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Yao measures up in U.S. and China
Updated: 2004-10-12 10:33

Smashing stereotypes forged over centuries and bearing the burden of being an inspiration to a billion compatriots is a mighty tall order.

Yao measures up in U.S. and China
Chinese star center Yao Ming, seen here in August 2004, says it is a type of burden to be a role modle. [AFP]
China's 7-foot-6-inch National Basketball Association (NBA) sensation Yao Ming is up to the task.

With one foot rooted in the ways and wisdom of the Chinese civilization and the other size-18 sneaker planted in the jet-setting world of the NBA, Yao shares his story simply and powerfully in a new, 290-page memoir, "Yao: A Life in Two Worlds."

"Not many people have tried to do what I am doing, to be part of America and China at the same time," writes Yao, the towering Houston Rockets All-Star who two years ago became the first international player named number one pick in the NBA Draft.

"At least not so many have tried to do it with so many people watching."

They watch him play at North America's biggest arenas, watch his good-humored television commercials and, in China, where Yao fever is hottest, more than a billion people watched NBA games on television last year, according to NBA spokesman Matt Bourne.

Hundreds of New Yorkers, including scores of Chinese Americans, showed up at a recent Yao book signing in Manhattan.

"I think he represents a symbol to all the Chinese people, breaking barriers," said college student Andre Hu, 22. "Not just in sports, but in all areas."

"He's the Michael Jordan of China," said Ming Wong, 28, a telecommunications consultant. "He's great already and he's going to be a legend one day."


Yao says being a role model can be difficult and that is one of the reasons he produced the book with writer Ric Bucher.

"It is a type of burden," Yao, 24, told Reuters through his interpreter, Colin Pine. "It seems like those people think there's nothing I can't do. I wanted to write in this book that there are lots of things I can't do. What I can do is try to do my own work as perfectly as I can."

Yao measures up in U.S. and China
Miami Heat's Shaquille O'Neal (32) defends as Houston Rockets' Yao Ming (11), of China, looks to shoot during the first quarter of their pre-season game Sunday, Oct. 10, 2004 in Houston. [AP]
Yao, the son of former Chinese national basketball players, has done his NBA work well, improving his scoring average from 13.5 to 17.5 points in his second season, and increasing his average rebounds haul from 8.20 to 9.00 a game to help lift the Rockets into the playoffs.

Yao's life as a rookie in the NBA spotlight was generally confined to the hours it took to play each game. He spent the rest of his time in the Houston home he shares with his parents, and in his hotel room when the Rockets were on the road.

"I went out twice my first season," writes Yao. "One time was to a disco in Houston's Chinatown. I had heard this was a really good place to go, but we went on a Sunday, and there weren't a lot of people there.

"The other time I went out was in L.A. Wang Zhi Zhi (the NBA's first Chinese player) took me out for Korean food. That's it."

Yao's book opens an enlightening window to his past and his struggle against what he calls a deep-rooted Chinese fear of failure and change.

He tells how he courted his girlfriend Ye Li, a player on China's national basketball team, for almost two years before she agreed to go out with him. He recalls the rigid rationing in place after Mao's Cultural Revolution, remembers hearing, "Down with American imperialism" as he grew up and writes that he knew Americans only as the bad guys in Chinese movies about the Korean War.

Yao says he now appreciates the competitive nature of life in America, and admits to a fondness for mocha frappuccino with whipped cream from Starbuck's and long car rides in his customized BMW.


His game, carefully honed since he turned professional with the Shanghai Sharks juniors at age 13, and a mature perspective helped him to fit into the NBA.

Some Chinese-Americans cried racism when superstar center Shaquille O'Neal spoke gibberish in a Chinese accent when asked after the 2002 NBA Draft what he thought it would be like to play against Yao.

Yao downplayed it, saying he figured Shaq was only joking. Of their first on-court encounter, Yao wrote: "Shaq came to me right before the game started and whispered in my ear: 'I love you; we're friends'."

The Chinese center, who dreams of winning Olympic gold and an NBA title, provides insight into the tattoos of Chinese characters that are popular with some NBA players.

"Allen Iverson's tattoo means 'loyalty'. That's the only good one I can remember seeing," writes Yao, explaining that some of the Chinese-style tattoos sported by other players made no sense, and others could mean different things.

He says bruising power forward Kenyon Martin's tattoo means 'not aggressive' or 'indecisive'. "Anybody who has seen Kenyon play knows he isn't like that."

Yao will merge both worlds when the Houston Rockets and Sacramento Kings play pre-season games in Shanghai and Beijing Thursday and Sunday, giving China its first glimpse of live NBA action.

"The impact of Jordan was immeasurable but this guy seems like the next great thing," said NBA VP Terry Lyons. "He's reaching people on the other side of the Earth."

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