Yao didn’t crack the Rockets’ starting line-up until late November, and through the All-Star break, as a starter, Yao averaged 14.2 points and 8.8 rebounds per. While Yao’s play has been regularly fundamental and occasionally flashy, his highlights seem almost accidental, as though the spectacular plays he makes are things he wasn’t exactly sure he could do until he actually pulled them off.
At a game at Indiana in December, Yao caught the ball under the rim and executed a picture-perfect Dream Shake, clearing out defenders for an open lay-up. When I asked where he learned the move, Yao looked confused. I stood up and demonstrated it. Yao watched patiently, then said, “Did I really?”
Dunking’s another thing altogether. In China it’s considered showing up an opponent to dunk on them. Francis has learned a few Chinese phrases—including, “Be aggressive”—which he throws at Yao during games. But sometimes it’s just instinct. At Atlanta in January, Theo Ratliff jammed home an offensive rebound over Yao’s back, screaming as it went through. When the Rockets came back down on offense, Yao, appearing proud but wounded, turned and flushed in Ratliff’s face with two hands, screaming back and drawing the first technical foul of his career (and sending every other Rocket into hysterics). When Kobe put that baseline one-hander on him a week after the All-Star break, Yao once again responded immediately, spinning on Mark Madsen for a dunk on the very next possession.
Team Yao has projected Yao Ming will be a bigger marketing force than Tiger Woods within five years. But Tiger Woods is arguably the greatest athlete in the history of his sport. Five years from now, Yao Ming may not even be the best player in the Western Conference. Yao’s name moves products globally now based not only on what he has accomplished thus far, but what we believe Yao is going to become. Five years from now, will Yao have the game to back up his ability to hustle water to a well?
Probably. He has that unteachable height, the fundamentals, the strongest body (especially from the waist down) any 7-5 guy has ever had. Rudy says Yao’s passing is the most developed part of his game. “He’s in a very elite class of people who can pass like him. For a young man, it’s just amazing.”
“He’s a presence in there, someone you have to focus on and make a game plan for,” says Tim Duncan, the reigning League MVP. “His size, his touch, the way he can shoot the ball is pretty impressive.”
“He deserves to have a big following,” adds Pacers forward Jermaine O’Neal, “because he’s a tremendous talent. He’s quick, he can shoot. There have been a lot of tall guys, but none with that type of skill.”
For now, the Rockets are content to live with what they have until Yao develops into the best that he can be. At his own speed. Rudy T. was hoping Yao would be able to contribute at least 20 minutes a night by the All-Star break. By mid-February, he was around 28 mpg—and he started in the All-Star Game.
Rudy says he wants Yao to get at least 30 touches per game. Thus far, most of Yao’s touches have come either early or late in the Rockets’ possessions. “Yao is how plays end now,” Rudy says. “We’ve got an inside presence. And Yao doesn’t have to score to help us down there. He passes so well, and the double teams and sags free up the outside. When Yao gets doubled, that’s OK, we love that. It saves our guards’ energy from having to beat guys off the dribble.”
“We’ve switched the offense up a lot,” Mobley notes. “A lot more motion, dump it down and work off the big fella. We’ve got depth now, too, Kelvin Cato and Eddie Griffin and big fella back there, and that’s key. And now we’ve got James Posey, one of the best swing guys in the League.”
And yet it all comes back to Yao. Despite the extra media attention and countless questions, the rest of the Rockets don’t seem to mind. “I just mess with Yao all the time,” Moochie Norris says. “I’m like a little kid to Yao, because I’m so small next to him. He’s always falling over me and running into me on screens. He’s always knocking me down, so I’m always complaining, Come on Yao, I ain’t no kid of yours. I try to keep everybody a free spirit, because this is supposed to be a fun game to play at, you know?”
Living in America has been a simpler adventure. Yao’s parents have been staying with him in Houston, where he owns a four-bedroom house—“The first thing I bought in America,” he proudly notes. He keeps up with what’s happening back home through sina.com, a Chinese news website. But mostly he just sleeps. When the Rockets go on the road, Yao occasionally tries to watch TV. “Mostly I just flip the channels,” he says. “If there’s a movie on, I watch it. I only watch, I don’t really understand.” He’s been to exactly one movie, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and though he isn’t quite licensed, he practices driving his new Toyota Sequoia in the parking lot of the Rockets’ training facility, the Westside Tennis Club. “I can’t legally drive, yet,” Yao says. “I’m OK, I just don’t have a driver’s license.”
And then he smiles. And when Yao smiles, the world smiles with him.
Another night, another game. The Hornets are in Houston, and the most famous man with a strong connection to both cities, Master P., is in the house. Yao Ming arrives way in advance, wearing the cement gray We R One sweatsuit Francis had made (in China, actually) especially for Yao. “Ming Dynasty” is stitched across the chest in blue thread. Gray size 18 Jordan Trunners are on his feet.
Yao puts his uniform on and goes out onto the court, where he plays a little one on one against Mobley. Erick Sermon’s “React” and J-Lo’s “Jenny From the Block” play over the PA system, providing a bouncy soundtrack that Yao appears to ignore. Once the game gets going, and once Yao makes a few blocks and shots, the song “It’s a Ming Thing” plays. Over the tune of “Ole, Ole, Ole,” the European soccer standard, the words “Yao Ming, Yao Ming, Yao Ming,” are sung over and over. (In China, the same song is inexplicably known as “Breakfast with Yao.”) The fans in Houston love Yao Ming—single-game ticket sales are up 55 percent—and when they hear his theme song, they go crazy, singing as loud as they can. Strangers throw arms over each other’s shoulders and sway back and forth, yelling this guy’s name at top volume.
Moments later, a group of Chinese fans about 10 rows behind the basket start a chant in Mandarin. One of the Chinese journalists later roughly translates it into, “Go Yao Ming, Go, Go, Go!” One row in front of the Chinese fans, an older woman in a Yao Ming jersey yells, “Whatever they said, do it Yao Ming!”
It’s easy to forget that Yao is human. He’ll sell products, will surely win his share of games, and might someday go down in history as one of the greatest centers to play the game. Until then, in an era of global unrest, Yao Ming has given NBA fans worldwide something to wonder about. Maybe one of these days he’ll dominate the rest of the League, but at least for this season, Yao Ming has brought us all together.