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You might recognise Yao Ming from the Apple commercials on the telly. You remember? He was the guy who transformed Mini-Me into Itsy-Bitty-Teeny-Weeny Me when the vertically distinct duo sat side by side on the plane. Towering at 7’5” tall, the Chinese part-time computer salesman won’t win any awards for his acting. But thanks to his talent the basketball court, Yao has turned into a one-man global phenomenon who is well on his way to earning – in the words of Dr. Evil – one billion dollars.
China may not be among the favourites to grab gold in Greece but there’s no question that their hoops hero is one of the biggest stars in Athens. That’s not just because of his immense height. It’s an automatic occurrence when you’re the top sporting sensation in the most populous country on the planet.
However the 24 year old centre’s fame now spreads way beyond his native Shanghai. During the past two years, he has joined the biggest draws in the NBA after signing for the Houston Rockets where he picks up a cool $4million salary. And that’s just for starters. As well as laptops, he helps to flog credit cards, soft drinks and computer games as big Stateside corporations exploit his ability to tap into the mega-rich Asian market.
If David Beckham’s star is fading fast, then Yao’s is shooting up. Time Magazine recently named him among the 100 Most Influential People in the World. He is the reason why NBA games are now broadcast every night direct into millions of Chinese homes. A magazine in his own country rated him among the most five most recognisable athletes on a list which also included women's table tennis champion Deng Yaping, diver Fu Mingxia, the former skipper of the Chinese football team, Fan Zhiyi and US basketball legend Michael Jordan. Hence why in Houston, there is an entire posse of journalists who hang on his every word after practice every day.
Grabbing some time with the gentle giant requires careful negotiation. Of his feet. Holding court at his locker, it’s a relief when he sits down for our chat, if only to prevent severe neckache. But I still almost stand on his Size 18 boots, pinned at the end of legs which seem to stretch out half-way across the room.
Conversation is tricky too. British star John Amaechi, who spent part of last season with the Rockets, told me that his former team-mate now speaks pretty good English. Except in public. “Almost. But not yet,” he tells me with a grin before heading back into his native language. So at his shoulder his faithful sidekick Colin Pine stands by ready to translate. Pine, a former CIA operative, has been Yao’s other Mini-Me since careful political negotiations between Beijing and the NBA secured permission for him to land in the USA.
It was a long process. There was the question of a fee to his old club, the Shanghai Sharks, a team co-owned by the Chinese government and private interests. There he had no lavish life. He made $20,000 a year, lived in a dormitory with his team-mates and washed his own uniform. Even though he picked up a massive pay rise with the move to Houston, as part of the deal which set him free, a certain part of his earnings – reportedly 50% - gets sent back home into the coffers of the authorities.
Which world does he prefer I wonder? “Each kind of life has its own characteristics and things I enjoy. I like both sides,” he answers diplomatically. But does he resent having extra chores? “I don’t think its pressure. I think it’s something you want to do and a responsibility. I’m very willing to do these kinds of things.”
For China, he is proud symbol of their new found place on the world stage. Ming was born in 1980, four years after the end of the Cultural Revolution. He inherited the family genes from his parents who were both top-notch basketballers on the national team but as a child he preferred model-making until he was drawn into hoops when his Dad bribed him with treats if he made baskets.
At the age of 12, Yao was sent to a basketball school at the provincial sports academy in Shanghai, where he trained for several hours every day. They got him a king-sized bed but he still had to ride a bike to classes. And it was there that he got up early to study the great American centres like Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing on TV.
He first rocketed to international fame in Sydney in 2000 where he and fellow super-sized NBA exports Mengke Bateer and Wang Zhi Zhi formed the Great Wall of China. In Australia, he averaged a modest 10.5 points but by the 2002 World Championships in Indianapolis, he was ready to take on all-comers and made the All-Tournament starting five. Then in 2003, China qualified for Athens by winning the 2003 Asian Championship behind Yao's Most Valuable Player performance when he racked up 30 points in the final against South Korea.
But it’s in the NBA that he has really grabbed the limelight. "The idea when I came here to America was to fit and to play basketball at the very highest level in the NBA,” he confirms. “I am not comfortable being a symbol." In his first year, he averaged 13.5 points and 8.2 rebounds but lost out on the Rookie of the Year award to Amare Stoudemire of Phoenix.
But he has already two appearances in the NBA All-Star Game under his belt thanks to Internet voting on a massive scale, while last season he averaged 17.5 points, nine rebounds and 1.9 blocks last year in helping the Rockets make the playoffs.
He may not be the very best at his position in the NBA but the coaches in Houston adore his work ethic. There may be more muscle to add to his skinny frame but how many 7’5” guys feel as comfortable dribbling the basketball as slam dunking into the face of some shorty-pants underneath?
If anything, he is too nice. Too respectful. That’s a mother’s dream but in the bad-ass world of the NBA – where trash talking and showboating earn as much respect as skill and finesse – Yao has been urged to develop a mean streak.
Former LA Lakers star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has urged the young pretender to use his height to greater advantage if the Rockets and China are to rise to the top of their trees. “He doesn't play the game that way at this point in his career. I think he could be very effective. I would imagine that he must get frustrated because people expect so much from him. He hasn't been able to deliver. I can see he doesn't understand the dynamics here. He's very intelligent, he's a good athlete, and he has a great attitude. He can be a great player, but nobody has taken him through those steps yet."
Ewing, now a Rockets assistant coach and the man charged with knocking the kid who used to idolise him into shape, thinks he has made some strides. "He still has a long way to go. He needs to be a more dominant individual, not just verbally, but also in his presence on the court. Yao has the potential and the ability to take over games not only offensively but defensively. He just has to envision himself doing it. He's so laid-back. Sometimes, I think he takes too much of a step back when he needs to be out in the forefront."
The messages are slowly getting through. "He's taught me to be a bad person," Yao grins when he learns of Ewing’s analysis. And in recent weeks, he has taken that new-found scary side onto the international stage. Although it was Yugoslavia which won the pre-Olympic Diamond Ball Tournament in Belgrade, Ming was named the tournament's MVP even though China finished fourth and these Games have come at the end of a long and tiring season in the USA.
Yao admits: "Obviously, there are times when I wish I could have more time off in order to rest my body. However, I view playing on the Chinese national team as a great honour. And it is worth the sacrifice."
As a kid, he was always intrigued by the big bad world outside of Communist China. "I wanted to be adventurer and explore.” Now others will be following in his huge footsteps. Beside him in Athens on a Chinese side coached by Dallas Mavericks assistant boss Del Harris is Yi Jianlian, a teenager nearly 7-feet tall who has already worked his way into the national team's starting line-up even though he is only a reserve on his club team. “He's better than me at 16. He can jump," Yao said. "If he keeps working hard, he can make it big.”
Chinese idol. American Dream. As I leave Yao to the fast-approaching scrum of Asian scribes, someone asks him ‘what’s your favourite song?’. He whispers in Colin’s ear with inscrutable sincerity. "I like the national anthem. I listen to it at least 82 times a year." What they’ll make of that back in Beijing is anyone’s guess. Or maybe he’s just a better actor than we thought?
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