The dignitaries, dozens of them, were gathered near Crawford, Texas, recently for a dinner given by former president George Bush honoring Chinese President Jiang Zemin. One by one the VIPs were introduced -- some of the heads of state -- to light applause. But when Yao Ming was introduced, the ovation was loud and sustained, some recall it lasting minutes. When it finally ended, Bush turned to Jiang and said, “You’re the second most recognizable Chinese face in America now.” And that’s the way it will be for the foreseeable future.
In just four months, Yao has become one of the most recognizable men of any nationality in the world, the first Chinese athlete to be marketed globally, an appealing, dunking, shot-blocking, fancy passing breath of fresh air whose presence in the NBA expands the basketball universe and shrinks the world. No basketball arena of consequence here has ever received so many Asian fans, many of who brought signs that in English and Mandarin expressed their support for Yao. Sitting there Thursday night in MCI Center, festive and anticipatory, I wondered whether this was anything like it felt for folks of color when Jackie Robinson first took the field in places like Chicago and St. Louis.
It’s not possible to examine Yao the basketball player without dealing with the reality of Yao the cultural phenomenon. The Houston Rockets, a marketing afterthought, now have the No. 2-visited Web site among all the NBA teams, trailing only the three-time league champion Los Angeles Lakers and leading Michael Jordan’s Washington Wizards. Men and women, particularly of Asian decent, who had never seen a professional sporting event of any kind in America came to see Yao.
He would have been a curiosity piece no matter what, a 7-foot-5 man who is greatly coordinated and entirely athletic. But it’s so much greater than that because his performance has exceeded the hype. Yao is averaging 13.6 points and 8.2 rebounds, despite arriving in the United States just a few days before the start of the season, despite having no training camp.
“He missed,” Rockets Coach Rudy Tomjanovich said, “the meat and potatoes: training camp. That’s where you learn, ‘This is what we run. This is our [basketball] language.’ You throw an American into that and he’d have trouble. And to have all the pressure he has ... There’s a time to rest, a time to get away and [he] can’t get away
Like Yao, Wizards Coach Doug Collins was once the first player chosen in the NBA draft (1973).
Asked how he thought he would have fared going to the other side of the world, having to learn a new language while carrying the hopes of an entire nation, Collins said, “I couldn’t have done it. Nope. I can’t imagine it. No.”
With all that baggage, Yao the basketball player announced his on-court arrival Nov. 21 with a 30-point, 16-rebound performance against Dallas, the team with the NBA’s best record.
That’s three weeks into his career. And to think there were knuckleheads saying aloud when he arrived that Yao was only a stick figure, an uncoordinated stiff who would foul out of every game and be a rookie bust. People actually said nonsense like this.
Collins said what jumps out about Yao, “is his poise. He’s been well-schooled. He looks like he loves to play and the guys on his team love to play with him. He’s got good hands, a good feel for the game, he’s a good passer. He’s going to get better, and better and better. It’s frightening how good he can be. And he couldn’t play for a better guy than Rudy Tomjanovich. “
And remember, he’s four inches taller than Shaq, but shoots 80% from the line and has the early makings of Hakeem Olajuwon’s footwork. “He’s big, he’s proportioned, he has great physique,” Collins said. “He makes Brendan Haywood [7 feet] look like a little boy. Yet, you can throw it to him to start your offense. You can surround him with three-point shooters. He knows how to play. I watched film of him where he directs his teammates on where to go. He understands the game.”
Allen Iverson said after facing Yao for the first time, “He’s a gift from God.”
Players are no longer surprised when Yao leads the Rockets to victory on the road. His teammates are comfortable enough with him to keep feeding him the ball, even after he commits a couple of costly turnovers in a loss at Madison Square Garden. And it’s no longer surprising when he calls for the ball and sinks that unblockable jumper or whips a pass to an open teammate to spark a comeback as he did last night, nearly dealing the Wizards what would have been a playoff-damaging defeat.
You look at Houston’s roster, which includes Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley and there’s nobody in the starting five older than 27. It took the old master, Jordan himself, to beat Yao on Thursday night. Jordan’s 35 points and 11 rebounds in 50 minutes, on a gimpy right leg wrapped in a black sleeve, means that Yao, like everybody else who has played in the NBA the last 19 years, has been initiated by Jordan.
It’s a right of passage, even for a phenom, even for a man from the other side of the world, who appears to have the resources within him to take what he learns these first few seasons and one day become the teacher.