By Yao Ming with Ric Bucher
Special to Page 2

From the book "Yao: A Life in Two Worlds" by Yao Ming, published by Miramax Books in September 2004. Copyright 2004 by Yao Ming. All rights reserved.

The dream of playing professional basketball is not a big one with young boys or girls in China. I didn't always dream of being a basketball player. When I was a boy I just wanted to be famous, but it could have been as a politician or a scientist or an army general. I just wanted to do something important.

The chance of a kid in the U.S. growing up to play professionally is very small, but the chance for a kid in China to have a basketball career is even smaller because there are many more kids but only fourteen level-A pro teams. (You can't really call the lower levels professional.) The money in China also is much less than what an NBA player makes, so that's not part of the dream. The top players in China don't make much more than the NBA developmental league (NBDL) players make, an average salary of $30,000. But when a player in China retires, his body hurts the way any professional player's body hurts, and then he has to go out and find a new job. What kind of job can you get when your best skill is bouncing and shooting a ball?

Yao Ming
As a kid, Yao knew he would be tall -- but he didn't know Michael Jordan would look up to him.

That's why my parents never wanted me to become a professional player, even though my dad was one for nine years and my mom played for the women's national team. Their experiences playing are why they didn't want me to follow them. They wanted a better life for me.

They knew when I was young that I would grow to be very tall, but it didn't matter. To their way of thinking, being over 7 feet tall might make it that much harder to get a normal job, so an education would be even more important.

The reason they knew I would be tall is that it is a Chinese custom to X-ray a child's hand and measure the bones to determine how big they will become. I was only 5-5 and ten years old when they X-rayed me and said I would grow to be 7-3. I was very happy and excited at first.When I got a few years older, I thought about how I'd have a lot of problems being taller. I worried that I wouldn't find a girlfriend. I also worried about how tall my kids would be, since kids are usually taller than their parents.

I never felt uncomfortable with my size, though. I can't tell you why, but my parents helped.When I was in school and my mom would walk with me, if I didn't stand up straight, she'd slap me on the back and say, "Straighten your back." Of course, some kids made fun of me, but it didn't really bother me. Everybody has been made fun of for something.

Finding clothes my size wasn't a problem because I could just wear my dad's old stuff or buy men's clothing. Tailors are not expensive in China, either. By the time I was taller than my dad, I had a contract with Nike, and they gave me stuff to wear. I've never needed a lot of clothes; I wear mostly T-shirts and warm-up suits, anyway. I have about a dozen dress pants now, but I wear them only when it would be wrong to wear a warm-up suit or shorts.

The only real price I can think of for being so tall as a kid is the cost of riding the bus. In China, they make you pay once you reach a certain height. Kids shorter than 1.27 meters-that's a little under 4829-didn't have to buy a ticket when I was growing up; they could ride for free. I can't remember ever riding for free, it was so long ago. I had to pay, or my mom had to pay for me, even before I started going to school. I was five years old and already 1.47 meters tall, or 4889, the first time I went to school.

My mom took me to see a very famous coach when I was around twelve. It wasn't her idea; a friend told her she should. I didn't know why I was there. He told me to turn around and walk away from him, and then he had me walk back.That was it.Then he told my mom that I would never be a good basketball player. My butt was too big, he said, and I didn't have good balance. (He didn't tell me any of this; he just told my mom.)

Click here to buy "Yao: A Life in Two Worlds."
He also told her there was another young player who did have what it takes to be great: Wang Zhi Zhi. His mom had played on the national team when my mom was on the national junior team. "Her son will be much better," the coach told my mom. "He has big hands and long legs. He can run and jump."

I never knew any of this when I was growing up. A few years later, though, I joined the Sharks' junior team. The coach didn't say anything about his prediction. A few years after that I went to the Sharks' first team. Still this coach said nothing. A year after that, I was invited to try out for the national team.Then I went to the NBA. That's when this coach began to tell everyone he had discovered me and that, when I was young, he gave money to my school every year. From what I've been told, he gave money to the school one year, the last year I was there.That made my mom unhappy. That's when she told me what he had said the first time she took me to see him.

My mom was not disappointed by what the old coach said at the time he said it. My parents wouldn't stop me from playing if that's what I wanted to do, but their hope was that I would want to be good at something else. More than anything, my mom just wanted me to go to college. In China, a player in any sport who wants to be professional stops thinking of school at a very early age.You start practicing hard when you are twelve or thirteen years old and go to school for only three or four hours three times a week. In America, you can do something one year and then do something else the next year, or you can go to college and still think about being a pro. In China, it's one or the other, and once you decide what you want to do, that's it; it's not easy to change. My mom thought if I went to college, then I could stay in the city, find a job, find a girlfriend, take her out, then find another one, maybe change girlfriends four times a year, have a good life.

But basketball wasn't something my parents played because they loved it. They played because that's what they were asked to do by the government.

My mom told me a story about playing basketball during the Cultural Revolution that is still hard for me to believe. During that time, the national slogan was: "Learn from the workers, farmers, and soldiers." Those people were the most respected. Sports were not considered important, but Mao Tse-tung liked basketball because it relied on working hard and working together. Basketball in China was still not very good, though, because no foreigners were allowed to coach or teach. Chairman Mao certainly would not have wanted American imperialists poisoning the people's minds about how to play the sport. So who were they going to learn from?

With the national slogan in mind, the athletes worked in the factories or carried bricks as part of their re-education.The factory workers and farmers and carpenters were in charge. Players would work in the morning and then practice in the afternoon-if they could find a place to play. The gyms were very poor, and players were always looking for a decent court. They didn't play many games during the Revolution; they just practiced a lot. The purpose was to learn how to be a better Communist Party member and a better citizen; learning how to beat another team was not the goal. No matter what job you had-basketball player, singer, reporter, soldier-whatever you did had one purpose, to serve the Revolution.

Here's the part hardest for me to believe: The basketball team manager also would have factory workers, farmers, and soldiers come to watch practices. Afterward, he would ask them what they thought the team should do to improve. More shooting? Better dribbling? More defense? Since the workers didn't know much about basketball, they'd usually tell the players they just had to work harder and never give up.

It sounds funny, but the people at that time didn't know any better.This is what they were told to do. Even though the workers didn't understand a lot about basketball and might have made some strange suggestions, they felt they had a great responsibility, that since they had been invited there, they had to do their best to help. It's not like they had a choice. It would have been very dangerous to refuse. But most Chinese people also feel a strong sense of duty to their country. I will always play for the national team for the same reason. That's why it's hard for me to understand why some NBA players don't want to play in the world championships. It seems that in the U.S. sometimes individual glory is more important than national honor. There should be a balance between doing something for yourself and doing something for your country. The Cultural Revolution just took this idea too far. In some ways, it feels like history has played a joke on us Chinese.

I played with a real basketball for the first time when I was nine years old and went to the junior sports school in my district of Shanghai. My dad gave me a toy basketball when I was four or five years old, but I didn't think it was that exciting. I had other toys that I liked much better. They took me to see the Harlem Globetrotters when I was little, too. They were fun to watch, but it's not like I wanted to play basketball because of them.

In China, when you are nine years old, there are two kinds of school in each district-a regular school and a junior sports school.You are not picked for the junior sports school because you have shown you can play a sport. If your parents are tall or strong, or if when you are young, tests show you will grow up to be tall or strong, then you are invited to go to the junior sports school. Since both my parents were tall and played at a high level, I knew I would be invited. My parents agreed only because playing basketball in a junior sports school can improve your chance of getting into college; it counts as extra points on the college entrance exam. From what I hear, it's the same for high school players in America: playing a sport doesn't help if it hurts your grades, unless you're a really good player.Then it can do more for you than good grades. Some things are the same everywhere.

But that's why my parents let me go to the junior sports school -- because they thought it could help me go to college.

The education in the district sports school, for kids ages nine to twelve, is not too different from the regular school. There also is a city-wide sports school that takes kids at that age from all over the city. This school is for the kids who government officials already know can grow up to be professional players.The city-wide school has better equipment, better coaching, better places to play and practice. I could have gone to that school, but my parents didn't want me to go.

I was thirteen and a half when I learned I had the chance to play professionally.That's when the Shanghai Sharks invited me to try out for their junior team. They were still not called the Sharks at that time; they were just the second-division Shanghai basketball team. Two years before I moved up from the junior team, they fi- nally finished second in the second division. The first two teams in a division move up and the bottom two teams move down, so Shanghai was finally a first-division team. That's when they became the Sharks, because first-division teams must have a nickname. The second-division's first-place team that year is now in the third division. They ran out of money, so all their good players left.

Yao Ming
Yao is a magnet for the international media.

CBA teams can get their players from anywhere in the country, but most players choose to stay close to home. For a long time the army team-the CBA's Bayi Rockets-had an advantage because they looked for players all over the country and invited them to join their junior team. All a player had to do was agree to join the army. It was a good deal because Bayi players never had to worry about money or actually going to war.They even sent my mom a letter when I was twelve asking if I knew where I wanted to play. I could've joined the army system, but she didn't want me to go. She still hoped I would stay home and go to the university in Shanghai.

The Bayi Rockets' advantage in getting players is a big reason why they won the CBA's first five championships. But it's different now, at least for the Sharks. In the mid '90s, when the first division became big, Shanghai's team had only local players, like every other team except the army team. But now players all over China know about the Sharks, and because Shanghai is a big, modern city, the team has become very attractive. If a player joins the junior team but isn't good enough to play professionally, the team will get him into a good high school or college. The Sharks have that kind of power. Not every team does. So a lot of families want their sons to go to the Sharks.

It was still not easy for my parents to let me join the junior team. The coach of the Sharks at that time was a friend of my parents, and he talked to them a lot about letting me play. He assured them I wouldn't be wasting my time, that he would help get me into a good university if I didn't want to play for the Sharks or if I wasn't good enough. Since I like to take things step by step, not skip over anything, there is a part of me now that is disappointed I never had a chance to go to college. I am actually an honorary student of a college in Beijing, even though I've never been to a class there. I still hope to go to college, maybe after I retire, and study international business relations or something like that.

But I wasn't thinking about any of that when I got invited to join the Sharks' junior team. It is a big honor just to make it to that level. It is also the only way to have a chance to play for the Chinese national team. I hadn't always dreamed of playing in the NBA, but I always hoped to play on the national team. One reason is that the first famous person I became aware of was China's Olympic gymnast Li Ning. He won three gold medals in the 1984 games. True fame, when I was a kid, meant doing something big for your country, like winning an Olympic medal or being a great army commander. China, despite being so big and having so many people, hasn't done very well competing in sports against the rest of the world. People in China know this and think about it, even if they don't talk about it. So when someone is successful outside China, it is a big accomplishment. But for a long time there was little chance to compete outside China, or at least outside Asia.

The first step on my road to changing that began once I joined the Sharks' junior team.There was little time for school after that. We practiced almost ten hours every day for the first six months, four practices a day-6:00-7:30, 8:30-11:30, 2:30-5:30, and 6:30-8:30. This was just training camp to make the junior team. After six months the coach said, "OK, from now on we will practice only four hours a day." That's still a lot, but after ten hours it seemed like nothing. We were very happy.

My parents helped me become a better player even if that wasn't what they wanted.When I played for the junior team, I was very soft. I did not go to the paint. I always wanted to shoot open shots from the outside, the same way my dad played. I'd shoot fadeaways and pump-fake a lot. But I'm a center. If I don't go to the inside, nobody else has a chance to get open.

I remember once when I was fifteen, I went to a Sharks game with my parents. I was still on the junior team, and the Sharks were still in the second division. They were playing the Beijing Ducks, who had a center named Shan Tao. (Mengke Bateer joined the Ducks a few years later, and the two of them were known as the Twin Towers. This was before San Antonio's Twin Towers, David Robinson and Tim Duncan, but after the Houston Rockets' Twin Towers, Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson. We need some new nicknames for teams with two big men.) Shan Tao had a low-post move using his elbow. He'd turn holding the ball up and his elbow out, which forced the defender to back up or get hit in the chest or face with Tao's elbow. The extra space allowed Tao to shoot a jump hook without getting it blocked.

My mom took my hand and said, "Do you see that move?"

I said, "Yeah, I see it."

"You're soft. Try to use that," she said. When your mom calls you soft, you listen. I started going harder to the paint after that.

Yao Ming
Yao has always been considered a soft player, a reputation he's trying to change.

My father also told me a very important thing. It's why I don't like to hold the ball a long time and don't like players in the paint who do. Every time you have the ball and no chance to shoot, he said, move quickly right after you pass the ball because the defense will watch the ball, at least for a little bit. That means they're not concentrating on you. In that second or two, you can move into a better position. It's a small thing, but it's very important. I still use it today.

I've learned at least one thing from every coach I've had. My father had a teammate,Wang Chong Guang, who was only 6849 but a great coach for big men. He told me a lot about playing center; he just told me too early. It wasn't until I was older that I understood what he had showed me. He was the first to tell me that when I'm on defense, I must read the other team's offense the same way I read their defense when I have the ball. He also told me how you can make fakes on defense the same as on offense. What is important, at both ends of the floor, is to get the other team worrying about what you're doing to them instead of thinking about what they want to do to you.

I was on the bench a lot my rookie year with the Sharks. No player likes to sit on the bench, but Wang Chong Guang made me look at it differently. Sometimes, he said, it can be an advantage to be on the bench at the start of a game because it gives you a chance to study the other team's offensive players. You can watch what they like to do or find out if they're feeling good or bad that night or see what they don't do well. Then, when you go into the game, they may not know anything about you, but you will know a lot about them.

My mom talks about how good I was as a boy, so I don't know if she has forgotten this or just doesn't want to know about it.When I was ten years old, I went to a video arcade for the first time. I loved video games right away, but I had no money, so I'd steal my mom's money. For two years, she didn't know. At first I'd only take 1 RMB, which is about 12 U.S. cents.You could play some video games three times with that.Then I took 11.2 RMB, then 2. Slowly I took more and more. The last time I took 100. That's when she found out. My parents started giving me an allowance every month after that. It wasn't much of a punishment, but I guess they didn't see anything wrong with my wanting to play video games. In general, my parents weren't as strict as most Chinese parents.

In China, many parents will order their kids to learn something outside of school-music, painting, dancing. The kid doesn't get to choose; the parents decide. My mom never ordered me to do anything like that. She just let me try whatever I liked. All she wanted was that I not learn to do something badly or the wrong way. Regular school was different. If I didn't do my homework, my dad would smack me. My mom also pushed me to read and study at home about things that weren't taught in school. It wasn't that hard to get me to do those things because I was interested in history and geography. I wanted to know about the world outside China, and I wanted to know what China was like long ago.

Even when I went to the sports school to play basketball, my parents never said, "You must win the championship" or "You must be the best." Some kids would tell their parents, "I got a good score. I got 95 out of 100 on my test." And the parents would ask, "Why didn't you get 100 points?" Or the parents would ask, "Who was first in your class?" If the kid said somebody got a better score, the parents would say, "You must beat them."

My parents never said anything like that. The only time they'd say something was when my score was below 60. Then I'd get smacked.

That's why it's not that hard to live with my parents even now. It's relaxing for me to be with them. I don't have to worry about their telling me I did this wrong or that wrong or I should have played this way or that way. When I come home and the door closes, I know I'm safe and there will be quiet.

Kids grow up differently in the U.S. than in China. In China, parents will say, "This is the way you do it." In the U.S., it seems as if parents give the kids many choices and let the kid decide, perhaps telling them why one way is better than another. My parents were like that before we ever came to America. They didn't mean to be like American parents; they just turned out that way. I would say, from my experience, that the way my parents chose is the best way to do it.

I also spent a lot of time living away from my parents when I was growing up.When I joined the Sharks' junior team at thirteen, I started living with the rest of the players at the Sharks' training facility during the week and going home on weekends. On Saturday night I'd go home, and on Sunday night I'd return to the team. I did that until I was seventeen. That's when I went to Beijing for the junior national training camp. Then I could go home only every three or four months.

I was born in 1980, so by then Mao Tse-tung's Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) was over, but you could still feel what life had been like during that time. Chairman Mao once said, "More people, more power." What he didn't think about is more people, more food.

There were rations on everything when I was little. The government gave you tickets to buy food. They weren't food stamps because you still had to pay. The tickets didn't mean you would get food, either.You had to have the tickets just for the chance to buy food, if there was any left. Once you used up your tickets, that was it, even if you had more money. There were tickets for everything -- food, clothes, radios.Very few people had cars -- we didn't, as I said earlier -- but I remember that we always had a TV.

There was no more ration system after 1985, but some people still collected those tickets, just to have them. They're worth a lot of money now. There's a place in China you can trade them.When I was a kid, I collected them for a while, but I gave up. I didn't have the patience.When you look at the pictures and writing on the tickets, though, you can imagine what China was like then, and the thought process of the people. There were pictures of Chairman Mao and talk of the greatness of Chairman Mao. He was like a god to a lot of people in China. They thought Chairman Mao would never die. Even now many still have him in their hearts.

My first home was a small apartment in Shanghai. I lived there with my parents and my grandfather on my mother's side. That grandfather died in 1999, a year before I went to my first Olympics. My father's parents didn't live too far away, and I'd go see them every Sunday if I had time, which was most of the year. I might talk a little with them or watch TV. Most of the time I'd watch them play mah-jongg with the neighbors. I got sick when I was seven years old.There was something wrong with my kidneys, and I had to take medicine. But they gave me the wrong medicine, and I got even sicker. As a side effect of the medicine, I went deaf in my left ear. I didn't know I'd lost my hearing until one day the phone rang. My dad picked it up. It was my mom, and he gave me the phone to talk to her. I put the receiver to my left ear, then asked my dad why my mom wasn't talking.

I hadn't noticed anything wrong before that. I wouldn't say it's a problem today. The only problem is that when I sit with someone to talk, I ask them to sit on my right side.When a coach or player talks to me during a game, I will always turn my head so I can use my right ear to hear what they're saying.The first English word I really learned was "Eh?" It has the same meaning in every language.

I was twelve years old when I started learning English. America and China were on good terms by then, so learning English made sense. A lot of Americans already were visiting China, and a lot of Chinese were moving to America. My mom told me that, to help prepare for my future, I must learn English and how to use a computer. People learned English to go into business or to study in the U.S.; she thought I could use it in business. She wasn't thinking of basketball or of me going to America at that time.

The first word I learned-not counting "eh?"-was "cake." I drank a lot of water every day when I was little, so my mom also taught me how to say "I want some water" in English. I didn't know which word was water, or what each word meant. I just knew that saying those four words would get me water. It was when I started to play for the Sharks that I really began to learn English.We had a lot of American players, so I had a chance to use it. I also came to the U.S. for two months during the summer of 1998. I didn't learn to speak a lot of English at that time, but that's when I learned how to speak "basketball English" -- pick and roll, pick and pop, the paint, bounce-pass, back-cut, things like that.

I can still remember that when I was a kid, America was not considered a good place to go. "Down with American imperialism!" -I heard that growing up. I was told America was a bad place and Americans were bad people, especially because of the Korean War. Maybe some people in the U.S. don't think of China as being part of the Korean War because they sent what was called a voluntary army rather than the regular one, but Korea is very close to China. The Chinese leaders said they did it for our country's protection. I don't know much more about the Korean War than that we were the good guys, and the Americans were the bad guys, and we helped the North Koreans. And that the Americans thought they were the good guys and the Chinese were the bad guys and the U.S. helped the South Koreans.

I watched a lot of movies when I was young, and the ones about the war made Americans look very bad. U.S. soldiers were always running away or acting like cowards. I don't know if they were really American actors or Chinese actors who just looked American; they all had on a lot of makeup that made them look very strange. As a child, you believe everything you see in the movies.

One movie was supposedly based on a true story. It's about a Chinese soldier on a base near the end of the Korean War. He's the last one left; everybody else has died. He radios the Chinese air force and says, "Open fire. I'm the target." And then he grabs a bomb and runs into the middle of the U.S. soldiers. The planes use him as a target and he dies.That's how the movie ends.That's what it takes to be a hero in China. (See why I don't think I'm a hero or want to be called one?)

There was a lot of bad stuff about Americans in our school textbooks, too, but by the time I was a teenager, there was less and less. This had something to do with how my thinking changed.

That's also when they started broadcasting NBA games in China. You could see Americans in the stands, and they didn't look or act like we had been taught.We had been told they were all poor and didn't have enough food to eat or clothes to wear. They were happy and smiling.You could just feel they weren't as bad as we were told. So that was a start. That's when I began to see that people can be different, but that doesn't mean one way is right and the other is wrong.

From the book "Yao: A Life in Two Worlds" by Yao Ming, published by Miramax Books in September 2004. Copyright 2004 by Yao Ming. All rights reserved.