Man of the People
How one Chinese fan felt watching Yao tear up the NBA.
by Keane Shum
It was the snowy end of winter in 2003, foot upon foot of snow piling up and down the East Coast. The world was gearing up for war in Iraq. Toward the end of February, several guests on the ninth floor of the Metropole Hotel in Hong Kong fell ill with a mysterious respiratory disease. But these events are not why I remember that time. I remember that time because on February 23, 2003, I took the Metro-North into New York City with my college roommate, then the subway down to Penn Station, emerged at the gates of the World’s Most Famous Arena and watched Yao Ming play his first game in Madison Square Garden.
I once entertained serious dreams of playing in the Garden myself, about a decade earlier. I was 10 years old and thought being able to dribble through my legs a hundred times in a row meant I would one day be able to hang with guys four times faster than me and eight times bigger. I would go out to a hoop and imagine my team down by two, backing down my opponent as the last seconds ticked away in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, then launching a three to win it at the buzzer. Didn’t matter if I missed; I just kept replaying the scene over and over again until I made it. I think most kids who have picked up a basketball know what I’m talking about.
Most kids, and all of us Chinese kids, also know what it’s like when your mother thinks this dream is so absurd she doesn’t even bother dismissing it. You don’t even get a, “You’re not tall enough.” Just, “Go do your homework.”
Yao Ming didn’t change this; unless you are a 7-foot tall 10-year-old, I can probably count with my fingers the number of Chinese kids out there being encouraged by their mothers to pursue a career in professional basketball. I wouldn’t even say he made us feel like it was us out there battling the Shaqs and Tim Duncans, because no Chinese basketball player I’ve ever seen is 7-6 and weighs 300 pounds. No Chinese basketball player I’ve ever seen even knows how to play center. At the height of Yao mania (and thanks to a catchy television spot for VISA), white or black guys I played pick-up ball with would yell, “Yo, Yao!” at me when they wanted the ball (which was a misguided stereotype but mostly because nine out of 10 Chinese basketball players play nothing like Yao Ming—our versatility on the basketball court ranges from point guard to shooting guard).
No, what drew us—or at least me—to Yao Ming was something much more basic than having a role model to aspire to or someone to live vicariously through. It was this simple: He looked kind of like me. With apologies to Wang Zhizhi and Mengke Bateer, who I’m not sure played enough minutes in the NBA to qualify as players, Yao Ming was the first NBA player who just looked kind of like me.
This is a huge deal when you’ve spent your childhood so in love with a game but always feeling just a little alienated from it, like it was some fantasy world where everyone was black or white and had names like Stockton or Malone. No matter how long it took for the broadcasters to realize his given name was Ming and his family name was Yao—even box scores from this past season still got it wrong—there it was, on the back of his jersey, above the No. 11, “YAO” in all caps, like it could’ve been my cousin out there in a Rockets uniform catching alley-oops from Steve Francis.
And best of all for us hard-luck Chinese, Yao was the biggest underdog sports had ever seen. My two favorite Yao moments are both from his rookie year, when the critics were falling over themselves calling him a bust after he scored exactly 0 points in his first game. The first moment was early on in the season: Charles Barkley said he would kiss Kenny Smith’s ass if Yao ever scored more than 19 points, and on cue, Yao dropped 20 on 9-9 shooting against the three-time defending champion Lakers. Sir Charles, ever a man of his word, had to pony up and kiss a donkey on national television.
The second moment was midway through Yao’s rookie season, when the haters were out in force again, this time complaining about how Chinese fans voted an undeserving Yao into the All-Star Game. He was about to go up against Shaq for the first time—Shaq had been injured in the first match-up with the Lakers—and there was supposed to be a beatdown in the making. Shaq was classy: “Tell Yao Ming,” he said. “Ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-soh.”
I remember feeling nervous when the game started, like I was watching a friend about to forget his lines on stage or trip over his trombone. And then something happened: In just the first few minutes of the game, Yao scored three times on Shaq with a variety of post moves and rejected Shaq on the defensive end. Twice. Then, late in overtime, Steve Francis found Yao open underneath the basket and he sealed a game with the weapon everyone said was missing from his arsenal: a dunk.
The hazing has never stopped. Even in his retirement, Yao keeps getting disrespected. Just last week, in front of hundreds of Yao’s peers at the ESPYs, the host, Seth Meyers, took a cheap shot. “Yao Ming announced that he’s retiring form basketball,” Myers cracked. “Or that he’s retiling his bathroom.”
No matter. Yao has always shook off the bigotry the same way he once—again, as a rookie—channeled his inner Hakeem Olajuwon and shook off Jermaine O’Neal like he was a Polaroid picture. In between the racist taunts and the skeptics who said he would only ever be a Chinese Rik Smits, Yao Ming scored more points than any other center between 2002 and 2009, all while playing on a broken left foot and stolen time he devoted to the Chinese national team each summer, including the one where he carried China’s flag at the Beijing Olympics and scored the first basket—a three-pointer—of the USA-China game.
“Unstoppable” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in sports, but in his last full season, Yao was unstoppable. When a 7-6 guy perfects a turnaround jump shot and a soft baby hook, there is just no way he can be blocked. On a Rockets team stacked with guards, Yao was their best clutch free-throw shooter and a scarily good passer out of the post. He advanced to the second round of the Playoffs for the first time and there, the Rockets took the eventual champion Lakers to seven games. He was close. He was getting so close.
I can’t deny that Yao left so much potential unfulfilled. With Yao, we will always wonder what could have been. But that doesn’t make his too-short career anything less than an absolute triumph. Even in basketball death, the critics are going after Yao, saying he will only be remembered for bringing basketball to China, that the basketball itself will be forgotten with time.
Not by me. And not, I guarantee you, by the millions of kids like me, from Shanghai to New York, who over the last decade stayed up in the middle of so many nights to watch a guy who looked kind of like them stumble past, learn to compete with, and then dominate the best basketball players in the world.
That first time I saw him play in Madison Square Garden, even as an historic blizzard blew record amounts of snow through New York, the Garden was cozy up where I sat, in the cheap seats, where it seemed like all of Chinatown had relocated 40 blocks uptown. We warmed up with each of the 24 points Yao scored that night, though the Rockets lost after he turned over the ball over twice late in the game.
The world has changed a lot since then. The war in Iraq is coming to a close. SARS, thankfully, is mostly a distant memory. And yesterday, Yao Ming left the game of basketball as maybe its last, great center. He just happened to look kind of like me.
For more from Keane Shum, check out his blog, wonderlust.