Really, what did you expect from Yao? He’s not exactly the type to rip a teammate, no matter what he’s doing. McGrady could take 35 shots a game in the face of constant triple-teams, and Yao would probably say something along the lines of, “We are learning to work together.” But it’s just that polite deference, or at least unwillingness to shake things up in public, that needs to be corrected. Don’t go screaming about a lack of respect or anything, Yao, but don’t always be so nice, either.
It’s really not his fault. Chinese culture stresses commitment to the whole, even if the country has been understandably wild about Yao the individual, whose top-dog status in the ASG vote was fortified by ballots cast by his countrymen. Because there is no entrenched get-mine Capitalist philosophy in his homeland, Chinese tend not to see themselves owed any great fame and fortune. Because of that, Yao entered the L in something of a hole. It’s great that he’s team-first—the NBA could certainly use more of that. But sometimes, the best way to push the club forward is to be a rampaging, give-me-the-ball-or-else force who’s out to stomp on the bloated carcasses of his opponents. So far, there is little of that from Yao.
“It might be where he’s from,” Rockets guard David Wesley says. “He doesn’t have that talk-trash, I’m-going-to-completely-annihilate-you mentality. Hopefully, he can get that.”
That’s what we want from our pivots. They can’t be soft and friendly, or they’ll end up like Ralph Sampson, a 7-4 guy who wanted to be a point guard. Big guys can be lovable—Shaq is—but they’d better let everybody around them know that when it’s time to tie on the feedbag, they are the big eaters, and the buffet is theirs. Yao is aggressive; there can be no doubt about that. When he wants to go to the basket, he goes. But he still needs…something more. More nastiness. More attitude. More of what seems to be hard-wired into the average American ballplayer. Even he knows he must learn how to be dominant. “That’s absolutely right,” he says. “That’s the goal I work to.”
Part of Yao’s problem is that he has spent just three seasons playing against people who challenge his manhood every night. When he was with the Shanghai Sharks, basketball was about teamwork, skills, making the right play and winning together, all the stuff that would make John Wooden happy. But the Wizard of Westwood doesn’t have to stop Kevin Garnett around the basket. To do that, you need more than just a five-man weave. Yao didn’t grow up playing on the NYC blacktop or the steamy rec centers in Detroit, L.A., Houston or anyplace where you don’t even get on the court if you can’t growl like you mean it. That he’s had this success without a key ingredient of NBA life is impressive and encouraging. Just think of how good Yao can be once he starts kicking a little ass.
“It will come,” says fellow Houston big man Dikembe Mutombo. “Someone is not always born with it, but it can come. He just needs the great support of people around him to dominate night after night. He has that.”
Keep in mind, Yao also has that standing reservation—not an invite, mind you, but a requirement—to return to China each summer to play on the national team. It isn’t enough that he has to give a chunk of his contract to the government, he also has to face Singapore in the Asian Games? How much better could Yao be if he were able to spend those three months stateside, working out with a trainer and playing pickup against some real comp? “If I had free time, of course I would come to training camp early,” Yao says. “That would be helping.”
But such is life in the global NBA. Yao will have to get better at his own pace, learning the game just as he learns the language, a little at a time. Until he masters both, we’ll have to put up with some shaky answers, both on and off the court. But when he gets it all together, look out. He’ll be able to dunk in everybody’s face, throw out the perfect post-jam bit of verbal junk and eloquently explain the play after the game. And when that happens, Yao won’t need an interpreter anymore. Just a trophy case.