In 1971, President Richard Nixon convinced China to open its borders to the United States. So getting Yao Ming to the NBA 31 years later should have been a snap, right? Wrong. Exchanging a few Ping-Pong players is one thing. Allowing your 7'5" jewel to walk away is quite another. Yes, the Chinese authorities and NBA officials wanted to get it done, but each on their own terms. The diplomatic finagling fell to Erik Zhang, then a 28-year-old, Shanghai-born, U.S.-educated business student who was a friend of Yao's family. Zhang, who once had just wanted to recruit Yao for his alma mater, Wisconsin, spearheaded Team Yao, an unlikely group that included NBA agent Bill Duffy, a business school professor named John Huizinga and a hastily licensed Chinese agent, Lu Hao. In the weeks before the 2002 draft lottery, the quartet had to navigate two entities that are polar opposites: the NBA and its lottery teams, and the basketball federation in China, including Yao's team, the Shanghai Sharks. Zhang and company had to walk this tightrope in secrecy, for fear that offending one side or the other might thwart their goal: to make Yao the first foreign-born top pick in the NBA draft. Now that their dream has been realized, the story can finally be told by those who lived it.
BILL DUFFY * We'd planned a couple of private workouts for select teams, but the logistics were difficult, and Yao had a very small window between the Sharks' championship and his having to report for national team duty. We had planned to have one workout in the West for the Warriors and one in the East for the Knicks. Then the media got wind of everything, and it quickly became bigger than we'd anticipated. We weren't sure we had the resources to deal with security, insurance, facilities, all that. The NBA agreed to help if we opened Yao's workout to everybody. I had a contact at Loyola University in Chicago, which was centrally located, so that's where we held it, about a week before the NBA draft lottery.
I couldn't be publicly involved with the workout because we were afraid it would upset the Sharks and the Chinese Basketball Association, so I worked with Erik behind the scenes.
The teams on our preferred list were Seattle, Portland, Chicago, New York and Golden State. Seattle had scouted him extensively, and the city has a large Asian population. Portland fell out because of the makeup of the team and its level of interest. Golden State was intrigued, but it didn't know much about Yao. If the Warriors had had the first pick, they wouldn't have drafted him. I don't think they would've taken him if they had the second pick, to be honest with you, because they never took a close look at him. It's funny now, because no team does more than the Warriors to market and promote when Yao is coming to town.
I couldn't go to the workout, and I never saw a tape, but you could tell by the reports that people weren't overly impressed. That's because most people in the NBA and most people in the media like to point out what you can't do instead of what you can do. Since he was more perimeter oriented and played kind of elusively, they thought, "Well, he has no post game" or "He's a 7'5" guy who can shoot. So what, we've got 6'9" guys who can shoot." All the teams I called leading up to the draft would say, "Yao Ming likes the perimeter too much."
ERIK ZHANG * The tough part for Yao was that he didn't get a chance to prepare for the workout. The Shanghai Sharks are owned by a media conglomerate, so obviously they were going to work the championship to maximum effect. There was no way to say, "He can't do this, he has to prepare for the workout."
YAO MING * After we won the championship, I didn't touch a ball for 10 days. There was no time. After you win a championship, everybody wants to meet you, take photographs, have dinner, give parties. So many people wanted to see us that my flight to the U.S. was pushed back two days. Instead of coming over and adjusting to the 13-hour time difference, I left Shanghai and arrived in Chicago late Monday night. My first flight from LA to Chicago was canceled, so I got into O'Hare around 9 o'clock.
Although I worked out for everybody on Wednesday, I had agreed to work out with the Knicks and the Bulls alone. Team Yao and the Sharks wanted me to do something for those two teams because they had come over to China to watch me play many times. I wasn't the one making decisions at that point; I was just following the plan Erik had for me.
With the time change and the excitement, I couldn't sleep at all Monday night. I spent the night talking on my cell phone to my girlfriend and other friends in China. I started to feel like sleeping when it was time to get ready for the workout. Right before I worked out for the Knicks, I drank four Pepsis-I couldn't find any Frappuccinos with cream-and asked for an hour to shoot before the workout. I met Bill Walton for the first time as I left the hotel. Walton was wearing a funny T-shirt-all green and red and yellow-and a tie. He gave me one of those T-shirts. I thought, what is he doing? We talked for a minute or two. He's always been nice, but from that day I've thought of him as a crazy, crazy guy.
I have to say, that first private workout was very good. I made 80% of my shots. From 15 to 17 feet I didn't miss. I didn't play against anyone. I just shot and ran up and down the floor.
At the time I could speak only a little English, but I remembered all the basketball words from my summer in the U.S.-pick-and-roll, pick-andpop, wing, elbow, low post, dig-in. It's funny how things work out. The Knicks assistant coaches were Andy Greer and Steve Clifford. They had been hired to work with Jeff Van Gundy and stayed to work with Don Chaney. When Van Gundy took the Rockets job, they left New York to join him-and me.
If you've ever played basketball, you know the first practice after a long rest is always okay. It's in the second practice that you feel the missed time. I don't know why that is, but it happened to me. That's why my workout in front of everybody else was just so-so. In that workout, I did maybe 60% or 70% of what I can do. I've never told anybody this, but another reason I played the way I did is that I knew Chris Christofferson, the center they brought in to play against me. When the Chinese national team trained for a few days in Portland, Chris was with the University of Oregon and played against me in a practice game.
Erik told me Christofferson would be in the 2002 draft. I thought, "If I play well against him, maybe nobody will pick him." I didn't want to do that to him. So there were times when I could have dunked and I just shot it instead.
I know a lot of the GMs thought I didn't work hard enough, that I should've beat him up, but I thought, that's okay, it's just a workout. I knew it was important for me, but I thought the most important thing was not to get hurt. One of the players who was in the stands, Quentin Richardson, said he expected to see a regular predraft workout, where the players try to kill each other. I didn't know what a regular predraft workout was. In most workouts, nobody is there but the coach and the GM. For this workout, the gym was full. All the reporters and media were looking down from a second-floor indoor track, and all the coaches and GMs were in the stands. A group of Chinese officials clapped every time I ran by. I never thought the workout was meant to show my best. It's like when you go to buy a car. If you see it in a magazine or in a commercial, you wonder, "Does the car really look like that? Is it really that nice, really that fast?" You can't know until you go to the car dealership and see it. I was the car. The workout was a test drive.
KIM BOHUNY (NBA VICE PRESIDENT OF INTERNATIONAL BASKETBALL OPERATIONS) * I was with Yao at his hotel before the workout. There was an issue about what he was going to wear-Team China gear, Nike gear, or what. We decided to have some generic NBA jerseys and shorts made for the workout and express-delivered. I had to find out if he was a triple-X or quadruple-X. We had both sizes made, and I called his room to have him come try them on. He liked the triple-X better. Then we had brunch with P.J. Carlesimo, the coach working him out, so everyone involved would know what Yao was going to be asked to do. In the car on the way to the workout, Yao was asking a lot of questions through Erik, about the league and the players union. We were getting close to Loyola when he asked how many NBA people would be there. I told him there would be 50 or 60 and there would be faces he may know-Jerry West, Pat Riley, Wes Unseld-but to try not to be nervous. Then he asked if there would be any media there, and I said yeah, there'd probably be over a hundred or so, including a camera from ESPN showing the workout live. I saw in his face he was trying to prepare himself. We arrived at the campus. Students had found out about the workout, and they were everywhere. It looked like there were thousands of them. I felt so bad for him. Here he was, having just stepped off a plane from China, and the entire basketball world was waiting for him inside that gym.
P.J. CARLESIMO * I'd only seen him on tape. There wasn't one thing he did that made you go, "Wow." It was the sum total. He could put the ball on the floor, run, shoot, pass and, oh yeah, he's 7'5" and 300 pounds. After the workout I heard people say, "Well, I don't know, he can't do this or that," and I thought, what are you looking at? If you watched for 10 minutes, you knew he was going to be a force in the NBA. In the car after the workout, I was interviewed for a radio show. They asked me what I thought, and I said, "He's going to be an All-Star."
YAO MING * I was very nervous when I first went onto the court, but the basketball helped me relax. Once I touched the ball, shot it, dribbled it, I forgot there was anybody there. It was nice to learn I could do that in such a strange, big-pressure situation. I'd played in big games before, of course, but never anything where everyone was watching just me.
That night I had dinner with Jerry Krause, the Bulls' general manager. He was staying in the same hotel in a suite on the top floor. He has a house in Chicago, so I'm not sure why he was staying in the hotel. People say Krause likes to be very secretive. He had Chinese takeout food in the little white boxes delivered to the room. Before I knew Houston had the first pick, Chicago was where I wanted to go, mainly because Erik lives there and I thought that would make life easier for me. But after I talked to Krause, I got scared. He said that if I was tired after the NBA season, he would talk to the Chinese Basketball Association and get them to let me rest. That's what scared me. I wanted to play for the national team, and I didn't want the CBA to have problems because of me. I didn't want to go to Chicago after that. I went back to my room and watched the Spurs play the Sonics in the first round of the playoffs.
Bill had a tailor measure me for a suit for draft night. The tailor told me the longest pants he'd ever made were for Dikembe Mutombo, who had pants 50?? inches long. Mine were 54 inches.
JOHN HUIZINGA (DEPUTY DEAN FOR FACULTY AND PROFESSOR OF ECONOMICS, UNIVERSITY. OF CHICAGO GRADUATE SCHOOL OF BUSINESS) * I met Yao and Erik for the first time at that Chicago tryout. Erik called one of my colleagues, Mike Parzen, an associate professor of econometrics and statistics, and asked if he could reschedule his midterm. "What's your excuse?" Mike asked. "I'm running this tryout for 29 NBA GMs," Erik said. "I guess that's a good enough excuse." Then Erik asked if Mike would like to attend the tryout."Of course. Can I bring somebody with me?"
That's how I got invited. I'm a pro basketball junkie. I grew up a Celtics fan in San Diego, and chose MIT to do my grad work in part so I could watch them. I ran into an accounting professor from school, Roman Weil, at the workout. "What are you doing here?" I asked. I figured Mike had gotten him invited, too. It turned out Erik had invited him directly. Roman had written a bestselling accounting textbook that Yao's mom had used. She told Yao that he should try to meet him. Roman was there to sign a couple of these textbooks and send them back with Yao.
The next day I got a call from Parzen. "Would you like to go out to dinner with Yao?" he asked.Hard question, right? We ate in a private dining room in Yao's hotel after his workout for the Bulls.They snuck him in through the kitchen. I don't think I'd ever had dinner with anyone so famous they had to sneak him in through the kitchen. Erik wanted to talk to several of us-Mike, Roman, myself-about what was going on in China with Yao. He wanted us to help him think through his strategy. If we were trying to get Yao out, he asked, what would we do? It was a hard question because we knew nothing about Chinese politics. At one point during the discussion, I asked Erik, "Have you thought about how you're going to manage the draft?" "What do you mean?" Erik asked."Well, Kobe didn't end up in LA by accident," I said. "And there's a reason Steve Francis went to Houston and not Vancouver. There are things you can do to influence where Yao winds up. All NBA teams are not equal." Then I added, "If it were me, I'd probably rather stay in China than for the Clippers." Quentin Richardson, who is from Chicago, had come to the tryout. Although I didn't know it at the time, he said some not-so-flattering things about Yao afterward.He said that if Yao were on his team,they'd probably just take turns dunking on his head for the first few practices. Erik read that to Yao the next morning. Yao's reaction was, "That's how teammates treat you in the NBA?"
"If you're on the Clippers," I said. All that proved to be lucky, because it gave me instant credibility with Erik.
Roman also is good friends with Gene Orza, one of the top guys in the Major League Baseball union. Erik had had dinner with him and asked, "What would you be doing if you were me?" Orza said he'd get an agent to manage the draft. That obviously earned me more points. Orza then gave him this big, long story about how a professional agent, and only a professional agent, can help with the draft, but Erik called me later and asked, "Would you help me manage the draft?"
"You know what Orza said," I told him. "Are you sure this is a sensible thing to do?"
"Given the situation in China," Erik said, "there's just no way we can go with a professional agent. Neither Yao nor the Sharks would feel comfortable."
"All right," I said, "I'll do it." I spent the next 10 days writing down every possible question I could ask Yao. What kind of coach do you want? What kind of offense do you like to play? Does it matter to you if you live in a big city or a small city? How comfortable are you around the press? How important is it to you that your teammates are your friends? How important is it that you start right away? Do you care if you ever win an NBA championship? I'm trying to make a match for somebody I've met once. I ranked all the teams pretty coarsely, just pluses, zeros and minuses. Though I was an NBA junkie, I'd never paid much attention to the lottery. This time I paid a whole boatload of attention.
BILL DUFFY What made the situation tricky is that I was in line to represent three of the top four picks, including Yao and Jay Williams, and there was no clear-cut consensus on who the No. 1 should be. If Chicago had gotten the first pick, I would've been going nuts, because Chicago was learning toward Yao, and that's where Jay wanted to play. Part of an agent's role is to get his client picked as high as possible, and by a team that his client likes and that looks like a good fit. People were raising the question, If somebody who has the first pick could use both Yao and Jay, how does Duffy represent both? "Why don't we wait until lottery selection and find out where things lie?" I said. "Maybe there's a valid argument not to have me represent both of them." After Yao's Chicago workout, I sat down with Erik and offered to step back until we knew where everything stood. I knew that would hlep him deal with the people over in China, and it would relieve any concerns that I might be pushing Jay harder than Yao.
No one expected Houston to get the No. 1 pick, but once they did, there was no conflict. They clearly needed a big man more than a scoring point guard because they had Steve Francis.
YAO MING When John Huizinga asked me all those questions, my first thought was that getting drafted is not simple work. "id never thought about what kind of teammates or coach I wanted. In China, a player doesn't have a choice in any of that. All I knew is, I didn't want Golden State to get the No. 1 pick because they wanted a point guard.
It would be historic if I was the first No. 1 pick born and taught basketball outside America. No matter what happened, I would have that. Song Tao had been the first Chinese player drafted by the NBA; he was selected in the third round by the Atlanta Hawks in 1987, but he hurt his knee and never came over to try out. Ma Jian was the first player to try out for an NBA team. When Mengke Bateer started for the Denver Nuggets in the 2001-2002 season, he was the first Chinese player to do that. In China, you don't want to be second in anything.
When it came to the NBA, being the first pick felt like my last chance to be first.
From the book Yao: A Life in Two Worlds by Yao Ming, to be published by Miramax Books in September 2004. (c) 2004 by Yao Ming. All rights reserved.