Sometime between our Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, half a world away, Yao Ming announced his retirement from the NBA. Since word came out that he would be hanging up his size EIGHTTEEN Nikes many people have been rushing to ask questions like, “How good was he really?” or “How good could he have been if not for injuries?” I, on the other hand, would rather think about what the career of one of my favorite player’s was rather than what it was not.
It’s impossible to think about Yao Ming without thinking of China. No other athlete has been tied so closely to his national identity than him in the past decade. Fans on both sides of the Pacific equated Yao almost directly with his country of birth. Americans did so because we knew nothing about him except that he was tall and Chinese. The Chinese did the same because he was carrying the weight of the billion people on his ample shoulders and when we won, they all won. To us and to them, Yao Ming was China and China was Yao Ming.
But what exactly is this China he represented? When Yao came to America in 2003, The Middle Kingdom was a much bigger mystery to the West than it is now. It was seen as (and still is to a lesser effect) a place of rice and fortune cookies, kung fu and ping pong, communism and Tiananmen Square. They didn’t interact much with the rest of the world and didn’t seem eager too. The truth is that by this point, China had been changing for a long time but not too many had cared to notice yet. Yao would change this.
This change that led to Yao’s emergence into the global spotlight and China’s emergence into an economic superpower suitably began with sport. In 1971, the US ping pong team accepted an invitation to visit China (yes, it really happened, not just in ‘Forest Gump’), the first Americans to visit the capital since Mao’s regime took over. This opened the door to President Nixon’s visit with the Chairman and subsequently to his successor Deng Xiaoping opening China economically to the West in the 1980s. Once this had been done, China’s isolationist stance became a thing of the past. As money and products from the West were imported, our culture began to gradually be imported as well.
Basketball was not one of these recent cultural imports. The sport had been played in China since YMCA missionaries introduced the sport in the late 19th century. It was not banned, as many other Western sports were, by the communist regime and it actually flourished under this time. Mao himself was a fan of the game and regularly attended games, a cigarette between his fingers a constant accessory as the norm for him. But the sport had to take on the spirit of the party so no individual statistics were recorded and players routinely apologized to their opponents after committing a foul. The ubiquitous motto, “friendship first, competition second,” was the mantra of all sports in Maoist China, hoops included. The team first attitude, in sports as well as in life, must come before the individual.
Yao played a part in this perception of sport changing. When he was a rookie on the Rockets, millions of Chinese tuned in to the games. Were they watching for the team? Of course not, they were watching for Yao. No doubt they rooted for Houston by association, and they are now the most popular NBA team in China, but the initial attraction to the individual no doubt came first. Now, rooting for Yao was pretty much equivalent to rooting for the bigger Team China, but as the fan started pouring over box scores and voting over and over again online for their hero to make the All-Star team, a focus on the players began to eclipse the focus on team. Considering this, it is not surprising that the only American player who rivals Yao’s popularity in China now is Kobe Bryant, who is not the most selfless guy in the world.
Added to this, Yao is quite the individual himself. On the one side, he has shown devoted loyalty to his country. He professed the country before self doctrine of old communist China. He once said that if he missed the 2008 Olympics due to injury it “would be the biggest loss in my career.” On the other hand, he was a child of this new capitalist wave that hit the Far East as well. After growing up watching his basketball playing parents make an average worker’s wages, taking care of the Yao’s became an important priority of Yao. When Coca Cola, the beverage sponsor of Team China but not of Yao, used his image without permission, Yao sued the company and won. Even though his love for his country cannot be questioned, he refused to be pushed around or taken advantage of. Through his small acts of independence, he has set a good precedent for future Chinese athletes and set up his own personal Ming Dynasty for generations.
Yao was (and still is) a bridge from that old China to this new one. He gave his country a presence on a stage the whole world would pay attention to. They had to this point lacked a universally recognized face with which people could identify China with. And Yao was certainly someone who could not be hidden or ignored. His mere size makes heads turn in probably every room he has ever entered in his entire life. People would have to take notice of Yao Ming, and thus, China too.
It was with all this pressure on him that Yao Ming entered his rookie season. Many experts predicted confidently that he would be a bust, and his early results seemed to prove them right. After missing most of training camp to be with the Chinese National Team, Yao did not score in his debut and appeared lost, confused, slow, clumsy and timid in the early part of the season. He gradually started to gain confidence and adjust to the speed of the game and better performance followed.
Yao’s coming out party to the basketball world was without a doubt his first match-up with the dominant center of the time, Shaquille O’Neal. With Shaq fanning the flames before the game with his borderline racist comments and (hilarious) kung fu flick dubbed voice, everyone expected Yao to be blown away like a tent in a hurricane. Yao instead responded by blocking Shaq’s shot the first three times he came at him and scoring three quick buckets in the early moments of the game in front of a national television audience as well as millions of his faithful watching at home.
Although he was bullied by Shaq quite a bit in the game, his dunk to seal the game tells the whole story. Yao came thundering down the middle of the court, trailing the break, filling the lane, caught the ball right in front of the hoop, and slammed it home to put the Rockets up four with ten seconds to go. On his face was the insane intensity and killer instinct that everyone had assumed he lacked. He was not the stereotypical Asian wallflower, all humility and Confucian sayings, that he was expected to be. He was a force to be reckoned with. He was not going to shrink away from Shaq or anybody. This game was hailed as the passing of the torch from today’s great center to tomorrow’s and the first of many great battles between the two behemoths we all anticipated.
Unfortunately, his career did not quite work out that way. Over the next few years, Yao quickly established himself as an All-Star, borderline elite caliber of player. He was dependable, playing at least eighty games in three out of his first four years, and efficient, shooting over 50% from the field and over 80% from the free throw line for his career. But injuries would ravage the prospects of his so promising potential.
What was worse than the injuries themselves was the astoundingly unlucky timing of these injuries. His first extended absence from the court came after breaking his knee in his fifth season. At the time of his injury, he was considered an MVP candidate with impressive averages of 27 points, 10 boards, and over 2 blocks a game. His next season was ended by a stress fracture in his left foot as his team was in the midst of a 22 game winning streak, the second longest in NBA history. A hairline fracture in the same cursed foot ended his next season during Game 3 of a second round playoff series against the Lakers. If any of these injuries had been avoided, Yao’s legacy may have indeed included a title and/ or an MVP trophy.
Yao was healthy enough though to participate in the biggest moment of China’s recent history; the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Carrying his country’s flag, Yao, new China’s first ambassador to the West, led the Chinese delegation into the opening ceremony as the whole world looked in awe upon The Bird Nest, The Water Cube, and the 7’6 master of ceremonies. Here was the China Yao forced the rest of the planet to notice fully manifested.
The proportions were gigantic. The execution was precise. The presentation was downright extravagant. With the strange modernistic buildings, the hundreds of in synch drummers and dancers, and the continuous fireworks booming above, China was announcing that it was not a dormant, sleeping dragon. With the world’s largest population and the second largest economy, China was finally ready to completely depart with its isolationist past and embrace its new role as one of the most powerful nations on Earth. The display at the Olympics clearly showed an intention to make this known.
This desire to be the biggest and the best in everything is still going on in China. I was not there to see the Olympics in Beijing, but I was living in Guangzhou during last year’s Asian Games. Here again were brand new facilities built to house the games, neon lights illuminating the riverfront twenty-four hours a day, and endless fireworks through the night with seemingly all of the twenty million residents of GZ in the streets to watch them. All over the country, some of the world’s tallest TV towers and skyscrapers are going up. Hell, China is even launching ships into space while America is about to retire our only extra-planetary vehicle.
It almost smacks of a desperation to be noticed, like a middle child or parvenu over-compensating to get people to notice them. The government continues wasting money in such an extravagant way when much of the rest of the world is in recession, just because they can. And they do put on one hell of a show.
A good way to sum it up is this: The Backstreet Boys are still really popular in China. Their song, “Larger than Life,” is especially so. If you walk into any club in China, there’s a good chance you might here it playing and see people going crazy dancing to it, like I expect people did in 1999, when it came out. And this is not due to any lag on music reaching China. Many other artists such as Lady Gaga and Jay-Z are also well known and very popular. However, it seems that this dated pop song most of us wish we could forget holds a special place in the hearts of the new generation of Chinese.
The song itself (or its title anyway, which is all the lyrics these Chinese club goers usually know) mirrors this reckless expansion, this need to be biggest and best, and the need to demonstrate it publically. Yao Ming was the first example of China being larger than life to the outside world. His size all too obviously stood out even in the NBA. The finesse and skill with which he played the game was astonishing for such a giant. The ease, willingness and ability to be a global icon and universal figurehead for his country seemed effortless. He’s just a little too much to be real.
In his all too brief time with us here in Mei Guo (美国), the beautiful country, the name for America in Chinese, Yao Ming earned the respect of the basketball world, the adoration of millions of fans of all colors, and the constant devotion of his countrymen. He opened new doors for the NBA and the game of basketball, while carrying the expectations of a nation on his back. He was the harbinger of a new China that the most of the world was not aware existed yet. He was (and is, I hate talking about the guy like he’s dead) larger than life.