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The tightly-guarded, winding path to Chinese center Yao Ming was finally cleared early today, with nothing left standing in the Rockets' way, a source close to the negotiations said this morning.

A series of letters from the Rockets in which they pledged to support Yao's intentions to play for the Chinese national team earned the assurances that the CBA would join the Shanghai Sharks in endorsing Yao for a letter of clearance to play in the NBA next season.

The exchange of letters also brought written promises from the CBA that Yao would be available for the duration of the Rockets' regular-season and post-season schedules.

With the recommendations from the CBA and Sharks, receipt of the letter from the Federation Internationale de Basketball (FIBA) is now considered a formality. But the clearance had become the only remaining consideration for the Rockets in their plans to choose Yao with the first pick in tonight's NBA Draft.

The Rockets answered the primary concerns of CBA secretary general Xin Lancheng early Wednesday to complete the negotiations with CBA officials and Yao's representatives in Shanghai and Beijing. Yao's representatives reached financial agreements with the Sharks on Saturday.

The Rockets could have chosen Yao without the letter of clearance from FIBA, but would not have known whether the first pick of the draft would be permitted to play next season.

They had, however, spent the weeks since the NBA Draft Lottery May 19 when they won the top pick working hard to gain Yao's release to play in the NBA, and building expectations that he would be selected.

With negotiations dragging on far longer than expected, the plans - and all the momentum and excitement that had been building - seemed imperiled.

"We like being the center of attention," Rockets chief operating officer George Postolos said of the sweaty palms and nervous stomachs. "You have to want to be in this position if you're in the business. We as an organization want to be in this position.

"Hopefully, we will be like that expectant parent. The best part about it is we're going through it with our fans and with the community, on the edge of the seats. They have been right there with us. They watched each step of the way. They weighed in. They expressed their opinions.

"It could be a great day."

The Rockets had long since given up any pretense about what they hoped to do. By the time the team's delegation of general counsel Michael Goldberg, coach Rudy Tomjanovich, general manager Carroll Dawson and media relations director Nelson Luis returned to Houston from meetings in Shanghai and Beijing June 13, the Rockets intentions were clear.

"We would like this thing to work out," Tomjanovich said that day. "We would like to take Yao Ming."

Even with the last, crucial talks moving slowly on Monday, Dawson said, "We've evaluated him and we've decided that he's the guy we want."

Rockets officials, however, refused to say what they would do if the letter assuring Yao would be permitted to play next season did not come by the start of the draft at 6:30 p.m. tonight, saying instead that they are confident that there will be agreements in China in time.

Yao's representatives, whose confidence has been steadfast through the process, no longer seemed so sure.

"We're still working on it," Yao's co-representative John Huizinga said on Tuesday. "I have a feeling it's going to be a long night. I'm still confident we'll get the release. We know where we are. We'll do what we can. But there is nothing we can point to right now."

The negotiations were at such a sensitive stage that the Rockets even took the unusual step skipping the customary pre-draft media briefing to avoid any comments that could affect talks in Beijing.

But the Rockets have been clear about their feelings for Yao. There is no doubt that they believe in him. They have gone to Shanghai and back to get him.

The Rockets website includes a large photograph of one player, Yao Ming, and daily updates of the progress of the negotiations. There is a link to the link to the Chinese translation of the draft coverage.

The Rockets will host a public draft party at Dave & Buster's on Richmond. The message "Remember the last time the Rockets picked No. 1," has become an advertising slogan in reference to the 1984 selection of the Hakeem Olajuwon.

The Rockets have not described Yao as another Olajuwon, but they were certain that he would be an asset worth the trouble.

"There are a lot of things that impress you when you see him," Dawson said. "First of all, he is overpowering with his size. He's already got a little bit of bulk with his shoulders and his legs being developed. His lower body strength surprised me a little. What you look at when you go watch a big man run is how much lower body strength he's got, how much time it takes him to stop turn around and go the other way. It takes a long run for a lot of big guys to stop and turn around. This guy runs like a 6-5 guy.

"He's got quickness. He's got great size. He's got agility. He can put the ball on the floor from the post with either hand. He shoots the ball with range. He makes 3-pointers. He looks like an excellent passer. On of the skill part of it, he was blessed with a lot of talent. The growing part of it, the physical part of the NBA, he's not used to it nor is anybody before they get into the NBA. It's a big adjustment how physical this league is, so we'll just have to see how he develops there.

"To me, he's got a big upside."

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The "Letter"

SO, this "letter" which includes an agreement for, yao to be able to play the whole season and playoffs with the rockets/play in the olympics with the chinese national team is THE holdup? thats it? So, is THIS article saying it WILL be done before 6:30Pm tonight, or what??? I DO NOT want the clippers screwing up our plans to draft Jay williams, like they did miles....or so it was MY opinion.:devil: :confused:
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