friends. This is my home now."
Meet the athlete
BORN: Nov. 25, 1972, Shanghai, China.
RESIDES: U.S. Olympic Training Center, Colorado Springs, Colo.
HEIGHT: 6-2. WEIGHT: 180.
SCHOOL: Sports Institute of Technology, Shanghai.
RANKINGS: No.2 in singles, No.1 in doubles in United States; No.71 in singles, No.63 in doubles in the world.
PERSONAL BESTS: 1994-95 national singles champion, 1996 runner-up; 1996 national doubles champion (with Tom Reidy); 1995 Pan Am Games silver medalist in doubles (with Reidy) and bronze in singles.