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The Life

May 27, 2002
ESPN The Magazine

You're Yao Ming. It's after midnight, and you can't sleep. Hardly a wonder. You're lying in an unfamiliar bed in a Chicago hotel, and you've just been through the most momentous day at the end of the most extraordinary month of your 21-year-old life. Being projected as a 7'5", nearly 300-pound human bridge between all things Chinese and all things American, it's easy for people to forget you're barely more than a teenager. No one considers that the same forces you're supposed to unite -- duly represented at this moment by the royal-blue Knicks practice shorts and black Team China T-shirt -- can tear you apart.

Who could sleep? Your internal clock says it's early afternoon, and by that same clock, it was 4 in the morning when you were working out for a who's who of NBA talent experts. It was all you could do not to run over for autographs. You sit up and lean back against the headboard, gazing around at the trinkets of a life once thousands of miles and several cultural dimensions away, but now only an arm's length from your grasp. On the bedstand is a months-old copy of Hoop magazine with another deft-shooting foreign big man, Dirk Nowitzki, on the cover.

A pile of NBA socks and gear swaddle your custom Yao 13 Nike Shox and a shopping bag from the NBA Store. A catalogue advertising the various tailor-made suits you might wear on draft night sits on the desk. Your dream of playing with the best against the best, an uncertainty for so long, is on the brink of becoming reality.

Yao Ming
All eyes will be on Yao Ming at the NBA draft

But for now, the best of the best are only on your TV screen: NBA Western Conference playoffs, first round, Game 4, Spurs vs. Sonics. Bodies are flying up and down the court way faster than yours did today. Brent Barry and Bruce Bowen, trading elbows and forearms, are being way more physical than you were with workout buddy (and Oregon center) Chris Christoffersen. Gary Payton and Mark Bryant, trading menacing stares, flash way more fire than you and Christoffersen did.

Maybe that explains why your chin dips toward your chest and worry clouds your face. The workout amounted to the world's highest profile job interview, and while you didn't spill coffee down the front of your shirt, you didn't exactly nail the corner office, either. Even if you hadn't been listless from sleep deprivation, how could you have known that NBA GMs are used to seeing guys breathe fire and knock heads, even in practice? How could you have known that trading dap with Christoffersen, and bending over in exhaustion, and calling for a foul at the first -- and only -- instant of contact, that none of those things would sit well? Sure, former NBA coach P.J. Carlesimo briefed you on the drills you'd do, but he didn't explain the way the GMs would lock in on how strong you finished or how you closed out or how you competed.

Considering the circumstances, no wonder you're so relieved just to have it over. But this was your one chance to show what you could do before the June 26 draft. National team commitments prohibit any more workouts, here or in China, and you had hoped to settle any question about who the No.1 pick should be. You did the best you could, but now you're left wondering if that was good enough.

Why might that keep you awake? Well, because getting the corner office -- becoming that No.1 pick -- might be necessary to get any job at all.


To understand why this is, and why Yao could be so ill-prepared for his NBA audition, you first have to understand China's attitude, both toward him and the NBA. For instance, an official from his team, the Shanghai Sharks, is on record that Yao's fundamentals are better than Shaq's, especially at the free-throw line. The obvious message? Our boy's more than ready to tangle with the NBA's best. China doesn't share the mindset of most other basketball-playing countries, that no one can be considered truly great until he proves it in the NBA. In their minds, whatever Yao has to prove, he can do so on the international stage.

They see letting Yao play here as more of a gift: China's contribution to the NBA's entertainment value and level of play. That's why it's so critical that he be drafted No.1. To the Chinese, making Yao the No.1 pick will demonstrate that the NBA holds him in the same esteem as the People's Republic. No.2? That would mean this year's top American college player is deemed better than China's greatest all-time pro. No offense to Duke's Jason (now Jay) Williams, but the Chinese will point out he didn't win a championship this year and Yao did. End of story, from China's perspective.

If Yao's fundamentals weren't as sharp as they are, the workout would have been a disaster. He arrived not having touched a ball or worked out since April 19, the day the Sharks clinched their first championship in the 52-year history of Chinese professional basketball. In that game he'd been unstoppable, making 21 of 21 shots for 44 points, grabbing 21 rebounds and blocking 7 shots. But he was playing for more than a trophy. Although no one said so directly, everyone in the Chinese basketball community believed that Yao had to win a championship for the Sharks before he would be allowed to enter the NBA draft.

Championships, of course, don't just come and go quietly, especially first ones. There are celebrations and ceremonies to be attended, interviews to be given, dignitaries to be met, hands to be shaken and appearances to be made. Yao's trip to the US was cut short by two days to accommodate all the team's mandated appearances at home. What would anyone have expected from Shaq in a workout 12 days after winning his first ring?

Then there's the jet lag that comes from flying halfway around the world through 13 time zones. A cancelled flight from LA to Chicago lengthened the ordeal, delaying his arrival until after 9 p.m. Not that it mattered. He couldn't sleep that Monday night anyway, which prompted him on Tuesday to chug four Cokes and ask for an hour to get some shots up before his private afternoon workout for the Knicks.

Yao finally got six hours of sleep Tuesday night, just enough to have him wanting more, but there's no time for that: NBA royalty awaits. What was supposed to have been a closed workout for the lottery teams has somehow turned into a come-one, come-all affair. The site is Loyola University's Alumni Gym, an antique whose floor has been hastily made audition-ready by a maintenance worker laying down an NBA three-point line with green masking tape. The upstairs balcony is a vaulted wooden running track. That's where more than 150 media people are watching. An ESPN crew is televising parts of the workout, live.

The downstairs bleachers contain an even bigger distraction -- representatives from 26 NBA teams: Jerry West, sitting directly behind the basket with Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley; Pat Riley, over in the corner, the first time he's been to one of these events in years; Geoff Petrie, with his jeweler's eye for foreign talent; Kiki Vandeweghe, Bryan Colangelo, Wes Unseld, Jerry Krause, Rod Thorn -- all in the house. Also present are Sharks GM Li Yaomin and Sharks translator Ye Li, and members of the local Chinese consulate, who applaud politely as Yao passes them on his first warmup lap.

The one comforting face Yao sees belongs to Eric Zhang, his cousin, confidant, translator and de facto agent, who looks exactly like the business school grad student he is -- pink, button-down polo shirt, glasses, sharply pressed chinos. No one understands the pressures weighing on Yao, or the various entities (both here and in China) seeking to control him, better than Zhang. Having Zhang here with him, on the court, is important to Yao, even if -- like Yao himself -- Zhang is not in the best of shape. The meetings and phone calls and negotiations have left him drained; he's running a low-grade fever. And the basketball lingo being tossed around so fast and furiously by Carlesimo has his head spinning. At one point P.J. says he wants Yao to hedge the ball; Zhang, 28, thinks to himself, "Is that like hedging an equity fund?"

Most of the drills Carlesimo calls for are familiar enough to Yao, but neither P.J. nor Zhang can help Yao overcome his fatigue. In a perfect world, Yao would have come over to the US a month early and prepared for the workout with Vandeweghe, the Nuggets GM and a longtime instructor at Pete Newell's Big Man Camp. He taught Yao a lot last summer when the Chinese National Team trained in Dallas and Vandeweghe was with the Mavs. But Yao's world is far from perfect, at least in terms of controlling his own career.

Ten minutes into the workout, he's bending over and resting his hands on his knees. The NBA types catch this, but then they catch everything. When he saunters over for a water break, three dozen heads swivel to watch him fill his cup and towel his face. If nothing else, he's got their attention.

That's worth something when Yao shows off his jump shot, burying four of five from the left baseline, the four makes hitting nothing but net. He banks in 15-footers from each side of the key as if this were a pop-a-shot game. He shoots 50% from behind the green line. And he makes a dozen free throws before front-rimming the last two. Meanwhile, Christoffersen's faulty J is lucky to draw iron, not that anyone cares.

The two-on-two action -- the other members of the workout foursome are Cordell Henry, a 5'10" former Marquette guard, and Mitch Henderson, a Northwestern assistant coach and former Princeton guard -- doesn't offer the same contrast. Yao blocks a couple of Christoffersen's shots, but everybody expects him to do that against an opponent who didn't make All-Pac-10. There's a murmur when Henry floats a couple of layups high off the glass over him. Shotblocking is in a player's reach, and while Yao's taller than any current NBA starting center, he has relatively narrow shoulders and short arms. Worse, Christoffersen then blocks Yao's runner, a shocker made worse by Christoffersen's subsequent admission that he wasn't going all-out. ("I came out here to make him look as good as possible. I'm not here to promote myself, I'm here to promote him.")

It's obvious Yao's workout partners are too deferential to get his competitive juices going. (He was so nervous at the start he made them nervous, Henry would say later.) But they do their best to get him loose. On a drill to test Yao's agility and weakside shotblocking, Henry jokingly wipes the soles of his shoes as if getting ready to dunk. And while Henry scores twice on floaters high off the glass, he notes afterward that he did the same to KG in high school.

Clippers guard Quentin Richardson, who grew up in Chicago with Henry and came along to check the Chinese guy out, isn't so diplomatic. "What I wanted to see was one of those draft workouts teams have, where two guys really go at it," Richardson says later. "I already know what my team will do. As soon as we get into the locker room, six or seven dudes are going to put a pot together for the first guy to dunk on him. He's not a shotblocker, so you're going to see little guys trying to throw down on him. I think if you had NBA players in here, they wouldn't be impressed."


If you're Yao, you understand why they might not have been impressed, but you believe it could have been different. The drills didn't give you a chance to show off the back-to-the-basket moves that the Knicks saw a day earlier. If you were easy on Christoffersen, it was because you knew each other from a basketball camp a couple of years ago. And it's not your fault a stat sheet mistakenly listed your weight as 236, supporting the idea that you're better suited to the perimeter than the post. Granted, what little weight training you've done -- slow, high-rep 260-pound squats -- has actually taken four inches off your vertical. You know one NBA trainer swears that's easily corrected, that you haven't tapped your physical potential. But you wonder if the NBA GMs realize it.

You'll find out soon enough. Those who wonder why you don't just defect don't understand your feelings of loyalty and indebtedness toward your country. You want everybody, here and there, to support your career, since you plan to continue playing internationally for Team China. That loyalty is why you met privately with the Knicks and Bulls, their reward for having scouted you for years. You didn't hold a press conference after the workout, but did release a statement that was so playful few took it seriously. They simply don't know yet that, if nothing else, you and Shaq share the same sense of humor.

So you fly home, and you finally sleep, crashing for all but three hours of the next 24. You know Zhang plans to distribute tapes of your championship series performance -- you averaged 41.3 points, 21 rebounds and 4.3 blocked shots over four games -- to all 29 NBA teams so they can see the ferocity and post play and defense that were missing in the workout. You hope that will be enough to convince whoever winds up with the No.1 pick that you, not Williams, should be their choice. You hope that team will feel the same as Vandeweghe about your audition, that you "did well considering the circumstances."

You are Yao Ming. It's after midnight. There's no reason not to sleep now.

This article appears in the May 27 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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