Yao Ming: a willing Mandarin tutor

Jason Friedman of Rockets.com wrote a very incredible retrospective on Yao Ming, based around a simple offer in passing by Yao to help Friedman with learning Mandarin.

I never did take Yao up on his offer of occasional language lessons. Truth be told, I was probably too lazy to assume such a massive undertaking, and I was without question far more interested in picking his brain about basketball and other assorted trivialities like his Transformers obsession (I’ll never forget the smile on his face when he regaled me with the tale of the time he bartered his way to a bargain basement price for a 3-foot tall Optimus Prime figurine).

There was something else that held me back, however; something I’m not particularly proud to admit: I took Yao for granted. I just always assumed he’d be there. Never once back then did I pause to contemplate the possibility that his days – as they are for every athlete, however great they may be – in a Rockets uniform would be numbered. Surely I’m not unique in that regard; stopping to consider our own and others’ mortality just isn’t something that’s frequently done. Humans are rather funny and flawed that way; we understand change is constant and acknowledge the fact we should always expect the unexpected, yet carry on with our lives in a manner that tends to suggest tomorrow will be no different than today. Perhaps that’s not a flaw at all. Maybe it’s just called survival.

Either way, there I stood several years ago, in a corner of Philadelphia’s visiting locker room, next to this giant of a man. Yao was seated, hands behind his head, relaxed and at ease as he patiently fielded pre-game questions in two different languages for what must have seemed like the 18,234th time. I casually mentioned how I’d been contemplating Mandarin lessons during the offseason as a means of improving my ability to communicate with both him and the Chinese media. At that moment Yao leaned forward, excitement flashed across his face and he said he’d be happy to help me however he could.

I remember during the 2002 draft, I was convinced that any team passing on Jay Williams would be sorry for decades to come. I was a big fan of his coming out of Duke because I thought his athleticism and mystique (as cliché as that sounds) were just too special to pass up. When he was being passed over for a 7'6" Chinese center, I immediately thought it was simply nothing more than a publicity stunt by the Rockets. A risk that would blow up in their faces as he was too slow and weak to go against the physicality and rigors of the NBA game.

It didn't take long for me to change my mind. A few games into his rookie season, I was dumbfounded by the amount of skill he had. I was amazed at the way he moved. Guys his size weren't supposed to move like that. When Gheorge Muresan stumbled down the lane and threw a behind-the-back pass, it was a highlight of all highlights for centers his size. When Yao Ming got the ball moving toward the basket as a young player, he didn't stumble into plays; he rocked the rim.

The biggest thing that impressed me about Yao was the way he performed with immense pressure weighing down his enormous frame. If an international player like Andris Biedrins failed in starting a successful career in the NBA, he essentially let down 2.2 million Latvian residents. That's not a small number of people to let down by any means, but when you compare it to the pressure Yao faced every night to perform and succeed in the honor of 1.3 billion people, it seems to mean just a bit more for him to be a success.

Even though Yao had to retire after just nine seasons, he was absolutely a success in the NBA. At his peak, he was the best center in the league and an MVP candidate (the way he played in 2006-07 season despite just playing 48 games). But more importantly, he handled the role of global ambassador perfectly while he proved judging a book by its cover was never the way to go.

In a league in which we're wowed routinely by guys the size of Muggsy Bogues, Earl Boykins, and JJ Barea, we shouldn't forget how Yao proved the majority of people wrong. Sure, he stumbled from time to time and had brief moments of being embarrassed, but so has every player who has ever played this game. Yao Ming proved his doubters wrong in a relative way to how the smallest players in NBA history surpassed expectations.

We've all probably read a lot of Yao retrospectives over the past week or so, but Friedman's piece glimpses a bit more into the human side of him than most. It reminded us that Yao was always willing to take more responsibilities onto his plate because he was capable of handling just about anything. It's a shame his feet weren't able to do the same.