Really Big Show In his first meeting with Shaq, the NBA's immovable object, the Rockets' Yao Ming proved that he's an irresistible force

January 27, 2003

He stepped onto the Compaq Center court bearing the hopes of a
nation, the promise of global markets untapped, the memory of
insults endured and the prospect of being embarrassed by a 7'1",
350-pound force of nature named Shaquille O'Neal. That is
considerable pressure for any 22-year-old, even one who stretches
the tape measure to almost 90 inches. But as the world would soon
find out, Yao Ming, late of the Shanghai Sharks, seems to have
entered Western hoops culture almost fully formed, a shot blocker
and a shot maker, a back-slapping teammate and a dyed-in-the-wool
gamer--in short (and that's an odd way to sum it up), a prodigy
whose marvelous talent translates to any language.

Indeed, what happened last Friday night in Houston, where Yao's
Rockets beat the Los Angeles Lakers 108--104 in overtime, was
nothing less significant than this: Yao was accepted into the
Club, that free-floating fraternity of NBA players whose
membership is bestowed by certified superstars such as O'Neal.
Unlike the All-Star vote--which on Thursday will officially
install Yao as the Western Conference starter at center and
O'Neal as his, uh, backup--this is something in which the fans
have no voice.

It wasn't just one thing that gained Yao entry into the Club. It
wasn't his invitation, extended to O'Neal a couple of days before
the game, that they should break bread. (The dinner didn't happen
because Shaq went to visit his oldest child, Taahirah, who lives
in Houston.) It wasn't just the words of welcome that O'Neal, who
had mocked Yao and the Chinese language six months earlier,
whispered to him right before tip-off and again after the game.
And it wasn't just Yao's inspired play in the first 4 1/2
minutes, when he blocked three Shaq shots and held him at bay
long enough to enable 6'8" forward James Posey to swat away a
fourth, while burying a jump hook, a layup and a turnaround
jumper at the other end, all with O'Neal's bald pate lurking in
the neighborhood. (Shaq had shorn it that morning, always a sign
that a battle would be joined.)

No, it was the way Yao has handled everything that has come his
way. Yao is straight-up business. Yao doesn't work the refs or
play to the crowd. Yao doesn't flop to draw offensive fouls, a
moral failing, according to Shaq, of many centers. When O'Neal
twice backed him down in overtime and rocked his world with
rim-rattling dunks, Yao turned, ran upcourt and kept his head in
the game. And with the Rockets leading 102--100 but about to turn
the ball over because of a poorly run pick-and-roll, Yao spotted
Shaq taking a quick step away from the basket to help defend
scrambling point guard Steve Francis, then cut into the lane.
Francis dished past Shaq to Yao, who caught the ball and dunked.
Yao had his first points since the first quarter, and Houston had
its 23rd win, a milestone that didn't come last season until
March 10.

"He got some credibility in this game," said Lakers coach Phil
Jackson, who before Friday had refused to be wowed by Yao. Though
Shaq was dominant--31 points (including 10 of L.A.'s 12 in
overtime) and 13 rebounds to Yao's 10 points, 10 rebounds and six
blocks--he went out of his way to refer to Yao as "my brother"
and praise his play. That's a departure for the Daddy, who
generally extends props only to old-school opponents such as
Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon. But there was good reason for
Shaq's respectful treatment: In his first 26 games this season
O'Neal had only 12 of his shots blocked; on Friday, Yao swatted
away five.

Just seven months ago, when the Rockets made Yao the No. 1 pick
in the draft, he was a mystery to anyone who hadn't seen him play
live. But from the moment Yao arrived in Houston, 10 days before
the season opener, the idea that he was some sort of
ticket-selling sideshow was never again suggested. "You took one
look at the man," says Francis, "and you just knew Yao belongs on
a basketball court." His 296 pounds are well distributed over his
solid seven feet, five inches--the height given by the NBA even
though the Rockets list him at 7'6". There is no laboring in
Yao's stride, none of that erector-set stiffness in his offensive
moves. He has perfect coordination between his knees and his
right wrist when he shoots jumpers or free throws. (He was
hitting the latter at a 77.6% clip through Sunday, best among the
league's starting centers.) He has the athleticism normally
associated with players 6'5", not 7'5".

More important, Yao is a quick learner. His translator,
29-year-old Colin Pine, who looks like first trumpet in the
school band, is still around at practices and games but is rarely
needed to convert hoops lingo into Mandarin. "Yao speaks perfect
basketball," says coach Rudy Tomjanovich. At first Yao had
trouble processing quick changes in the Houston defenses, which
are called by color, but he fully grasps them now. Language
aside, his biggest problems on the court were: turning slightly
and sticking out his hip instead of staying in front of a player
who drove the lane; extending his hands out and over an offensive
player (an almost sure foul call) instead of holding them
straight up; and having no jump hook, a necessity for the
offensive-minded frontcourtman. Yao has gotten away from the
first two bad habits (he has yet to foul out of a game, which is
unusual for a rookie center), and he's rapidly developing the
jump hook, which he nailed over Shaq to open Friday's game.

When Yao is given an instruction, he repeats it slowly and
commits it to memory. To defend a high pick-and-roll, for
example, assistant coach Jim Boylen will tell Yao that he's got
to jump out and "show" in the lane to discourage the ball handler
from going right by him, while also keeping contact with his own
man, the picker, in case he rolls to the basket or pops to the
perimeter. "Show and contact," Yao will repeat slowly. "Show and
contact." Says Boylen, "After that, he pretty much has it." You
think? During a timeout in Houston's 102--96 victory over the
Phoenix Suns on Jan. 15, Yao grabbed Tomjanovich's clipboard and
quickly sketched for a teammate the proper foot position for a
low-post defensive stance. "There's been some real goose-bump
moments with that guy around," says Tomjanovich.

Yao has infused the Rockets with a new energy, and Francis's
brilliance notwithstanding--he had a career-high 44 points plus
11 assists in the win over L.A.--this was a team running on
fumes. Within a week after he showed up, Yao was wrestling with
Moochie Norris, grabbing the 6foot guard in a headlock and
pretending to pound him to the floor. He is close to both Francis
and shooting guard Cuttino Mobley and revels in their endless
joshing about the fact that he doesn't have a driver's license
and used to get around Shanghai on a bicycle. (Pine still drives
him everywhere, though Yao has been practicing on side streets,
squeezing his body behind the wheel of a Toyota Sequoia. He has
solicited Shaq's advice about how to get a car customized and has
his eyes on a Mercedes Benz.)

Whenever Yao misses a free throw in practice and has to jog a
lap, Francis will call after him, "Yo, Yao, pick me up some gum
and a newspaper," or Mobley will yell, "Yo, Yao, bring back that
BMX bike with the YAO MING license plate." Here are two
established players, neither a shrinking violet, watching,
without apparent animosity, a rookie from a foreign land attract
most of the attention in what has so far been a renaissance
season for Houston. "I'll tell you why I'm cool with it," says
Mobley. "Because you can't deny that what we needed was a big
man. And that man right there"--he points to Yao, holding court,
Pine by his side, with about 100 reporters on game day--"is the
real deal. The other part of it is, Yao is one great dude. Not
cocky. Modest. Loving. Always hugging you. Always wanting to
learn."

The learning, predictably, is pretty much one-sided, American
athletes being notoriously indifferent to other cultures and
lifestyles. While Yao has picked up the language and the
basketball argot--though not a taste for rap music; he still
favors Chinese pop rockers Zhou Jielun and David Tao--the only
Rocket who has learned any Mandarin is Francis, who will say
zhudong yedian, a phrase that roughly translates to "be more
aggressive." Yet Yao's spirit has rubbed off on all of them.
Here's a man who, having been repeatedly roughed up during one
early-season game, sat down on the bench and said, "That is not
an honorable team." (No one would say which team Houston was
playing.)

Here is a man who, before and after almost every game and
countless times in between, has to recount his personal history,
weighing the context and subtext of each question before
patiently navigating with Pine the tricky course of translation.
Here is a man who grasps the absurdity of all the attention being
accorded him and tries from time to time to infuse his answers
with humor, a precarious cross-cultural leap. "I felt like I was
underwater, and now I can breathe," he said when asked afterward
about Friday's game. Of the dinner engagement with Shaq that
didn't happen, Yao said, "I was afraid my refrigerator wasn't big
enough." That's not bad.

And here is a man who played down the potentially incendiary
remarks of O'Neal, who mouthed off to a radio reporter last June:
"Tell Yao Ming, 'Ching, chong yang wah ah so.'" (The incident
drew renewed attention when a Jan. 3 column in Asian Week decried
O'Neal's racial insensitivity, and Shaq apologized for his
remarks last week, even using the Mandarin word dui bu qi for
"I'm sorry.") When asked if he held animosity toward Shaq for the
ethnic slur, Yao said, "We're all basketball players. We all live
together on this earth." It sounded right, something that a
citizen of the world would say. "It's hard to describe what Yao
has meant," says Mobley, "but it's been great--I mean
great--having him around."

That feeling extends beyond the team, of course, to many of
Houston's 104,000 Asian residents--12% of the Rockets'
group-sales ticket buyers are Asian, a jump of 11.5% from last
season--as well as to Yao's homeland. The 10:30 a.m. broadcast of
Friday night's game reached an estimated 112 million households
in China, and a dozen or so reporters from his native country
will be in and out of Houston this season to chronicle the Ming
miracle. It is unfair to ratchet up the pressure on Yao by
attaching so much cultural weight to his progress as the NBA's
first Chinese star, of course, but that is what's going to happen
anyway. Besides, at this early juncture it seems that he's the
right man to carry that load.

"Yao has given a new Chinese image," says Xi Kiaohe, a reporter
for China Sports Weekly, the country's largest sports magazine.
"People thought of Chinese people as short and skinny, not
fierce, unable to play competitive sports. Yao has shown that is
wrong. But he's also stayed kind and friendly and warm. I think a
lot of people know that about him now." And more are learning
every day.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH [COVER INSET] YAO MING THE REAL THING P. 58 COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH HIGHER EDUCATION The 7'5" Yao stepped out of Shaq's shadow andflashed one of the moves he has picked up, a jump hook. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH IN THE CLUB After his fans' pregame celebration, Yao wentelbow-to-elbow with O'Neal, blocking five of his shots. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH ALL SMILES Though Shaq had mocked him in pseudo-Chinese, Yao gave their first on-court encounter a feel-good feel.

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