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In-depth profile of Yao Ming from The New Yorker.

Discussion in 'Houston Rockets: Game Action & Roster Moves' started by DonKnutts, Dec 3, 2003.

  1. DonKnutts

    DonKnutts Contributing Member

    Jan 16, 2001
    Likes Received:
    Somebody posted a Q&A with the writer of this story from the New Yorker site, but I haven't seen the actually article posted. Here it is ... all 8,000 words of it. Very long but well worth the read for the revealing insight into Yao's personality, his family, and priceless tidbits about his teammates.

    Yao Ming's journey from China to the N.B.A., and back.
    Little Fatty kept leaving it short. Twice he dropped the basketball on the way up, and the third time, when Yao Ming finally lifted him above the rim, he held the ball too low. His name was Sun Haoxuan; he was four years old, weighed fifty-nine pounds, and had been selected by an advertising firm that had recently scouted Beijing kindergartens for a fat boy with round cheeks and big dark eyes. There was a substantial talent pool. In Chinese cities, rising standards of living have combined with the planned-birth policy in a way that recalls the law of conservation of mass: there are fewer children, but often there is more child. It's common for adults to refer to these kids as Xiao Pangzi-Little Fatty. "Get Little Fatty ready!" the director shouted whenever he needed Sun Haoxuan. "Move Little Fatty back two steps!"

    We were at the Beijing Film Studios, where Yao Ming, the starting center for the Houston Rockets, was shooting a television commercial for China Unicom, a telecommunications company. The script was simple: fat child meets seven-foot-six-inch basketball player; basketball player lifts fat child; fat child dunks. What had not been factored in was Little Fatty's behavior. He squirmed away at every opportunity; sometimes he pointed directly at Yao Ming and announced, with an air of sudden revelation, "Yao Ming!" For half an hour, the adults in the studio-cameramen, assistants, tech guys-had been silently aiming ill wishes his way, and maybe that was why, on the fourth take, Yao stumbled and accidentally rammed Little Fatty's nose against the rim. The sounds came in quick succession: a soft thud, a dropped ball-bounce, bounce, bounce-bounce-and then the child began to wail.

    The boy's mother rushed over, and Yao Ming stood helplessly, shoulders slumped. Somebody wiped Little Fatty's face-no blood, no foul. On the next take, he finally dunked the ball, and there was a thin round of applause. Yao wandered over to the edge of the set, where I was standing, and said, in English, "Weight training."

    After a sensational rookie season in the National Basketball Association, Yao, who is twenty-three, had returned to China in early May with one clear objective: to lead the national team to the title in the Asian Basketball Championship, which serves as the regional qualifier for the 2004 Olympics. Usually, China dominates Asian basketball, but this year, because of political problems, Wang Zhizhi, the country's second-best player, had not come back from America. Yao Ming had become involved in a high-profile lawsuit, which was interpreted by the Chinese press as a clash between the rights of the individual and the authority of the state. Increasingly, Yao's world was divided: there was the sanctity of the sport and, off court, a whirlwind of distractions, ranging from the burdensome to the bizarre. When I had last visited him, in July, he was staying with the Chinese team in Qinhuangdao, a seaside town that was hosting an exhibition game against a squad from the United States Basketball Academy. Yao didn't play-he had just received eight stitches in the eyebrow after a teammate elbowed him in practice. Before the game, a China Unicom representative with a digital recorder coached Yao through a series of phrases that would be sold as alarm messages to mobile-phone subscribers. "Wake up, lazy insect!" Yao said obediently, and then his bandaged brow dipped when the woman asked him to repeat it ("More emphasis!").

    That evening, the Chinese nearly threw the game away-in the final quarter, they couldn't handle a full-court press from the ragtag American team. "I think the center needs to come to half-court against the press," Yao told me afterward, in his hotel room. Liu Wei, the Chinese point guard and Yao's best friend, was sprawled on one bed. Yao sat on the other bed, which had been crudely extended: the head consisted of a wooden cabinet covered with blankets. We spoke in English; he talked about the N.B.A. off-season news that he had culled from the Internet. He had not spoken to any of his Houston teammates since returning to China. "Did you hear about Rodman?" Yao said. "He might come back. I can't believe the Lakers got Payton and Malone. I can't believe they only spent six million. If Kobe is O.K., it's like a Dream Team." The names sounded foreign and far away-Mark Cuban, Shaq, Kirilenko. "AK-47," Yao said, using the sports-talk nickname for Andrei Kirilenko, a Russian forward on the Utah Jazz. Yao smiled like a kid at the sound of the phrase. "AK-47," he said again.


    Yao Ming weighed ten pounds at birth. His mother, Fang Fengdi, is over six-two; his father, Yao Zhiyuan, is six-ten. Both were centers: he played for the Shanghai city team, and she was on China's national team. Chinese sports couples aren't uncommon-Yao Ming is dating Ye Li, a six-two forward on the women's national team. When Yao was growing up, the apartment directly overhead was home to the Sha family; the parents had both been point guards for Shanghai teams. "My mother and father were introduced by the basketball organization," Sha Yifeng, a childhood friend of Yao Ming, told me. "In the old days, that's how they took care of your life."

    Today, Yao's parents are in their early fifties, trim and black-haired, and they carry themselves with the physical dignity of athletes. But they speak about basketball with detachment. Neither played the game as a child; sports were a low priority for China in the nineteen-sixties, particularly during the early years of the Cultural Revolution. Later, officials began to restore the national sports system, scouting for height to fill out the basketball rosters. Yao Zhiyuan began to play at the age of nineteen. Fang Fengdi was discovered at sixteen. "To be honest, I didn't much like it," she told me, when I met them both in Shanghai. "I wanted to be a dancer or an actress." By 1970, she was travelling to games around the world with the national team. "I didn't think of it as something I did or didn't want to do," she said. "I thought of it as a responsibility. It was a job."

    In China, competitive sport is a foreign import. Traditional physical activities like wushu and qigong are as much aesthetic and spiritual as they are athletic. Chinese historians say that modern sport began after the 1839-42 Opium War. In the following decades, as foreign traders and missionaries established themselves in treaty ports, their schools and charitable institutions introduced Western competitive sports. American missionaries brought basketball to China at the end of the nineteenth century.

    During the early nineteen-hundreds, as the Chinese struggled to overcome foreign occupation, they began to see sports as a symbolic way to avenge the injustices of the past century. The goal was to beat the foreigner at his own game. After the Communists came to power, in 1949, they established a state-funded sports-training system modelled on the Soviet Union's. Promising young athletes were recruited for special "sports schools."

    When Yao Ming entered the third grade, he was five-seven, and Shanghai's Xuhui District Sports School selected him for its after-school basketball program. Recently, I visited Yao's first coach, Li Zhangming, who, like a traditional Chinese educator, spoke of Yao in completely unsentimental terms ("He didn't much like basketball. He was tall, but slow and uncoordinated"). After our conversation, I wandered around the basketball courts of Shanghai's No. 54 Middle School, where the Xuhui Sports School holds some of its practices. I watched a group of young girls performing basketball drills, then introduced myself to the coach, a tall woman named Tao Yanping.

    "I was a teammate of Yao's mother," Tao said. "I went to their wedding. I remember giving them towels and thermoses-things you gave newlyweds back then. See that girl there?" She pointed out a red-faced child, the tallest on the court. "Her mother was also my teammate. That girl is in the third grade. Her mother is 1.83 metres tall, and she made the national team."

    I asked Tao how she recruited. "We go to the schools and look at the children's height, and then we check their parents' height," she said.
    The two-hour practice consisted mostly of ballhandling drills. Tao was attentive, shouting commands at her charges ("Little Swallow, you're travelling! Who taught you to do that?"). At the end of the practice, tall parents materialized at courtside. Zhang Jianrong, a woman who was nearly six feet tall, told me that basketball was just a healthy activity for her daughter; the girl's studies were more important. Like the other parents, Zhang was a basketball mom in a country that selects its basketball moms by height.

    The method of early recruitment is a product of China's inability to provide every public school with coaches and sports facilities. The system has proved effective in low-participation, routine-based sports like gymnastics and diving, but when it comes to basketball it may be China's greatest weakness. In America, where community leagues and school coaches are plentiful, athletes emerge from an enormous pyramid of participants. Some, like Allen Iverson, rise to the top with remarkable passion and creativity-but if a recruiter had shown up at the Iverson home when Allen was in the third grade, he would have found no father and a short mother who had given birth at the age of fifteen. It's significant that China has yet to produce a great male guard-the position requires skill and intensity rather than height. All three Chinese players in the N.B.A. are centers, and two are second-generation centers. The Chinese national team is notorious for choking in key games, partly because the ballhandling is inconsistent. Players rarely appear to enjoy themselves, and their character has not been formed by true competition; even as free-market reforms have changed many Chinese industries, the sports world is a throwback to socialism, with its careful planning and career stability. Once, when I asked Yao Ming how many Chinese would be in the N.B.A. in a decade, he said only three or four.

    Throughout Yao Ming's childhood, his parents emphasized that basketball was a hobby, not a career. "When I was small, I always wanted to be famous," Yao told me. "I thought I'd be a scientist or maybe a political figure. It didn't matter, as long as I was famous." In sixth grade, he grew taller than his mother. He surpassed his father's height in ninth grade. By then, he was already under contract to the Shanghai Sharks youth team. When he was seventeen, and seven-two, Yao Ming joined the Chinese national team. Relatives told me that it wasn't until then that his parents resigned themselves to his career as a professional athlete.

    Once, I asked Fang Fengdi if there had been a moment when she first sensed that basketball inspired Yao Ming. It was the only time she really smiled when discussing the sport, and I sensed that she was talking about herself as much as about her son. She said, "The Harlem Globetrotters came to Shanghai when he was in elementary school. Tickets were really hard to get-I was able to find only two. I remember thinking, Americans are good at enjoying themselves! Those players took a normal sport and turned it into something else-a performance. Afterward, I could tell that it made a deep impression on Yao Ming."


    The first male player to make the jump from mainland China to top-level American basketball was Ma Jian, a forward who played at the University of Utah for two years in the nineteen-nineties. Ma noticed that during Utah's pre-game meetings, an assistant coach sometimes wrote a "W" or a "B" on the chalkboard next to an opposing player's name. "The white players were shooters," Ma explained to me, when we met recently in Beijing. "If he put a 'B' there, we knew they were athletes." Ma never saw a "C" on the board. In 1995, Ma tried out for the Los Angeles Clippers. "The first time I stepped onto the team plane in the pre-season, I saw the blacks sitting on one side and the whites on the other. I looked at myself-should I go on the brothers' side or the whites' side?"

    Last year, after the Rockets selected Yao Ming with the first pick in the N.B.A. draft, it was less than a week before somebody in the league made a remark that could be construed as racist. During a television interview, Shaquille O'Neal, the N.B.A.'s dominant center, announced, "Tell Yao Ming, 'Ching chong yang wah ah so.' " O'Neal's joke went largely unnoticed at the time, but it was resurrected in January of this year, when a columnist for Asian Week attacked O'Neal for it.
    The column sparked a media frenzy shortly before Shaq and Yao's first on-court meeting. But Yao immediately defused the controversy.

    "There are a lot of difficulties in the two different cultures understanding each other," he said. "Chinese is hard to learn. I had trouble with it when I was little." The N.B.A. released a statement pointing out that the league included players from thirty-four countries. By game time, the issue was all but dead. The Rockets won by four points, in overtime; O'Neal outplayed Yao, but Yao had a spectacular start and held his own. Afterward, O'Neal told the press, "Yao Ming is my brother. The Asian people are my brothers."

    In February, I spent most of the month following Yao's games, and people repeatedly brought up the O'Neal incident. None of the black fans I talked to had anything bad to say about Yao-many believed he brought something fresh to American sports. "It's not like normal, where people say, well, he's a black athlete, so he moves like this, or he's a white athlete, so he shoots like that," Darice Hooper, a physical therapist who was attending the All-Star Game, in Atlanta, told me.

    Juaquin Hawkins, one of Yao's teammates on the Rockets, agreed. "It's not just people thinking, I'm rooting for him because he's African-American, or I'm rooting for him because he's white," he told me. Hawkins was familiar with the outsider's role. A native of Lynwood, California, he had failed to make the N.B.A. in 1997, and the following year he wound up playing professionally in Chongqing, deep in the Chinese interior. I had lived in the same region, and Hawkins laughed when I mentioned the basketball slang there. If a player shoots an air ball, the fans shout "yangwei"; in the Sichuan dialect, it means "impotent." To encourage the home team, they chant "xiongqi" ("erection").

    There are few foreigners in Chongqing, and even fewer blacks. I asked Hawkins how he had coped with being so different. "I always felt like I was representing my heritage," he said. "Lynwood is next to Compton. There's a lot of negative things said about that area, and that's something I take with me wherever I go. But I had a good childhood. I was raised by my mother. I try to represent that."

    An uncle had introduced Hawkins to basketball as a child; he never met his father. "All I know is his first name, and the fact that he didn't want to deal with having a family," Hawkins said. He met his wife through basketball-both had played at Lynwood High School, and then at Long Beach State. In addition to Chongqing, Hawkins had played professional basketball in Taiwan, Japan, and the Philippines. He had toured with the Harlem Globetrotters ("That was actually real beneficial"). In the summer of 2002, he tried one last time to make the N.B.A., attending the Rockets' camp, where he established himself as a defensive specialist and beat out two other unsigned players for a roster spot. At twenty-nine, he was the oldest rookie in the league to make an opening-day lineup. When Hawkins learned that he was on the team, he telephoned his mother and wept.


    Successful athletes are inevitably displaced-if you're good, you leave home-and something is always lost in transition. Much of what Hawkins carried onto the court would have been invisible to Chongqing fans, who know nothing about Compton or American single-parent families. In Chongqing, Hawkins was simply an excellent player who looked completely different from everybody else in the city. When I lived in a nearby town, it was common for crowds of twenty or more to gather and gawk at me on the street. A local night club once hired an African dancer, knowing that his freakishness would draw customers.

    Yao Ming had an excellent rookie season, and there were clear signs that eventually he'd develop into a dominant center. But the Rockets ran only about thirty plays a game to him; initially, his American fame resulted from his height and his off-court persona. He handled attention with remarkable humor and grace. He also appealed to the national missionary instinct: if Americans had failed to convert the Chinese to God and democracy, at least we were turning them into N.B.A. fans. The American media portrayed Yao as a non-threatening figure-a gentle giant.

    But he entered another world whenever he dealt with the Chinese press. After a difficult defeat in Los Angeles, where Yao had fouled out for the first time in his N.B.A. career, a Chinese reporter asked what it had been like to be dunked on by Kobe Bryant. Yao said evenly, "Please don't ask me about an incident in which I have no face." At an All-Star Game press conference, Yao showed up wearing an old Chinese national team sweatshirt, and a Chinese reporter asked why. "It's comfortable, that's all," Yao said. Another reporter asked, "If you could say one sentence to all of the young Chinese players back home, what would you say?" Yao's sentence: "I don't believe that I can say very much with one sentence."

    Even as they idolized him, few people in China seemed to realize how different Yao was from the typical Chinese athlete. When he played, the joy was apparent on his face. He hit free throws in the clutch, and the Rockets learned to run plays to him at the end of close games. Often, he subtly deflected the patriotic questions of the Chinese media, as if sensing that such concerns were too heavy to bear on the court.

    The Chinese motivation for sport is so specific and limited-the nationalism, the sports schools-that it rarely survives a transplant overseas. Athletics has meant little to most Chinese-American communities, including the one in Houston, which has grown rapidly in the past decade. The city has an estimated fifty thousand Chinese, as well as large numbers of ethnic Chinese from Vietnam. Houston's Chinese tend to be highly educated, with an average annual household income of more than fifty thousand dollars-higher than the city's average.

    The largest Asian district in Houston is along Bellaire Boulevard-a six-mile strip-mall Chinatown. In February, I spent two afternoons driving along Bellaire, where some of the signs reminded me that locals were adjusting to a new culture (All Stars Defensive Driving); others reflected success (Charles Schwab, in Chinese characters); and some were distinctly Chinese (a lot of beauty parlors-the Chinese are meticulous about their hair).

    But I couldn't find anything having to do with basketball. Though everybody loved Yao Ming, people told me that the children in the community didn't play sports much; they were too busy studying. I searched for hours before finding a single sporting-goods store-Sports Net International, in a mall called Dynasty Plaza-and they stocked gear only for racquet sports. "The Chinese are not so interested in basketball, because of their size," David Chang, the owner, told me. "But if you're interested in Yao Ming you should talk to the people at Anna Beauty Design. They cut his hair."

    Upstairs at the hair salon, a Taiwanese woman sat behind the receptionist's desk. I asked if Yao Ming got his hair cut there.

    "No," she said. "Yao Ming does not get his hair cut here."

    I tried again. "Does somebody from Anna's go to Yao Ming's home to cut his hair?"

    "That's something I can't answer," she said coyly. A moment later, the manager walked in. "This guy's a reporter," she told him. "He wants to know if we cut Yao Ming's hair."

    The manager shot me a dirty look. "Don't tell him we do that," he said.
    The receptionist added, exactly five seconds too late, "He speaks Chinese."

    All told, I tracked down three defensive-driving schools, six banks, and fourteen beauty salons-but no lanqiu. In Houston's Chinatown, it was easier to find Yao Ming's barber than a basketball.


    At the end of February, the Rockets embarked on a critical East Coast road trip. Their final game was against the Washington Wizards; both teams were fighting to make the playoffs in their respective conferences, and Yao Ming was in the running to be named Rookie of the Year. This would be the final meeting between Yao Ming and Michael Jordan, who was retiring in order to return to his position as president of the Wizards.

    The night before the Washington game, the Chinese Embassy hosted a special reception for Yao. Chinese food and Yanjing beer were served-the Beijing-based brewery had signed a Rockets sponsorship after Yao Ming was drafted. The Embassy's meeting room filled quickly: diplomats and emigres, Sinophiles and market analysts. Scraps of conversation floated in the air.

    "Yanjing paid six million dollars. Their distributor is Harbrew."

    "Who gives a sixty-year distribution contract? But you know, from the Chinese point of view, it's a stream of production. They don't understand the concept of branding."

    "He's been in China fifteen years as a value-added player."

    "Actually, I'm with the White House press office."

    "You know, Anheuser-Busch owns twenty-seven per cent of Tsingtao."

    "There he is! Did you get a picture?"

    "Imagine being that tall!"

    A round of applause followed Yao into the room. Lan Lijun, the minister of the Embassy, gave a short speech. He mentioned Ping-Pong diplomacy and "the unique role sports have played in bringing our countries together." In closing, he said, "We have full confidence that China and the United States will work together to continue to improve our bilateral relations."

    Yao, in a gray suit, stooped to reach the microphone. Behind him, a display case held a ceramic horse from the Tang dynasty. Red lanterns hung from the ceiling. Yao spoke for less than a minute, and he didn't say anything about Sino-American relations. "Seeing all these lanterns reminds me of home," he said softly, in Chinese. "When I was growing up, my impression of the Chinese Embassy was like a fantasy, something you see on television and in the movies."

    There was a rush for autographs, and staff members hustled Yao into a back room. In the corner, a pretty Eurasian girl in a red dress was crying. Her parents said that Yao had walked past without signing her invitation. "He's her favorite player," the mother told me, adding that the girl had been adopted from Uzbekistan. A staff member took her invitation, promising to get an autograph.

    Yao was at the Embassy for nearly two hours. After he left, people stood around in groups, chatting and drinking Yanjing. We had reached the Sino-American witching hour-the Chinese guests, always prompt, were gone, but the Americans lingered, in the way that Americans do. I found myself standing next to Chen Xiaogong, the defense attache. Chen was glassy-eyed; he kept touching his watch. "I'm surprised so many Americans know Yao Ming," he said.


    The next night, Kha Vo sings Francis Scott Key and Michael Jordan comes out hot. Four baskets in the first quarter: turnaround, jump shot, jump shot, turnaround. Ten days earlier, Jordan celebrated his fortieth birthday, and since then he's been averaging nearly thirty points a game. Yao works against Brendan Haywood, the Wizards' seven-foot center. Haywood looks short tonight. Six points for Yao in the first quarter; Rockets down by nine. Sold-out arena: twenty-thousand-plus. Lots of Asians-red flags in the upper levels.

    Second quarter: Rudy Tomjanovich, the Rockets' coach, plays a hunch and goes with Juaquin Hawkins, who rarely sees action. Hawkins nails a twenty-footer, then a three-pointer. He draws a charge and steals a pass. Hawkins looks hungry, as if he'd just escaped from Chongqing: he hasn't scored in nine days. Moochie Norris runs the point for the Rockets. Moochie has cornrows, a barrel chest, and four Chinese characters tattooed on his left wrist: "huan de huan shi." ("Never satisfied," he told me, when I asked him what it meant, and then I crossed to the other side of the locker room and asked Yao. "It actually doesn't have a very good meaning," he said. "Basically, you'll do whatever it takes to protect yourself.") Yao doesn't score in the second quarter. Jordan has eighteen. Rockets down by twenty. Halftime show: Chinese lion dance, followed by an announcement about Black History Month.

    Houston sleepwalks through the third. At one point, they trail by twenty-four. In the final quarter, Maurice Taylor, a Rockets forward, starts to hit jumpers. With six minutes to go, Houston down by fourteen, Tomjanovich brings in Yao, and the game turns. Hawkins sinks a three, then knocks the ball loose from Tyronn Lue. The two players collide, and Lue falls, writhing in pain. Separated shoulder, cut eye: good night, Tyronn. Four straight baskets by the Rockets. In the final three minutes, Yao steps to the free-throw line four times, and nails everything. Haywood fouls out. Overtime.

    Hawkins guards Jordan, and they trade baskets to start the extra period. Yao makes a baby hook to give the Rockets the lead. The Wizards feed Jordan every time down the court, and now, after playing for forty-five minutes, he suddenly finds new life. Turnaround jumper over Hawkins. Next possession: Jordan crossover dribble to his left; Hawkins freezes-dunk. Next possession: Jordan hard drive; Hawkins falls, no call-jumper. Next possession: Jordan drives; Hawkins lags, Yao goes for the block-goaltending. Jordan scores ten in overtime and finishes with thirty-five points and eleven rebounds. Yao has sixteen and eleven; Hawkins scores ten. In the final seconds, with the Rockets down by two, Yao gets a defensive rebound and, instead of calling a time-out, throws the outlet pass. Bad shot. Rockets lose.


    After the game, in the Rockets' locker room, Hawkins sat alone on a bench. "It was frustrating," he told me, shaking his head. "He's the greatest player ever."

    Yao sat in front of his locker, a towel wrapped around his waist; the Chinese media pressed close. He told them that he should have called the time-out.

    In the Wizards' locker room, I joined a group of reporters waiting for Jordan. After the other players had left, he appeared behind a lectern, dressed in a gray pin-striped suit. Somebody asked if the Wizards would make the playoffs. "I've never had a doubt that we would," Jordan said.

    Another reporter asked about the overtime period. Jordan talked about Hawkins: "I was going against a young kid who didn't really know how to play, and he tried a couple of flops."

    Somebody asked about Yao. "You can sit here and talk about how good he eventually could be," Jordan said. "But at some point he's going to have to showcase what everybody expects."

    Jordan spoke with an athlete's bluntness; on the court, it didn't matter where the players had come from or where they were going. For fifty-three minutes, the competition was more important than everything that surrounded it. But, like so many games, this one receded into the essence of statistics-the meaningless points, the pointless minutes. In the end, neither the Wizards nor the Rockets made the play-offs. Michael Jordan never again collected thirty points and ten rebounds in a game, and in May, after retiring, he was forced out of the Wizards organization. Less than three weeks after the Washington game, Rudy Tomjanovich was diagnosed with bladder cancer, and he stepped down as coach. Yao Ming did not win Rookie of the Year. And this season Juaquin Hawkins, after failing to make an N.B.A. team, rejoined the Harlem Globetrotters.

  2. DonKnutts

    DonKnutts Contributing Member

    Jan 16, 2001
    Likes Received:
    The rest of the story:

    Although it is difficult for a Chinese athlete to come to America, it may be even harder for him to return home. The most troubled transition has been that of Wang Zhizhi, a seven-one center, who emerged in the late nineties, when the Communist Party was restructuring many of its sports bureaus into for-profit entities. The Chinese Basketball Association hoped to become self-sufficient, through corporate sponsorships and income from its professional league, known as the C.B.A. In this climate, the C.B.A. has become a strange beast: its sponsors include private companies, state-owned enterprises, and the People's Liberation Army, which runs a team called the Bayi Rockets. Wang Zhizhi played for Bayi, and in 1999 the Dallas Mavericks selected him in the second round of the N.B.A. draft. For nearly two years, Dallas courted Wang's bosses, trying to convince them to let the player go. Wang was officially a regimental commander in the P.L.A.

    In the spring of 2001, Dallas and Bayi finally came to an agreement, and Wang became the first Chinese to play in the N.B.A. He was twenty-three years old. In the off-season, Wang returned home, as promised, representing both the national team and Bayi. But after Wang's second N.B.A. season, in which he averaged about five points a game, he requested permission to delay his return to China so that he could play in the N.B.A.'s summer league. He promised to join the national team in time for the World Championships, in August.

    The Chinese national team is notorious for its gruelling practice schedule-twice a day, six days a week. Fear shapes the routine; coaches know that they will be blamed if the squad loses, so they log countless hours and resist innovation. Before games, the Chinese men's team warms up by conducting the same rudimentary ballhandling drills that I watched the third-grade girls perform in Shanghai.

    In the summer of 2002, Chinese authorities refused Wang's request and ordered him to return, but he stayed in the United States anyway. Dallas did not offer him a contract, reportedly in part because they did not want to ruin the good relationship that they had developed with the Chinese. In October, Wang signed a three-year six-million-dollar contract with the Los Angeles Clippers. Since then, Clippers games have been banned from Chinese television (N.B.A. broadcasts often draw as many as fourteen million viewers in China). The ban has turned Wang into a marketing liability-one N.B.A. general manager told me that teams are wary of signing him in the future.

    Wang, whose military passport has expired, reportedly received a green card last season. Over the summer, he tried to negotiate a return to China, asking for a new civilian passport and a guarantee that he could come back to the N.B.A. after the Asian Championship. The chain of communication had grown so complicated that Wang relied heavily on a Chinese sportswriter named Su Qun to contact P.L.A. leaders and basketball officials. "I know that as a journalist I should stay out of this," Su, who writes for Beijing's Titan Sports Daily, told me. "But I happen to be close to Wang. We have to save him, like saving Private Ryan."

    Wang, who declined my request for an interview, did not return to China. I spoke about him with Li Yuanwei, the secretary-general of the Chinese Basketball Association. "Wang has placed too much emphasis on his personal welfare," Li said. "I assured him that there is no risk. The P.L.A. also assured him. But he doesn't believe us, and he keeps demanding conditions that are not necessary. It's very sad."

    Wang's problems formed a troubling backdrop to Yao Ming's move to the N.B.A. last year. Yao promised to fulfill his national-team commitments during the off-season, and he reportedly will pay the C.B.A. five to eight per cent of his N.B.A. salary for his entire career. He also will pay the Shanghai Sharks, his C.B.A. team, a buyout that is estimated to be between eight million and fifteen million dollars, depending on his endorsements and the length of his career. Yao's four-year contract with the Rockets is worth $17.8 million, and already his endorsement income is higher than his salary.

    But even Yao's sponsorship potential has been threatened by the irregularities of China's sports industry. In May, Coca-Cola issued a special can in Shanghai decorated with the images of three national-team players, including that of Yao, who already had a contract with Pepsi. The basketball association had sold Yao's image to Coca-Cola without his permission, taking advantage of an obscure sports-commission regulation that grants the state the right to all "intangible assets" of a national-team player. The regulation appeared to be in direct conflict with Chinese civil law. Yao filed suit against Coca-Cola in Shanghai, demanding a public apology and one yuan-about twelve cents. The Chinese press interpreted the lawsuit as a direct challenge to the nation's traditional control of athletes.

    When I spoke with Li Yuanwei, of the basketball association, he emphasized that Coca-Cola was an important source of funding, and he hoped that the company and Yao would reach an agreement out of court. Li told me that Americans have difficulty understanding the duties of an athlete in China, where the state provides support from childhood. I asked if the same logic could be applied to a public-school student who attends Peking University, starts a business, and becomes a millionaire. "It's not the same," Li said. "Being an athlete is a kind of mission. They have an enormous impact on the ideas of the common people and children. That's their responsibility."

    Before I travelled to Harbin, in northeastern China, to attend the Asian Championship, I talked with Yang Lixin, a law professor at People's University in Beijing. Yang was preparing a seminar on the Coca-Cola case. "Contact with American society probably gave Yao some new ideas," Yang told me. "It's like Deng Xiaoping said-some people will get wealthy first. Development isn't equal, and in a sense rights also aren't equal. Of course, they are equal under law, but one person might demand his rights while another does not. It's a choice. In this sense, Yao Ming is a pioneer."


    Displaced people have always wandered to Harbin. During the twentieth century, they came and went: White Russians, Japanese militants, the Soviet Army. Even today, much of the architecture is Russian. Harbin's symbol is the former St. Sofia Church: gold crosses, green onion domes, yellow halos around white saints. The city has one of the last Stalin Parks in China.

    At the end of September, sixteen teams arrived for the Asian Championship; the winner would qualify for the Olympics. The squads came from shadowy lands. Most of the Kazakhstan players were in fact Russians whose families had stayed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Malaysian team had a peninsular range: ethnic Chinese, Indians, Malays. Qatar's team included athletes from Africa and Canada-opponents grumbled that they had loosened the definition of a Qatari. The Syrian coach was a black man from Missouri; the Qatar coach was a white man from Louisiana. Iran's coach was a Serb who told me that his playing career had been cut short; he pulled up his sleeve to reveal a cruel scar ("Not long after that, I started coaching").

    Except for the Chinese team, everybody stayed at the Singapore Hotel. Tall people in sweatsuits lounged in the lobby. The South Korean team included Ha Seung-Jin, an eighteen-year-old who is seven-three, weighs three hundred and sixteen pounds, and has basketball bloodlines-his father was once a center for the Korean national team. People expect Ha to be a first-round N.B.A. draft pick next year. The league has never included a Korean. "I want to be a Korean Yao Ming," he told me, through an interpreter (who added that the young player's nickname is Ha-quille O'Neal). Ha was eager to play Yao; everybody expected China and South Korea to meet in the final. Last year, in the Asian Games, South Korea had upset the Chinese. Ha hoped to get Yao into foul trouble. "Yao Ming likes to spin to his right," Ha said. "I'll establish position there and draw the foul."

    The other seven-three player in the tournament was an Iranian named Jaber Rouzbahani Darrehsari. Darrehsari had played for only three years, since being discovered in the city of Isfahan, where his father sells fruit and vegetables in a market. Darrehsari's wingspan is more than eight feet. Once, when he was leaving the court after a game, I asked him to touch the rim of the basket. He hopped ever so lightly, and then stood still: fingers curled around the metal, the balls of both feet planted firmly on the hardwood. He was seventeen years old. He had dark, long-lashed eyes, and he hadn't yet started shaving-it was as if a child's head had been attached to an elongated body with dangling arms. In Iran's first two games, Darrehsari played only a few minutes; smaller opponents shoved him mercilessly. He looked terrified on the court. Sitting on the bench, he almost never smiled.


    The Chinese team stayed at the Garden Hamlet Hotel, a walled compound reserved for central-government leaders. All summer, Yao had been unable to appear in public without attracting a mob. In August, the Chinese media reported that a medical exam had revealed that Yao had high blood pressure. His agents said the condition was temporary, and a message from Yao appeared on his official Web site: "I have been exhausted because of the poor security at the National Team games . . . too many public appearances and commitments by the Chinese National Team, and incessant fan disturbances at the team hotel."

    A few hours before China played Iran, one of Yao's agents told me that I could meet with his client. Yao is represented by an entity known as Team Yao, which consists of three Americans, two Chinese, and one Chinese-American. Half the team had come to Harbin-Erik Zhang, Yao's distant cousin and the team leader; John Huizinga, a deputy dean at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, where Zhang is a student; and Bill A. Duffy, who heads BDA Sports Management. They were accompanied by Ric Bucher, a senior writer for ESPN the Magazine, who had signed on to write the official Yao biography. A day earlier, Yao had agreed to a multiyear endorsement contract with Reebok. A source close to the negotiations told me that the deal, which is heavy with incentives, could be worth well over a hundred million dollars-potentially the largest shoe contract ever given to an athlete.

    A guard let us into the compound; we walked through rows of willows, past well-kept lawns decorated with concrete deer. It was raining hard. In Yao's room, there was little sign that the shoe contract had changed his life. The shades were drawn; discarded clothes were everywhere. Liu Wei, the point guard, lay in a tangle of sheets. The only difference from the day I'd seen Yao at his hotel room in Qinhuangdao was that this time they had put the wooden cabinet at the foot of his bed.

    The night before, after China had defeated the Taiwanese team by sixty points, Yao had sprained his left ankle while boarding the team bus. Now Duffy, a former player in his forties, was examining him. The ankle was slightly swollen. He told Yao to ice it immediately after that night's game. Yao answered that there was no ice at the arena.

    Duffy looked up at him, incredulous. "They don't have ice?" The games were being held in a converted skating rink in a sports complex less than two hundred miles from the Siberian border.

    "No ice," Yao said again, and then he spoke in Chinese to Zhang: "I've been getting acupuncture."

    After a few minutes, Team Yao left the room. Yao and I chatted about the tournament, and then I mentioned that his first coach had told me that Yao didn't like basketball as a child. "That's true," Yao said. "I didn't really like it until I was eighteen or nineteen."

    I asked Yao about his first trip to the United States, in 1998, when Nike had organized a summer of training and basketball camps for him. "Before then, I was always playing with people who were two or three years older than me," he said. "They were always more developed, and I didn't think that I was any good. But in America I finally played against people my own age, and I realized that I was actually very good. That gave me a lot of confidence."

    He talked about how difficult it had been when he first moved to Houston ("Everything about the environment was strange"), and I asked him about the differences between sport in China and in America.

    "In China, the goal has always been to glorify the country," Yao said. "I'm not opposed to that. But I personally don't believe that that should be the entire purpose of athletics. I also have personal reasons for playing. We shouldn't entirely get rid of the nationalism, but I do think that the meaning of sport needs to change. I want people in China to know that part of why I play basketball is simply personal. In the eyes of Americans, if I fail then I fail. It's just me. But for the Chinese if I fail then that means that thousands of other people fail along with me. They feel as if I'm representing them."

    I asked about the pressure. "It's like a sword," he said. "You can hold it with the blade out or with the blade pointing toward yourself." Then I mentioned Wang Zhizhi's situation.

    "There's an aspect of it that I shouldn't talk about," Yao said slowly. "It's best if I simply speak about basketball. If Wang were here, it would be good for me. I just know that if he played I wouldn't feel as if so much of the pressure was falling onto one person."

    I asked about the Coca-Cola lawsuit. "I always put the nation's benefit first and my own personal benefit second," Yao said. "But I won't simply forget my own interests. In this instance, I think that the lawsuit is good for my interests, and it's also good for other athletes. If this sort of situation comes up in the future for another athlete, I don't want people to say, 'Well, Yao Ming didn't sue, so why should you?' "


    No pre-game national anthems at the Asian Championship. Before tonight's game, the loudspeaker plays an instrumental version of the theme from "Titanic." The Iranians look nervous. Sold-out arena: four-thousand-plus. The stands are full of Thundersticks-they are, after all, manufactured in China-but nobody seems to know how to use them. The lack of noise feels like intense concentration. The spectators cheer both sides-enthusiastically when the Chinese score, politely for an Iranian basket.

    The coach plays a hunch and starts Darrehsari. On every possession, the Iranians avoid Yao's lane, swinging the ball along the perimeter: Eslamieh to Bahrami to Mashhady. Mashhady to Bahrami to Eslamieh. Yao does not score for nearly six minutes. At last, he brushes Darrehsari aside, grabs an offensive rebound, and dunks with both hands. Tie game. Next possession: China leads. Next possession: bigger lead. Eslamieh to Bahrami to Mashhady. Somebody throws it to Darrehsari, fifteen feet out. Yao doesn't bother to challenge. The shot develops as a chain reaction across the entire length of Darrehsari's frame: knees bend, waist drops, elbows buckle, long hands snap-swish. Running back down the floor, he tries to fight back a smile. A few possessions later, he fouls Yao hard. Darrehsari is all elbows and knees, but for the first time in the tournament he looks like he wants to be on the court. The coach plays him the entire half. He scores four and leads Iran with four rebounds. After the halftime buzzer, his teammates clap him on the back.

    Yao plays half the game: fifteen points, ten rebounds. He looks bored. China wins by twenty-four. Later, Yao tells me diplomatically that Darrehsari has potential. "It depends on environment," Yao says. "Coaching, teammates, training." For the rest of the tournament, Darrehsari does not play half as many minutes. The day after the China game, he beams and tells me, "It was an honor to play against Yao Ming."


    Before the final, China Unicom unveiled its new commercial at a press conference attended by more than a hundred Chinese journalists. Scenes flashed across a big screen: the ball, the boy, the giant, the dunk. Little Fatty looked adorable. Li Weichong, China Unicom's marketing director, gave a speech. "In America, people talk about the Ming dynasty," he said. "What does this mean? Now that Michael Jordan has retired, the N.B.A. needs another great player. Our Yao Ming could be the one." The press conference ended with the theme from "Titanic."

    South Korea and China played for the title on National Day-the fifty-fourth anniversary of the founding of Communist China. Ha Seung-Jin, the eighteen-year-old, came out inspired: after false-starting the jump ball, he immediately collected four points, two rebounds, one block, and a huge two-handed dunk. He also committed four fouls in less than four minutes. For the rest of the game, Ha sat on the bench, dejected.

    The Chinese starting point guard fouled out in the third quarter, and then the backcourt began to collapse. The Korean guards tightened the press, forcing turnovers and hitting threes: Bang, Yang, Moon. Bang three, Bang three, layup-and with five minutes left China's lead had dwindled to one point.

    On every possession, Yao came to half-court, using his height and hands to break the press. At one point, he dove for a loose ball-all seven feet six inches. With the lead back at five and less than two minutes left, Yao grabbed an offensive rebound and dunked it. Thirty points, fifteen rebounds, six assists, five blocks. After the buzzer, when the two teams met at half-court, Yao Ming shook Ha Seung-Jin's hand, touched his shoulder, and said, "See you in the N.B.A."

    The next morning, Yao caught the first flight out of Harbin. He sat in the front row of first class, wearing headphones. First the Indian team filed past, in dark wool blazers, and then the Filipinos, in tricolor sweatsuits. The Iranians were the last team to board, Darrehsari's head scraping the ceiling. Each player nodded and smiled as he walked past Yao. During the flight, many Chinese passengers came forward to have their tickets autographed. In three days, Yao would leave for America. Later that month, he would accept an apology from Coca-Cola and settle the lawsuit out of court.

    I sat in the row behind Yao, beside a chubby man in his forties named Zhang Guojun, who had flown to Harbin to watch the game. He'd bought his ticket from a scalper for nearly two hundred dollars. Zhang was proud of his money-he showed me his cell phone, which used China Unicom services and had a built-in digital camera. Zhang told me that he constructed roads in Inner Mongolia. He sketched a map on the headrest: "This is Russia. This is Outer Mongolia. This is Inner Mongolia. And this"-he pointed to nowhere-"is where I'm from."

    We talked about basketball. "Yao is important in our hearts," Zhang said solemnly. "He went to America, and he returned." Halfway through the flight, the man held up his cell phone, aimed carefully, and photographed the back of Yao Ming's head.

  3. nyquil82

    nyquil82 Contributing Member

    Oct 30, 2002
    Likes Received:
    thanks for the article.

    but one thing remains unresolved...

    did he dunk the pudgy b*stard or not?
  4. Shrimpie

    Shrimpie Member

    May 19, 2002
    Likes Received:
    I like this piece.
    It seems Rockets are in the "yangwei" status now.
  5. syin1

    syin1 Member

    Nov 8, 2003
    Likes Received:
    Nice reading, What's the website, though?:rolleyes:
  6. wizkid83

    wizkid83 Contributing Member

    May 20, 2002
    Likes Received:
    LMAO, now that's funny. Some might consider it to be "uncivilized" and "crude" but man that's what fans at sports game should game should be like.
  7. DonKnutts

    DonKnutts Contributing Member

    Jan 16, 2001
    Likes Received:
    The story unfortnuately isn't posted on the New Yorker site, or I would've simply posted the link. I culled the article from a password-only news search engine.
  8. Xenogears

    Xenogears Member

    Dec 1, 2002
    Likes Received:
    Great article.:D
  9. Rollinrockets

    Rollinrockets Member

    May 17, 2000
    Likes Received:
    Funny...I heard Mo T and Eddie Griffin saying the same thing when they were heading out to their cars after a game one night...

  10. thadeus

    thadeus Contributing Member

    Sep 14, 2003
    Likes Received:
    Great article.

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