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Little Trouble in Big America

As I write this, the Warriors are facing off against the Bucks wearing black, red, and gold uniforms commemorating the Lunar New Year and I can’t help but think that without Yao Ming, this would not be.

Last week, NBA TV aired “Centers of the Universe” which explored the rivalry and (now) friendship between Yao and Shaq. A friendship that would not have seemed possible when Shaq dropped a “Ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-soh” directed at Yao on a talk show in June 2002, the same month that Yao would go first overall in the NBA draft to the Houston Rockets.

Yao’s career in the NBA would get off to a rocky start. His first game totals were not ideal: 11 minutes, zero points, three fouls, and two turnovers. But things turned around rather quickly for the young center and by the end of his rookie season his averages would sit at 13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks. Bolstered by the Chinese vote, he also started in the All-Star game that February.

From there Yao would grow his game and his assertiveness. For a time, he was the most dominant center in the NBA, scoring more points than any other center from 2002 and 2009. But a series of foot injuries would end his career prematurely. Yao’s playing career only spanned eight seasons, with his eighth and final season only lasting five games due to injury. He now rests in the official “what-if” pantheon among fans.

Watching the two giants swap war stories in a Shanghai high rise, made me think more about Yao’s legacy. With most other NBA players of great significance, I can pick out specific highlights that define their contributions but with Yao I was coming up blank (beyond his status as an unstoppable force in NBA 2K). The only moment I could picture clearly was the dreamshake he threw on Jermaine O’Neal.

How Yao carried himself off the court mirrored his game on it. You wouldn’t expect a 7’6, 300 pound center to be graceful and coordinated, but that’s what he was – light on his feet, with a deft touch with both hands. The same skepticism occurs when looking at a 7’6 Chinese basketball player who has no working knowledge of English, arriving suddenly: this may end terribly. But he found a way to carry the pressure of 1.2 billion sets of eyeballs on one side of the Pacific, while finding his way into American culture with little trouble.

Today, the NBA’s connection to China is unmistakable and is owed almost entirely to Yao. The NBA had explored China as a potential market starting in the 1990s, but it took Yao to be the catalyst for mutual interest. Now, NBA teams travel to China to play preseason games, stars have endorsement deals with Chinese companies, and Kobe’s face is everywhere. And it hasn’t stopped with China; the NBA’s global reach is expanding quicker than ever with a healthy pipeline of international talent flowing through the draft and regular season games taking place in Mexico City and London this season. (Although next time, sending better teams than the Knicks and Bucks to London is probably a good idea.)

In “Centers of the Universe,” Shaq asks Yao if it was always his dream to play in the NBA. Yao replies “no, I can’t say I loved basketball in the beginning. But the moral marry first and fall in love later… that kind of case.” It was that kind of case with America too but this gentle giant turned out to be a perfect fit.

BRIAN WONG | @bigbwong

Brian Wong is a third-generation Chinese American and Bay Area native. NBA fan, Golden State Warriors fanatic.

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