Yao Ming is No Kobe Bryant

TrueHoop reader Mac Lotze is an American living in Shanghai (maybe you remember his report from last pre-season), and sends the following thoughts about the mind of the typical Chinese basketball fan.

Style and scoring ability.

This is why Kobe Bryant is the greatest sports icon in China; not Yao Ming, not Yi Jianlian, not even groundbreaking hurdle-champion Liu Xiang.

This was the prevailing sentiment amongst those polled in the sold-out Qizhong Arena in Shanghai that was painted with 24s and 8s.

Perhaps it is part of the emerging young generation in China and their unquenchable thirst for all things foreign, but it is shocking how few fans list their fellow countrymen as their heroes. The fans in attendance were easily pleased, cheering even for referees calling fouls.

Witnessing the excitement for Kobe Bryant and this young Team USA, it is not unreasonable to expect there will be wavering allegiances among the locals when Team USA laces it up against an overmatched Chinese team this Sunday.

It is something that I have found the most fascinating in my two years over here in Shanghai. I am constantly asking Chinese friends, taxi drivers, and others I encounter if they like basketball, which players they like, and if they like Yao Ming.Yao Ming

The experience has left me convinced that I like Yao Ming a lot more than the vast majority of Shanghainese.

Few of them even say they like Yao Ming.

They like Tracy McGrady a heck of a lot better than Yao Ming, often expressing that Yao is lacking a quality that translates literally as "resolute heart," but means something like determination.

I came to Shanghai with the erroneous perception that basketball has become popular in China because of Yao Ming, but it appears that he is a small piece of the puzzle. The main reasons I see that Yao Ming is not as much of a national hero as he used to be and that common sense would dictate are:

  • He has yet to win a playoff series.

  • His size makes him very hard to relate to for 99% of the population. Chinese fans want to idolize a player that they can imitate or relate to from a size standpoint. This is one of the main reasons hurdler Liu Xiang is much hotter and more popular than Yao Ming these days. The Chinese respect and admire people that were not given as many god-given talents, but work their tails off to become great. They can relate to that, even dream about that. That's tougher in the case of Yao Ming.

  • Yao Ming is boring compared to a lot of players. I have played quite a few pickup games in China and from the 5'4 point guards to the 7-footers are all they are all showcasing their And One skills. (Yes, there are quite a few tall Chinese players all around Shanghai. With the economic prosperity that China is enjoying currently, they are privy to the type of diet that was impossible before. Not to mention the one child policy allows parents to feed their children with food that was previously divided between many kids.) They are all about the flash, excitement, dribbling through the legs, behind the back passes. Yao Ming, while being one of the best centers in the NBA, just doesn't have that. That's why even if Houston were to win a title (and I think they can now with Artest) I suspect that in the U.S. and China alike you will find it boosting T-Mac's popularity more than Yao's.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Chinese crowd will be divided on Sunday, the question is simply by how much. It is clear that if China had a better chance (maybe if Yao Ming was 100%) that the vast majority would be cheering unequivocally for China.

But because the true basketball fans realize that their chances are relatively slim, it is a harder question to answer. I asked several of the Chinese fans at the game last night about who they will be cheering for on Sunday and there was definite hesitation. After hesitating, the general consensus was that they want China to win, but that they will still be cheering for their favorite players, mostly Bryant, but for Lebron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwight Howard too.

I relate it to the weird dynamic with fantasy sports when you have a star that is playing against your favorite team. On one hand you want your team to win, but some part of you wants to see your player shoot the lights out. If they could pick they would pick a Chinese victory, but they know that is slightly unrealistic so they will be cheering for great plays from their favorite players more than anything.

And after playing China, every game will be like a home game for Team USA. None of the non-Americans can garner the type of excitement and idolism that Kobe, Bron Bron, Melo, Howard, and Wade can deliver.

As the Chinese prospects keep maturing, it is certain that China will become increasingly relevant in the international basketball scene. It will be interesting to see how many great Chinese players it will take to start to swing popular sentiment strongly back towards China. It might just take some Iverson-type players to make that change (point guard Chen Jianghua, for instance). But my guess is it could take quite some time, and many exciting wing players, to truly change allegiances in China.

(Photo: An Fu/ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images)