New York — The Olympics are still three months away, and already Yao Ming is trying to work the officials.
Recalling that he fouled out against the United States in his Olympic debut eight years ago, the Houston Rockets All-Star hopes the referees are easier on him when China faces the Americans in its opener in Beijing.
"Hopefully they treat the hosts better," Yao joked this week.
But Yao is serious when he talks about his team's chances. He wants the Chinese to advance out of pool play into the quarterfinals, even though they were drawn into a difficult group and their top two players are recovering from injuries.
"We have a very clear goal, which is we have to at least get into the top eight," Yao said.
Yao had surgery in March to repair a stress fracture in his left foot and said his rehab is on schedule. He is working out on the Alter-G treadmill, which regulates the amount of body weight he puts on the foot. He said he is using about 80 percent of his weight now.
The 7-foot-6 Yao last played Feb. 24 and said he needs to play in "a couple" of exhibition games with the Chinese this summer before they face the Americans on Aug. 10. He showed two years ago he can quickly shake off the rust after a long layoff.
Yao broke his left foot in April 2006 and missed the final four games of that season. He returned in time for the world championships in August and led the tournament with 25.3 points per game, delivering a 36-point, 10-rebound performance in a victory over Slovenia to close pool play that backed up his guarantee that China would advance to the round of 16.
The Chinese would have to finish in the top four of their six-team group in Beijing to move on. But besides the United States, Group B also includes defending world champion Spain and will be filled by two more teams from a qualifying tournament in July.
"Certainly there are teams in our group that we are not on the same level with, but I believe there are opportunities, and they are there for us to pursue," Yao told the Beijing reporters. "Even though we didn't make it to the final six in 2006, but we did very well."
Yao said he recently spoke to teammate Yi Jianlian, who missed the final eight games of the regular season with a sprained ligament in his left knee. Yao believes the time off should help the Milwaukee Bucks forward, who struggled with inconsistency and injury toward the tail end of his rookie season.
"He really needs some rest. He played about 30 games last summer with the national team and almost 70 games in his rookie season," Yao said. "For a rookie, maybe a little too much, 100 games too much. That was from regular season all the way through the finals, almost like that."
If Yao and Yi are healthy, China will have a strong frontcourt. And if the Chinese play well, Yao thinks even a top-six finish is possible.
"Hopefully this time in our homeland we can get some surprise for our people and for ourselves, too," he said. "But in the Olympics, no easy games."