There will be no moment at the Beijing Olympics that better perfectly condenses the alchemy of China's emergence in this century than Sunday night. That's when one of China's greatest citizens -- never mind its greatest basketball player -- will be the face of the home team as it takes the court against the United States.
Let's face it: China's in great shape to sweep up a ton of medals. Liu Xiang will be fabulous. Guo Jingjing's dives will be a sight to behold. China's table-tennis team will make its competitors look like they're phoning it in.
But I'll be holding my breath with everyone else to watch the one Chinese superstar who is just about guaranteed not to get a medal at these Olympics. The one who has transcended sport, become a role model for a nation and done more to raise China's esteem than any simple gold medal ever could. I'm talking, of course, about Yao Ming.
With all that Yao has done outside of his NBA career with the Houston Rockets, Americans still tend to miss the boat on how stunning a person he is. Supernaturally huge and from a country very few of us on this side of the ocean really understand, it was too easy to marginalize him as an Andre the Giant cartoon character when he first arrived on our shores.
Yao, the first overall pick in the 2002 NBA draft, watched Shaquille O'Neal making chop-socky sounds on TV to mimic Yao's language. Charles Barkley said Yao would never score 19 points in a single game. The pressure to perform on a stage only two of his countrymen (Mengke Bateer and Wang Zhizhi) had ever seen before was as big as the man himself. Yao has delivered both points (he's averaged 19 points per game over his entire NBA career) and diplomacy, class and dignity. He has become a great teammate and a great humanitarian.
What was Yao doing two months out from his country's greatest sports moment ever? Starting a foundation to help rebuild schools in earthquake-devastated Sichuan province. He fully understands the importance of the Olympics to his homeland, but he also understands how much power he has to help ordinary Chinese because of his sports success.
On July 13, 2001 --the night Beijing was awarded the '08 Games -- Yao was so nervous, he had to look away from the television while his teammates watched the IOC meeting, broadcast on Chinese national television live from Moscow. He busied himself playing video games until then-IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch said "Beijing."
Then he, and the rest of his country, marveled at the moment. "That was a night for China," Yao said years later, with obvious pride.
And so it will be when Yao and China take the court against the U.S. Perhaps more than any other athlete in Beijing, Yao understands the limits of a medal -- and the limitless ways a star athlete can become so much more to his nation, no matter what accolades are hanging around his neck.