In honor of Yao Ming, it’s only right to have this week’s episode of “Great Sports Writing” feature one of the most impactful and beloved basketball players of all time. Equipped with an enduring smile and an admirable sense of humor, Yao will forever be remembered for the lasting impression he left with everyone he encountered. Forget the fact that Yao was a skilfully gifted 7-foot-5 basketball star that resurrected basketball back in the city of Houston, Yao embraced hundreds of millions of new fans into following the NBA. On the court (and when healthy), Yao was undoubtedly a dominant force, a spectacle to watch. The combination of his sweet shooting touch as well as his polished post game presented all sorts of problems for opponents, especially his deep baseline fade-away which evoked memories of The Dream back in the mid-90s. (His free-throw shooting wasn’t too shabby either — a consistent 80% shooter for his career. Imagine if Shaq was blessed with that shooting touch from the charity stripe?) Off the court, Yao was a friend to all, a family man, a spokesman, a global icon, a true hero, and a role model for the younger generations. Yao truly was larger than life.
Here, Peter Hessler wonderfully profiles (much better than I ever could) Yao’s journey from China to the NBA, and back to China. After finishing reading the piece, you will get a sense of the unbelievable (and unrealistic) expectations placed on him as a young child. It’s awe-inspiring how Yao was able to handle everything. I never need to hear a complaint from “The Chosen One” (LeBron) ever again about the burdensome expectations placed on him. Check out this must-read piece below to get a better understanding of just how hard it is to be Yao Ming.
From The New Yorker:
After a sensational rookie season in the National Basketball Association, Yao, who is twenty-three, had returned to China in early May with one clear objective: to lead the national team to the title in the Asian Basketball Championship, which serves as the regional qualifier for the 2004 Olympics. Usually, China dominates Asian basketball, but this year, because of political problems, Wang Zhizhi, the country’s second-best player, had not come back from America. Yao Ming had become involved in a high-profile lawsuit, which was interpreted by the Chinese press as a clash between the rights of the individual and the authority of the state. Increasingly, Yao’s world was divided: there was the sanctity of the sport and, off court, a whirlwind of distractions, ranging from the burdensome to the bizarre. When I had last visited him, in July, he was staying with the Chinese team in Qinhuangdao, a seaside town that was hosting an exhibition game against a squad from the United States Basketball Academy. Yao didn’t play—he had just received eight stitches in the eyebrow after a teammate elbowed him in practice. Before the game, a China Unicom representative with a digital recorder coached Yao through a series of phrases that would be sold as alarm messages to mobile-phone subscribers. “Wake up, lazy insect!” Yao said obediently, and then his bandaged brow dipped when the woman asked him to repeat it (“More emphasis!”).
That evening, the Chinese nearly threw the game away—in the final quarter, they couldn’t handle a full-court press from the ragtag American team. “I think the center needs to come to half-court against the press,” Yao told me afterward, in his hotel room. Liu Wei, the Chinese point guard and Yao’s best friend, was sprawled on one bed. Yao sat on the other bed, which had been crudely extended: the head consisted of a wooden cabinet covered with blankets. We spoke in English; he talked about the N.B.A. off-season news that he had culled from the Internet. He had not spoken to any of his Houston teammates since returning to China. “Did you hear about Rodman?” Yao said. “He might come back. I can’t believe the Lakers got Payton and Malone. I can’t believe they only spent six million. If Kobe is O.K., it’s like a Dream Team.” The names sounded foreign and far away—Mark Cuban, Shaq, Kirilenko. “AK-47,” Yao said, using the sports-talk nickname for Andrei Kirilenko, a Russian forward on the Utah Jazz. Yao smiled like a kid at the sound of the phrase. “AK-47,” he said again.
We will miss you, Yao.
[The New Yorker]