Trying Him On for Size

At last, our Shaquille can play with someone his own size.

It has been years since Shaquille O'Neal had anything like a peer, the early '90s to be exact, when he was a fledgling and Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing and David Robinson were in their primes, after which he got smarter and they got older.

In recent years, when he ruled the NBA like a T-Rex in a meadow, O'Neal billed himself as the last real center and, for once, it was no exaggeration.

Nor were any real centers looming on the horizon. A large youngster such as the Bulls' Eddy Curry might be called "Baby Shaq," but that wouldn't last past high school. As soon as Curry turned pro, it was evident he was not only smaller than Full-Grown Shaq, he didn't compare in any other way.

And then, amazingly and suddenly, the 7-foot-5, 296-pound Yao Ming appeared from beneath the horizon (Western perspective), from China, which had put its first player in the NBA only two seasons before and had never produced an NBA starter.

Last spring at 21, he decided to make himself eligible for the NBA draft and, for better and worse, things started happening fast:

May 1, 2002 -- Yao works out for NBA teams in Chicago but is deemed disappointing. General managers come wondering if he's the next O'Neal or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but, says their old general manager, Jerry West, "He's not any of those guys."

The Clippers' Quentin Richardson, who attends, sniffs, "There are a lot of big guys in the league you can dunk over," adding, "We're going to be taking bets on who's going to get him."

Appropriately enough, an NBA news release with a typographical error in it, lists Yao's weight as 236 pounds.

June 26, 2002 -- Houston drafts Yao with the first pick overall, although opinions still vary. Says Dallas owner Mark Cuban, scoffing at rumors he offered Michael Finley for Yao: "I don't think Yao Ming is as good as Shawn Bradley right now."

Oct. 30, 2002 -- Yao, who played all summer for the national team and reported 10 days before the season, makes his NBA debut in the opener at Indiana, going scoreless in 11 minutes.

Nov. 15 -- In his seventh game, Yao reaches double figures for the first time, scoring 10 points at Phoenix.

Nov. 17 -- Yao gets 20 against the Lakers in Staples, but O'Neal doesn't play.

Nov. 19 -- Turner's Charles Barkley, who has been insisting Yao won't score 20 in a game all season, is obliged to kiss a donkey that broadcast partner Kenny Smith brings to the studio.

Dec. 3 -- Yao has 27 points and 18 rebounds against San Antonio.

Of course, that projected first meeting between Yao and Shaq would have been merely ceremonial. Yao wasn't starting and probably would have been coming in about the time O'Neal was going out.

Since, however, Yao has become a starter, averaging 13 points the rest of the month, bumping it up to 17 in December with 10 rebounds and 2.7 blocks. Overall, he's averaging 12.9 points and 7.9 rebounds in 27 minutes, while shooting 53.4%.

Yao might not be quite ready for O'Neal now, either, but on the other hand, they will actually face each other tonight in a full-fledged event, which ESPN has been flogging for two weeks, and it won't be merely ceremonial.

Two seasons from now, it might be a full-fledged rivalry. Tonight should be more like an introduction, with O'Neal out to impress, or dent, Yao, and Houston's Rudy Tomjanovich sending lots of help to protect his rookie.

"We always thought Yao would be just a great player," says Dallas Coach Don Nelson, who, with his son, Donnie, rank as the Lewis and Clark of international scouting

and began following Yao when he was 16.

"We would have taken him No. 1 in the draft and I think only a couple teams would have done that. We were one of them and Houston was the other and that's about it....

"It [the Yao-Shaq rivalry] is going to be a one-sided deal for a while, but I think eventually Yao will catch up.... He's the next dominant center."

Even for a player as huge as Yao, with such obvious gifts, intangibles decide how great, or disappointing, he becomes. This is no problem for Yao, who has shown himself to be a hard worker and a quick learner with a wonderful feel for the game. As a passer, he's already compared to the all-time greats.

Says Bill Walton, now an ESPN commentator: "If you play with Yao Ming, like playing with [Arvydas] Sabonis, like playing with Vlade Divac, you have to learn to move, learn to expect and anticipate that you'll get the ball in perfect position.

"I grew up in an era, my main coach, John Wooden, said, 'If you dribble once, that's enough. If you dribble twice, you're not open. If you shoot after dribbling twice, sit on the bench next to me.'

"Now it's totally common for a player to take 15 dribbles on one possession."

No one, not even admirers such as Nelson, expected Yao to develop this quickly. There were concerns the game he learned in China was too soft, that it would take time to teach him to attack the basket, if he learned at all.

Ten weeks later, Yao is so Americanized, he jammed one in the face of the Hawks' Theo Ratliff last week and got a technical foul for taunting him.

Said Ratliff: "They're teaching him too much down there."

Of course, there's another unknown in this matchup: Where is O'Neal now?

He may be more than "effective" now, but he's not quite "dominating." It has been two seasons since he was the old, explosive Shaq. Wednesday in New Orleans, he beat the Hornets' Jamal Magloire, only to see Magloire recover and block his shot from behind. That didn't used to happen.

Not that O'Neal is inclined to vacate his title. He has been hurling down thunderbolts of one sort or another for months ("Tell Yao Shaq-zilla is coming!")

This is a new phenomenon and a compliment to Yao, Shaq acknowledging his arrival. It didn't even happen when San Antonio's Tim Duncan broke in, but Duncan was 7-0, 240, not 7-5, 296.

This might not be a fair matchup, now but, on the other hand, Shaq has never met anyone who is this good who is four inches taller than he is.

Of course, one of O'Neal's thunderbolts wound up hitting him in the foot, resulting in a weeklong debate of whether his joking mock-Chinese added up to racism.

There was no doubt what was right and wrong, when it rose to the status of an issue, but, as usual, the debate went national, was overblown and became silly, including days of discussion as to the sincerity of O'Neal's apology. The Houston Chronicle noted that when Shaq tried to apologize in Chinese, he got it wrong again, using Cantonese ("toy-inchee") rather than Yao's dialect, which is Mandarin ("duna-boochee.")

Happily, Yao, who has endured the furor surrounding him since he arrived without strain or anxiety, laughed off O'Neal's bad joke as he had all the others, like Fortune Cookie Night in Miami, or teammate Steve Francis naming him "Dynasty."

"Chinese is hard to learn," Yao said. "I had trouble with it when I was little."

So O'Neal owes him one. Tonight it goes from cultural issue to basketball rivalry, where it belongs and should stay, for as long as they both shall play.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Tall and Short of It

TALLEST PLAYERS and SHORTEST PLAYERS

*--* PLAYER TEAM HT PLAYER TEAM HT Shawn Bradley Dallas 7-6 Earl Boykins Golden St 5-5 Yao Ming Houston 7-5 Brevin Knight Memphis 5-10 Arvydas Sabonis Portland 7-3 Damon Stoudamire Portland 5-10 Zydrunas Cleveland 7-3 Four players 5-11 Ilgauskas listed at

*--*

Tallest in NBA history: Manute Bol, Gheorghe Muresan, 7-7

Shortest in NBA history: Muggsy Bogues, 5-3

NOTE--Heights according to NBA rosters

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