Haixia Zheng was a member of the Los Angeles Sparks during the WNBA’s inaugural season in 1997, and was recently named to the FIBA Hall Of Fame. She is the first ever Chinese athlete to be selected for such honor. Zheng represented China in four Olympic Games and four World Championships from 1983-1998. The Chinese star is one of the most celebrated basketball players in her home country.
At 13 years old, Zheng’s talents were discovered by coaches from the Wuhan Army team. She was already 5’10”, but had only been playing basketball for a year. Zheng quickly rose to prominence on the Chinese National Team. At 17, she made her national team debut at the 1983 World Championships. Zheng averaged 16.7 points per game and the Chinese National Team came in third behind the Soviet Union and United States.
Zheng made her Olympic debut at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. This was rather fitting, considering she would make her WNBA debut in the same city 13 years later. Zheng was just 18 years old at the time, making her one of the youngest Olympians at the games. China won the bronze medal after going 3-3, Zheng leading the way for the young, mostly unknown national team. At the 1988 Games in Seoul, South Korea, Zheng led China to a Silver Medal. She played internationally from 1983 until the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, GA.
In 1997, Los Angeles Sparks General Manager Rhonda Windham knew Zheng’s talent because they played against one another at the 1987 World University Games in Yugoslavia. Windham played college basketball at the University of Southern California, and won a National Championship in 1987 alongside Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer Cheryl Miller. Windham, having played against Zheng then, knew she would be an important addition to the new team.
The Sparks selected Zheng in the WNBA Elite Draft in the second round, 16th overall. She was 30 years old. Though she was on the tail end of her basketball career, Zheng was blazing a trail for Chinese Basketball players at a pivotal moment in history. As the women’s game was growing, the sport was also growing in China. She played in the WNBA for two seasons, a lethal threat in the low post with a strong presence. She recorded a season high 28 points, 10 rebounds, and three blocks against Sacramento in June 1997. Zheng averaged 8.9 points and 4.3 rebounds per game throughout her time in the WNBA. Her career in the league was short lived, but the impact she had on the game continues to live on through the other legendary Chinese Basketball players such as Yao Ming and Jeremy Lin.
Zheng will be inducted into the FIBA Hall of Fame alongside nine other members in the Class of 2021 and the Class of 2020 on June 18. Since retiring from the sport in 1998, Zheng has been coaching basketball and helping to grow the game worldwide.