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The Life

December 25, 2000
Next Athlete: Yao Ming
ESPN The Magazine

Who is this guy, anyway?

You rub your eyes after 17 hours of flying across 12 time zones and pluck your suitcase off the baggage carousel. The expansive airport architecture suggests that you're well into the 21st century. You blink. This is not the China of your imagination.

You're in Shanghai, and you do know some things about the man you're going to meet. You know that Yao Ming is roughly 7'6" and 20 years old, and that he is potentially the world's next athlete of impact. You know he is The Magazine's Next Athlete 2001. You know that on a visit to the U.S. two years ago, he played at Michael Jordan's camp and that even back then Michael had joked about phoning the Bulls to sign him. You know that within three minutes during the Sydney Olympics he stuffed Vince Carter and swatted Gary Payton's shot into another time zone. That insiders are now speculating Yao could be one of the top picks -- maybe No.1 -- in the 2001 NBA draft. And that he is already under contract to Nike. One of the game's great players, Bill Walton, watched Yao at the Olympics and concluded that Yao potentially could take over a game that has always been dominated by Americans (see page 85). Which makes you wonder if Yao could be even bigger than all that -- a human bridge between cultures?

Yao Ming

You get in line to have your passport stamped and remind yourself not to get carried away. You remember how the Americans fouled out Yao early in the second half and went on to romp over the Chinese by 47 points in Sydney. Even if he is skilled, does he have the confidence and hunger to star in the NBA? And what if all the optimistic plans don't pan out? Last year, a 7'1" Chinese star named Wang Zhi-Zhi was drafted by the Mavericks but not allowed to leave his Red Army team. Would Yao even be permitted by Chinese authorities to play in America?

You pass through customs and see a woman holding a sign bearing your name. She directs you to a man who carries your suitcase toward a curb where a car is waiting to drive you to your hotel. The man carrying your suitcase speaks a little English and asks where you are from.

"America," you say. "Chapel Hill, North Carolina."

You flick your hand in the motion of a basketball shot to help him understand. "Home of Michael Jordan."

The man nods. "Ah, yes," he says. "Also Sam Perkins."

Your eyebrows arch.

He smiles and says, "We watch NBA here very often."

You hit the streets at dawn to find old men and women flowing through the ancient and delicate movements of tai chi. Then turn and see couples ballroom dancing on the sidewalk to the recorded music of an American '50s orchestra. You blink up at skyscrapers and cranes that are making more skyscrapers as commuters pass on bicycles. You spot a Starbucks and remember the photo of cooked scorpions in your guidebook. It's too early to make sense of things, but you get the feeling you'll have to understand Shanghai to understand Yao.

At breakfast you meet Terry Rhoads, Nike's director of marketing for China. Afterward, he takes you behind your downtown hotel to a basketball playground like any in America except that it's like no other on earth. The walls are decorated with electroshock graffiti paintings of KG, Tim Duncan and Jason Williams, rendered as if they were Asian comic book heroes. There are few public basketball courts in Shanghai, Rhoads tells you, and after school, the place will be packed with kids. It's not hard to understand why Nike built the playground. There are 26 million feet in Shanghai and 2.5 billion in China. More sneakers are waiting to be sold here than anywhere else on earth. And who better to endorse them than a Chinese basketball star?

You ask Rhoads about Yao Ming.

"I first saw Yao in '97," he says. "Nike had just signed a contract to sponsor the Shanghai Sharks of the Chinese Basketball Association, and we had a little party to introduce ourselves. A few of us were there when in walked the team. Looked normal, guys 6'4". Then this one kid comes in, baby-faced, who's about 7'3", kind of skinny and in some ways looking like Manute Bol. Our jaws dropped, and then, of course, the skepticism came. Well, he's probably a stiff. But once he started hitting three-pointers, we thought -- Whoa!

"Our guys in the U.S. didn't believe that there was a Chinese kid that tall. Once we convinced them, they invited us to bring him to a Nike camp in Paris that summer. Yao had always played against kids who were older than him, and that probably hurt his confidence when he was growing up. This was the first time he was matching up against players his own age, and he stood out. Del Harris, then the Lakers coach, was at the camp, and he fell in love with Yao. He was telling everybody, 'I gotta get a picture with that kid because one day he's gonna have a real impact in the NBA.'

"After Paris, the word was out. We had Yao and a teammate named Liu Wei come to America for two months to play on an AAU junior elite team. They went to our All-America camp in Indianapolis that had 200 of America's best players. There were about 40 centers at the camp. Coaches give the players a report card, and recruiting services graded the players. Yao ranked second out of the centers.

"The cherry on top was when Yao and Liu went to Santa Barbara to be counselors at Michael Jordan's camp. Every night, Michael would get together with the counselors for a scrimmage. I remember Michael coming downcourt one game, sinking a three-pointer and teasing Yao. You know, 'Can you do that'? So Yao launches a three-pointer and hits, and Michael's saying, 'Wow! The big guy can shoot!'"

You ask Rhoads if he thinks Yao will be allowed to leave China to play in the NBA.

"I'm sure there are a lot of NBA teams that would like to have a clear, concise answer to that," Rhoads says. "Yao hasn't been drafted yet. A lot of people would be involved in the decision. The Shanghai Sharks club, the basketball association of China. And, of course, Yao and his parents. We think so. We'll see what happens."

You turn back to those electroshocked caricatures of Garnett, Duncan and Williams. They remind you of something Yao's American agent, Bill Duffy, had told you over the phone. This would not be like just another foreign player coming into the NBA. If all turned out well, Duffy had said, there was no way to even fathom Yao's marketing potential. You get the feeling that Duffy's finger was on the right pulse. American kids are already looking toward Asia. The trading cards that are the rage in American elementary schools are no longer of baseball players, but of Nintendo's Pokémon characters that originated in Asia, characters styled just like the Jason Williams on the playground wall. It's not easy to get time to see Yao. In the first week of November, the season is approaching, and life in the Chinese Basketball Association is far more structured than in the NBA. Players on the Sharks live two to a dorm room, rise together at 7:30 a.m., eat rice soup for breakfast, practice in the morning, work with weights for 20 minutes, eat lunch, sleep for two hours, run through another practice, eat dinner and perhaps relax with a computer game before the 10 p.m. curfew. Last year, time was budgeted in the Sharks' daily routine for players to wash their uniforms. This year, an equipment manager takes care of that task.

You'll have dinner with Yao on Saturday night, at one of his favorite restaurants: Tony Roma's, the rib joint. In the meantime, you seek out Yao's friends, his first coach, his parents and the Sharks' coach and general manager for some background.

You'd think there was some profound story behind Yao's height. But that notion is quickly dispelled. China is almost as large as Europe, with many ethnic groups, customs and languages. People of the north tend to be taller than people of the south. Anyway, the story of Yao's size is rather matter-of-fact. His dad, 6'10", played basketball, and so did his mom, a 6'4" center and captain for the Chinese national women's team.

Yes, public bus fare had to be paid for Yao when he was 4 years old because he'd surpassed the height of the average 8-year-old. Yes, Yao was taller than one of his elementary school teachers. But outside of needing his bed and clothing to be custom-made, Yao's life has apparently been fairly normal for a kid in a middle-class family. In fact, the story of Yao's past seems to be much the story of Yao's present: He has always been slowly growing into himself.

His first coach remembers Yao not liking basketball much at the age of 9 and being able to run only four laps around the court. "Don't be discouraged," he'd told Yao. "You do four times today, five times next week and six times the week after that. That is how to improve -- with little steps."

A friend remembers kids half Yao's size being able to out-rebound him early on because Yao's body and coordination had yet to align. He was skinny, weak in the chest, and friends jokingly called his arms "chopsticks" because they displayed about as much muscle. Even after coordination came, and Yao could dominate, he did not. The Chinese mindset is rooted in teamwork and discourages one player from standing out over others. To get an idea how ingrained this concept is, you must consider that when the Chinese Basketball Association was founded five years ago, individual statistics for scoring and rebounding were not even kept.

Yao's parents were always waiting after games with counsel. They saw the game through positioning and watched as clinically as John Wooden might have. Yao loves to study Chinese history -- especially Zhu Ge-Liang, an ancient leader noted for brilliant strategy -- and he picks things up quickly. The trips to Paris and the U.S. widened his vision. Still, he was comparatively weak in the upper body, and it's fairly hard to be discreet about it when you're 7'6" and under a basket. In one game during his first season with the Sharks four years ago, Yao was battered to the floor 16 times. The club finished eighth out of 12 teams. Slowly, Yao began to hold his ground, and the Sharks ascended to fourth in the standings, then second, finishing behind the perennial champion, the Red Army team that was sparked by Wang Zhi-Zhi, the seven-footer the Mavericks desired.

Over time, though, Yao's small steps became leaps. Some Nike reps who'd seen him in Paris couldn't believe how much he'd improved when they saw him four years later in Sydney. Although the Chinese team did not win a medal, the kids of Shanghai saw Yao stuff Vince Carter, and he returned home a hero.

Nearly everyone you talk to in Shanghai wants to see Yao go to the NBA. A high-ranking official encouraged him to make the move at a recent sports banquet. For Yao and his parents (like virtually all young people in China, Yao's an only child), it's not a case of hardship and the lure of millions of dollars. Yao's folks have good jobs -- his dad with harbor engineering management and his mom with a local sports institute -- and they do not want to leave their life in China. The roughly $80,000 Yao makes each season is big money here. The family's wish is simply to see Yao compete against the world's best. But you wonder what Sharks management thinks of the idea. Let's face it, would Lakers execs like to see Kobe Bryant play in Italy?

So you head over to the elegant high-rise that houses the television station OTV, which owns the team. Inside, you pass a massive photo of Yao getting a pat on the rump from Michael Jordan and step into the office of general manager Li Yao-Ming. You want to know a little about him before you ask about Yao Ming and the NBA.

As you listen, you can't help but smack your forehead in amazement. When the league began in 1995, there was no pool of professional sports executives. OTV asked Li, a former newsman and director with no basketball background, to run the Sharks. Li did very little sleeping that first year. Get this: For one home game, the Sharks sold only nine tickets. Li had to pay to get students in seats. But soon the team was improving, a massive wide-open sharkmouth was built for the players to burst through at introductions, and interest soared.

The Sharks now sell out their 4,200-seat arena against big rivals. Last season, they lost in the playoff final to Wang and the Red Army team. But they were clearly coming and, as Li tells you of plans to build a new 12,000-seat arena, you wonder even more how he feels about the possibility of his star attraction leaving to play in America.

"We hope that Yao Ming will go to the NBA," Li says simply enough through an interpreter. "It will be good for him to play against the best players in the world. And it will help basketball in Shanghai."

Though translating detailed conversation can be kind of tricky -- you wonder about nuance when Li speaks for 45 seconds and you get a 10-second translation -- it's obvious the GM is thinking long-term. From the team's perspective, Li says, it would not be worthwhile simply to send Yao to the NBA in exchange for only money. The team would like to work with the NBA club that drafts Yao. For example, OTV would like to televise Yao's NBA games in China. And the Sharks would like American coaches to bring their training methods to the youth of Shanghai.

While nobody has said anything on the subject, you could guess at the difference between the NBA drafting Wang from the Red Army team and selecting Yao from the Shanghai Sharks. If the Red Army team that has won the championship every year loses its star and no longer wins titles, think about it: Will there be subsequent promotions for the general in charge?

Yao Ming, on the other hand, was born in a city that desires to be a player on the world stage. With its teeming port, Shanghai historically has been open to foreign influences. At the outset of World War II, it was a haven for European refugees fleeing the Nazis. A passport was not even required to enter the city. Now it is vibrant, flexing its economic muscle and attracting young people from around the world. A glance at the booming skyline makes you think the city seems bent on turning New York into the Shanghai of the West. You even get the sense that Yao is a metaphor for his city: the human skyscraper it wants to show the world.

You'd imagined it would be strange to walk into a Tony Roma's in Shanghai with a man who's 7'6", but it turns out to be perfectly natural. Yao is so at home, he can order without even looking at the menu, and Tony Roma's is like, well, like Tony Roma's anywhere.

"What amazed you most when you came to play basketball in the United States?" you ask after being seated.

Yao understands a lot of English, certainly anything that would be said on a basketball court, and he can speak some, but right now he prefers a translator. "It was strange at first to see such passion and emotion in the game," he says. "When I went to America, I didn't like to dunk much. It's not the Chinese way." You nod, remembering the Japanese adage: The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.

"In America, I'd get the ball near the basket, shoot a layup, and the coach would be saying, 'Dunk the ball!' But I was used to laying it in. Finally, the coach said, 'If you get the ball in close and don't dunk it, all of your teammates are going to have to run laps.' But I couldn't help it. I was very accustomed to laying the ball in the basket. All of my teammates were running laps, begging me to dunk. Finally, after about a week and many laps, I began to dunk it every time."

You wonder what he felt like draining a three against MJ and stuffing Vince Carter. "What's been your most memorable moment on the court?" you ask.

"When our national team won the Asian junior championship in '98. We beat Qatar, and I had 17 blocks."

Your eyebrows lift, then you remember he's seeing the game in terms of team instead of a SportsCenter highlight. "Would you rather have 30 blocks in a game," you ask, "or score 30 points?"

"I'd take the 30 blocks. If you have 30 blocks it will destroy your opponents' morale. It will take away their heart."

"Do you have a favorite player to watch in the NBA?"

"Arvydas Sabonis. I like the way he uses his mind, the way he passes. He can play inside and outside. He's got a three-point shot, and I remember him dunking over David Robinson. He's very smart. I like the way his mind allows him to get the best of each situation."

The waitress places down sirloin and rib combos, and you ask what Yao thought of the food in the United States.

"I like big steaks. And I like going to Starbucks. The food in Chinese restaurants there is different than here. It was strange seeing a fortune cookie for the first time. We don't have them here. Must be an American invention."

"Do you like scorpion? I hear it's crunchy."

"We don't eat scorpion much here. It's a specialty from another part of China. A lot of people here eat snake, though. Turtle soup is pretty good too."

You dig into your ribs and ask what Yao learned in the game against the U.S. team in Sydney, in which China broke out to an early lead before Yao and Wang got into foul trouble, and the rout commenced.

"Five minutes of playing well, or 10 minutes, do not mean very much. It's how well you play the entire game. One of American basketball's biggest strengths is understanding that. In the NBA, there are a lot of one-point and two-point games. There is intense competition to the final second. I'm really looking forward to that."

"It was only a few years ago when you were getting pushed to the floor in the Chinese league," you say. "Do you think you're ready to hold off Shaq?"

Yao smiles. "No," he says. "Not now."

"How much time will you need to develop the strength?"

"Three or four years. I just turned 20. I believe it might be better to go to the NBA at age 22, because physically I'll be much more mature then and have more experience, too."

Wherever the conversation flows with Yao you get the feeling of balance, thoughtfulness and potential. No, he's not going to cross an ocean and dominate Shaq. If he does make it to the NBA, he'll get thrown around at first, just like when he entered pro ball here. But this is a man who carefully considers situations and always looks for a way to improve, step by step. He sits before you now, a 20-year-old kid munching on a big steak, talking about the strategies of an ancient Chinese leader and the fun of jet skiing on the Willamette River in Portland. The question with Yao is, what might he become when all his little steps are added up in five years or 10?

You wish you could stay for the Sharks' opener to see him play, but it's not possible. You do get an e-mail shortly afterward, though. Seems Yao opened the game against the Red Army team with a three-point bomb, slammed in five ferocious dunks, scored 22 points, grabbed 21 rebounds, swatted five blocks and handed out five assists as the Sharks beat the five-time champions 104-99. The sellout crowd in Shanghai was rocking, and the thoughtful giant who once didn't like to dunk was jumping up and down with the emotion of an American after making key plays down the stretch. You're sorry you missed it. But that's okay. You get the feeling you'll be seeing Yao soon enough.

This article appeared in the December 25, 2000, issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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