by Irv Soonachan / @SidelineOB
In the history of American basketball there have been more impressive debuts, but none more memorable than a summer night in Northern California nearly a decade ago.
It was August 22, 2002, and a large part of the Arena in Oakland was singing along, with feeling, to the Chinese national anthem, while five-starred red flags waved in nearly every section of the stands. Yao Ming arrived in America, and brought the weight of nations with him. In China, he was already a national treasure. To Americans, he was about to be the most famous young Chinese person since the Tank Man.
As the Chinese and American national teams stood across from each other, trying for different reasons to look oblivious to what was happening all around them, I wondered if my misgivings about the scene were pangs of xenophobia or decency.
The US public in 2002 was apprehensive of both the totalitarian Chinese regime and our government’s—and private industry’s—race to do business with it. Many at the time were also wary of the unilateral actions of our own White House in the rush to Iraq, and the subsequent branding of American dissidents as unpatriotic.
Into the middle of this environment, little more than a decade after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, stepped a 21-year-old hoops phenom.
Yao, the No. 1 pick in that June’s NBA Draft, was viewed by his country’s leaders as an emissary to the West. He was fresh-faced, talented, and as gentle-spirited off the court as a 7-6 panda bear. Constantly accompanied by government handlers, he nevertheless seemed confident and relaxed in front on the media.
The NBA, on the other hand, was obsessed with unlocking massive profits from television rights and memorabilia sales to approximately a fifth of the world’s population.
Team USA trounced the Chinese national team in that night’s exhibition, but Yao was arguably the best player on either side. He scored 13 points, grabbed 11 rebounds, and added 3 assists, 3 steals, and 6 blocked shots in 34 minutes, while committing just one well-placed personal foul.
Ben Wallace, not the sort of player you wanted on your bad side, had grumbled that week that Team USA would “beat Yao up pretty bad” — a very unusual threat in any game, let alone an international exhibition that was merely a warm-up for the World Championships. But the first American to get physical with Yao — I wish I could remember who it was — found a large, bony elbow ensconced in his chest the next trip down. Team USA may have won by 30 points, but there was no more roughhousing.
Yao had lived up to the colossal hype.
After the game, as the US team and its coaches finished dressing in an empty locker room (having already offered their unreserved praise), reporters from all over the world crowded into a small meeting room for his first US press conference. All were warned not to ask Yao about a rumored injury to one of his lower extremities, possibly his foot.
He arrived flanked by handlers, and a few minutes later it was clear that this roomful of journalists would be careful not to offend the sensibilities of fascists. So thinking it my patriotic duty, I asked a carefully worded question that didn’t break their rules, but gave us an opportunity to see how far Yao could push his limits. We never found out.
His handlers answered the question for him, and the press conference was shut down shortly thereafter. Some of my fellow reporters were mad, and it took me a while to understand why.
Yao didn’t necessarily want to be a representative of his government. He was just a basketball prodigy who happened to be born in a place where they don’t have meaningful elections and can take out your whole family if you step out of line. Throughout the next decade, through all the successes, all the press conferences, all the downtime with the foot injuries that eroded his career, he never even hinted that he cared for politics.
He obviously cared about his extensive charity work, but it was clear his real passion was for the game. It showed in his on-court fire, a hard-earned skill level that brought joy to basketball purists, and in the respect given him by teammates and opponents. It also showed in his raw emotion when he announced his retirement.
At the end of the day, his strong play and stronger character achieved what everyone had hoped—he opened the Chinese market to the NBA, and provided China another friendly, well-liked face in America.
Looking back, every single player of comparable size and greater skill than Yao is in the Hall of Fame, at least after this week’s induction of Arvydas Sabonis. Yao should someday be there too, at least in my book. There were a few better big men during his time, certainly healthier ones, but few contemporary athletes—not even Michael Jordan—have withstood greater pressure. To accomplish what he did in such incredible circumstances deserves to be recognized by the basketball community. It might as well happen in Springfield.