The Chinese school year had ended. Zhaoxu Zhang, then 15, had three months in Yantai City with nothing to do.

"Me and my parents thought that, since I was so tall, I should at least know how to play a little bit of basketball and not just stay in the classroom," he said.

The bookworm hadn't played sports before.

"I was really skinny, and my conditioning was pretty bad," he said. "I didn't really run well."

Zhang practiced with a Chinese high school team, which invited him to play for the team.

He moved to America in 2006, enrolled at American English Academy in Monterey Park, Calif., and joined an AAU team. In 2007, he blocked 10 shots and grabbed 43 rebounds at the Cactus Classic at McKale Center.

Today, Zhang, who adopted the easier-to-say nickname of "Max," is playing for the Pac-10's top team, the Cal Golden Bears, who come to McKale Center on Sunday. Here's a look at the center:

He's tall. At 7 feet 3 inches, he is the tallest Cal player ever. Zhang, whose parents, Yanrong and Lixin, were 6-4 and 5-9, respectively, is second in the Pac-10 with 1.6 blocks per game.

"Just because of the fact I'm usually much taller than the opponent I'm playing against, I've learned some tricks in blocking shots all the years I've been playing," he said. "Right now, what I do is try to stay low and not go up for the fakes. When they release the ball, then I go up.

"If I don't block the shot, then I can contest it.

"The most important reason is that I'm tall, and if I put my hands up, that's pretty tall for them to shoot over me."

Guard Patrick Christopher has seen the results.

"He might not block it, but he will definitely change a shot," he said.

He's rare. The redshirt sophomore is one of three Chinese players in Division I men's basketball, according to the NCAA, whose records of foreign-born players go back to 1995.

Zhang, who learned English in middle school, said Cal's Asian culture eased the transition. He said he hopes to be an example for basketball players back home.

Back home, players debate whether to play collegiately in China or the U.S., or to improve their game by going pro in China.

"My case, it's not that often you see something like it," he said. "One thing I sometimes think about is that, if I can be successful after school - I can get a good degree and be a success basketball-wise - I can be a good model for young people. They'd say, 'Max was a success.' "

He's embracing the culture. Zhang has met Yao Ming - but doesn't consider the Houston Rockets center his favorite player.

"It's Ben Wallace," he said.

Zhang lists "Scrubs" and "Prison Break" as his favorite shows, but said he can only catch up on television after the season ends. The interdisciplinary studies major has a driver's license but no car, and said restaurants around Cal's campus are too pricey.

"I like steaks - a lot," he said. "In China, we don't cook meat in that big a piece."

He said he doesn't "feel a whole lot of difference from here and back home" in China.

"Berkeley is real liberal," he said. "Maybe one thing is, on campus, there are always a lot of protests. That's something new."

He's making an impact. Zhang has a tall task Sunday - helping to stop freshman forward Derrick Williams, who leads the UA with 16 points per game. Zhang said the Golden Bears can't let Williams catch the ball underneath the basket.

In part because of Cal's injury woes this year, Zhang has played in all but two of its 19 games, averaging 12.9 minutes per game. He averages 3.8 points and 2.9 rebounds.

"I did what I could and tried to step up," Zhang said. "In some of the games, I think I really contributed."


Arizona will have to watch its way in the paint Sunday with Max Zhang among those patrolling on defense.


Zhang is the tallest player in Cal's history


Blocks per game, second in the Pac-10 Conference

Reporter Bruce Pascoe contributed to this report