He Is Legend

It’s not official just yet, but word is out that Yao Ming will be hanging up his No. 11 jersey this summer, and in celebration of the big man, we’re running all four of his SLAM features this week. We’ve already brought you stories from SLAM 69 and SLAM 88, and below you can read DeMarco Williams’ piece from SLAM 115 (March ’08).


words DeMarco Williams / portrait Pier Nicola D’Amico

It’s amazing the things they do with movie cameras these days. With the right magician behind the lens, you can make Will Smith look like he’s the only person in New York or have it appear that Sylvester Stallone hasn’t aged since the last Rambo.

Today, Reebok is up to its own CGI-aided trickery. An inconspicuous high school gym in Abilene, TX, has morphed into a commercial set. Houston Rockets center Yao Ming and about 100 of his unclosest friends are shooting a spot for the shoe brand that’s going to be a part of a mega-promotion for the upcoming Summer Olympics in Beijing. Utilizing never-before-used technology, Reebok’s making it seem like all the extras are literally inside of Yao, almost willing him onto the court. So when they run and jump, he runs and jumps. When they dunk, he dunks. The concept is kinda sick. The description offered here can’t begin to justify what’s seen on the storyboards.

The exciting end product will come to TV sets across Asia sometime in the first half of ‘08. Right now things are pretty mundane. There’s a whole lot of walking around and moving equipment about. Oh, and Yao’s over there, sitting semi-patiently in his chair.

“I’ve been here since 10 a.m.” And to think, that huffing is from the big guy’s stand-in, Charles Crouch. You can only imagine how the star must be feeling.

As if sensing her angular lead actor growing antsy, a make-up person suddenly walks up to Yao and starts brushing him. All the while she’s there, Yao’s got side chatter going with a member of his marketing team. “I get double-teamed anywhere I go—on and off the court,” quips Yao after the powdering. “I appreciate that people care about me and watch me and support me. That’s a really good feeling. Hopefully, that can continue.”

If you’ve followed Yao’s career at any point from his Chinese Basketball Association days up to this current NBA season, you know there’s no indication that any of the attention is going to end anytime soon. Through the first 16 games, Yao is averaging 22.4 points, 10.3 rebounds and about 6.3 Asian reporters chronicling his every step per game. What many skeptics discounted as novelty five years ago has quietly turned to respect for a 27-year-old man determined to prove he’s worth the international headlines.

Give Yao his due. The super center could have easily rested on the fact that even if he never progressed from the 13.5 ppg he posted his rookie year, he’d still be one of the planet’s most famous athletes. Yao could have copped out on being a go-to guy and shrugged that duty to fellow Rocket Tracy McGrady. He’d probably still be the top vote-getter in the All-Star Game for a third straight year. But to garner respect from his peers and knowledgeable sports fans across the map, Yao had to do more.

“You can’t say, I want to play in the NBA Finals but I don’t want the pressure,” begins the 2002 No. 1 pick. “That’s impossible. Those important games cause a lot of people to concentrate on it. I would be honest and say, I have pressure but I know how to handle it. If you have pressure, you need to face it.”

Coming into this new season, in fact, Yao knew demands would be yoked on him and T-Mac to get the almost-there Rockets, well, there. “We have a new coach and some new teammates,” Yao says. “I was worried. Did we prepare well for the season? Well, we started 6-1, which brought us a lot of confidence. Obviously, then we started struggling, even at home, so we need to find out what happened to us.”

Some of what happened was due to another McGrady injury. Since Yao’s been wearing No. 11 for Houston, Tracy’s missed more than 50 games due to aches and sprains. To be even halfway formidable competition to the other two Texas franchises, the Rockets need both stars. Nothing against Shane Battier and scrappy Argentine Luis Scola, but without Ming and Mac, the Austin Toros could give ’em a run. Yao confesses that when T-Mac’s down, “I do have that pressure. But that’s human nature. When you have a man down, you would feel pressure. We still have a lot of talented players. We just need to trust ourselves.”

The director’s assistant slides back into frame, as if he’s been waiting for a break in dialogue. Yao walks off with him. Folks in the film industry call segueing moments like this a “transition.”

A little background before we continue: Sports in general are a colossal deal in the Far East. (Some 200+ million just watched Yao and Milwaukee rookie Yi Jianlian duke it out.) Sports Illustrated China doesn’t just put Yao, LeBron and popular baseball players on its covers; tennis and track stars get front page love, too. So, when it was announced that the biggest event of them all, the 2008 Summer Olympics, was coming to Asia for the first time since the ’88 Seoul Games, people went berserk.

“That was a big deal for us, for my country,” explains Yao, who’s been on the Chinese National Team since he was 18. “We put a lot of passion, energy into preparing for these Games. Everyone cannot wait until the people come to China and [we can say], We are ready for you. We will give you feelings like you were just at home. This will be one of the best Olympics in history.”

Reebok plans to capitalize on the homeland excitement with its most ambitious global assault ever: “Fuel Yao’s Unlimited Power.” This virtual campaign allows loyal supporters to go online to learn about Yao, chat about Yao and even create song mixes that honor Yao. The more the Chinese faithful participate on the promotional site, the more the big man’s muscle is fueled on the Yao Ming Power Meter.

To many Stateside, this whole thing might come off like silly idolatry; in the Chinese culture, it all makes perfect sense. Yao is genuinely energized, be it virtually or in reality, by the support he gets from his countrymen. But if the cultural pride aspect isn’t enough to draw visitors, the fact the strongest supporters from the country’s four regions get tickets to see Yao play in the Games might be.