The good folks over at Sports Illustrated China were gracious enough to send me an English translation of the article that appears in their publication after Yao was awarded the 2007 Sportsman of the Year award in China. Here it is!
Yao Ming, sportsman of the year
Written by Mary Nicole Nazzaro
Fast-forward 25 years.
Yao Ming is 52 years old and his basketball heroics are far behind him. He and wife Ye Li have their own family, maybe even a basketball player. They bask in nice memories of Olympic Games and Toyota Center lights and crowds. Their lives are peaceful and uncluttered. The glitz and glamour of the NBA are a distant memory.
Watch the highlight movie of Yao Ming’s sports career for a moment in your mind, and then ask yourself – what will be the best moment of this film? What will be the moment when I will look back and think,yes, that’s the Yao Ming I remember, the man who single-handedly introduced millions of American basketball fans to the most populous country in the world, the man who was named SI China’s Sportsman of the Year, way, way back in 2007?
If Yao wins an NBA championship, perhaps it will be that moment. If he wins an Olympic gold medal – unlikely, sadly, because Chinese basketball is on the rise but nowhere near the levels of teams like Argentina, Spain, France, and yes, the United States – that would surely be the moment.
But what if his NBA career were to suddenly end today?
May we nominate the moment when Yao marched with the members of China’s Special Olympics team into the opening ceremony of the Special Olympics World Games in Shanghai on October 2, 2007? The moment when those young people’s faces were swallowed up with smiles, because HE had come to lead them? The best basketball player (so far, at least) ever to emerge from China’s shores; the top offensive center in the NBA; a man so generous with both his life and the ball that nobody we talked to about him could say an unkind word about the guy – and here he is, being fined (reportedly 20,000 U.S. dollars) because he’s missing the opening day of the 2007 NBA training camp in order to be with these kids?
(”Totally worth it,” Yao was reported to have said.)
Yes. That is the moment.
Yao Ming is so much more than a basketball player. With his generosity of spirit, his understanding of his responsibilities towards China and the world at large, his compassion towards those less fortunate than him, and his seemingly unending need to squeeze every bit of talent he has out of himself for the benefit of his teammates and his countrymen, we proudly salute Yao Ming as Sports Illustrated China’s 2007 Sportsman of the Year.
Of course, you knew about him before we did. You, the Chinese basketball fans who watched this supernatural talent when he was a Shanghai Shark, knew way before we cynical American sports fans. We looked at the guy and all we could say was, whoa, he’s tall! And he’s from China! That was all we could say when we first laid eyes on him, as the whispers began during the 2002 draft season that the Houston Rockets were going to take that huge Chinese guy as the top pick and all that American sports fans could do was to second-guess Yao before he even boarded the plane from Shanghai to Texas.
But you knew something else, too. You knew before we did that there was more, much more, to this man than his superhuman height and wingspan, and the fact that he could play a little bit of basketball. The NBA was getting over the Shawn Bradley hangover, the legacy of another 2.29-m player whose height seemed more a hindrance than a help, despite a respectable pro career. So we didn’t know that he was more than a player – that he could just become as powerful an ambassador as he could a ballplayer. That this gentle giant could become a terrifyingly adept point-scorer on the court – and an astonishingly effective ambassador off the court.
The idea of athlete-as-humanitarian wasn’t a new one, of course, but the NBA is full of way more egos and money than it is full of players who spend their off-seasons thinking up new ways to help those less fortunate than themselves. Most players who have a heart for things like that start to think about giving back to the masses towards the end of their careers, not when they’re superstars. Not when everyone is tugging at them for a smile, a photograph, a moment. When everyone wants them, they just want to hide. Yao, who admittedly wouldn’t be too good at hiding even if he tried, steps out and wants to be noticed – but not for himself, but for the people he can help by just being there.
“It’s a really mature vantage point that he has,” says Jeff Van Gundy, who coached Yao for four seasons with the Rockets. “He understands his greatness can go beyond just the basketball court, and can help enlighten others on very important causes in the world. You get to a point in your [NBA] career where you see things in much broader perspective. Yao sees it much earlier than some people.”
In the United States we know very little about the difficulties of the lives of people with disabilities in China. The power of an athlete with Yao’s stature marching into the opening ceremony of the Special Olympics World Games cannot be underestimated. So the news that Yao missing NBA Media Day resulted in the customary NBA fine, hashed out under the collective bargaining agreement, rang with a certain dissonance. This is a league, after all, that has been full of bad news all summer, from the sexual-harassment verdict against Isaiah Thomas and the Knicks organization to revelations that a referee had ties to a gambling ring and organized crime.
Leave it to Yao to choose a group of kids who idolize him and who he can inspire to have lives beyond anything that anyone could have previously hoped for them, instead of a bunch of crusty reporters and flash bulbs.
Sometimes, in this dissonant, moneyed, privileged NBA world, there is a breath of fresh air. Yao Ming has been that breath of fresh air for five years and counting.
His knack for diplomacy is astonishing. Take the day he arrived in Houston in October 2002. Former Rockets general manager Carroll Dawson tells the tale in wonder to anyone who will listen. Yao was mobbed by fans at the airport, signed a few autographs, but then had to leave for a press conference at the Compaq Center, then the Rockets’ home arena. The first thing he did at that press conference was to apologize to the fans who hadn’t gotten autographs in the airport. And he said, “I plan to be in Houston for a long time, so everyone will eventually get their autographs.”
Dawson got letters and phone calls from Houstonians who had never cared about the NBA before. They said things like, I’m a Rockets fan for life now. That’s the kind of power Yao had, even on his first day in America.
And American-born Chinese have had reason to cheer ever since Yao arrived here as well. Asian-Americans are woefully under-represented in most mainstream sports in the United States, and the number of Asian faces in American elite sports is a short one: Michael Chang, Tiger Woods (whose mother is Thai), Michelle Kwan, Michelle Wie. When Yao arrived, suddenly all of that changed.
“What is important about what Yao Ming has done in terms for the Chinese American population – and I would say for the greater Asian and Pacific Islander community in the United States – is really help to broaden other people’s perceptions of what Asians and Pacific Islanders are,” says Hope Chu, national communications manager for the Washington DC-based Organization of Chinese Americans. “[Yao] helped by breaking out the stereotypes that surround Asian Americans in the U.S., and really helped to increase our visibility in sectors that are not traditionally represented.”
In the universe of fortuitous happenings and great coincidences, how amazing is it, really, that Yao shares a locker room with one of the NBA’s other great humanitarians, Rockets backup center Dikembe Mutombo? Mutombo, now in his last NBA season at the ripe old age of 41, has become something of a saint in NBA parlance for his commitment to his homeland, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and to the US$15 million contribution he made to build a hospital named in honor of his mother in the capital city of Kinshasa. The hospital, which opened last week on World AIDS Day, December 1, 2007, includes rooms named after some of Mutombo’s teammates, including, of course, Yao Ming. (END NEW) Mutombo, who has achieved everything he’ll ever need to achieve as an NBA player, still finds pleasure in being the backup to the best center in the NBA.
“I enjoy [supporting Yao] – it’s one of the reasons I came here [to Houston],” Mutombo said at the beginning of the 2006-07 season. “I don’t want him to feel so much pressure any more!”
“Yao really took a page from Mutombo’s book,” says Van Gundy. “Mutombo has a lot of the same qualities as Yao. To have two great humanitarians on the same team, playing the same position – these things just don’t happen.”
Well, when Yao Ming is around, they do happen.
Sportsman of the Year isn’t just about an athlete’s charitable activities – it’s about achieving tremendous excellence on the field of play, and then being able to make that success mean something off the field of play as well. In this young NBA season the Rockets are working out a whole new offensive strategy under Rick Adelman, but the early results couldn’t have been better: they started off with a 6-1 record and beat last year’s NBA champions, the San Antonio Spurs, in the process.
Yao is off to a fast start himself. He earned Western Conference Player of the Week honors on November 12, after posting a 34-point game against the Charlotte Bobcats (the East player for the same week was Kevin Garnett). After the Charlotte game, Bobcats forward Gerald Wallace called Yao and Tracy McGrady perhaps “the best 1-2 punch in the NBA since Jordan and Pippen.”
Yao is always in the conversation when people begin to wonder who the Western Conference MVP is likely to be for the season – if only he can stay healthy, if only he can keep producing. Yao’s November was stellar, even as the Rockets hiccupped after the fast start, then started to find their groove again. A 100-94 win against Phoenix on the road in which Yao notched 31 points and 13 rebounds was surely the highlight of the month. He’s started all 18 of the Rockets’ games so far this season, averaging 36.4 minutes of play per game. Yao produced 22.1 points and 10.1 rebounds per game through December 1 – textbook numbers for a star offensive center. Plus, he’s scoring from many areas of the court now, no longer glued to the low post as he was so often in the Van Gundy years. [END NEW]
Dawson, who retired as GM on June 1 of this year, is now a special consultant to the Rockets and one of Yao’s advisers. He tells Yao’s fans not to expect Yao’s numbers to increase so much as his efficiency, now that Adelman’s faster, more fluid offense is giving Yao the opportunity to shoot from the field and make more assists.
And he’s also trying to train Yao to take on one of Shaquille O’Neal’s most telling characteristics. Off the court, Shaq is one of the nicest men in the NBA. On the court, though? He’s mean.
“We’re trying to make Yao meaner!” says Dawson. “I told him, instead of getting hit this year, this year you’re going to start hitting people [legally]. There’s legal ways to hit another guy. He’s not falling down as much as he used to.”
The improved Rockets bench should help Yao with his playing efficiency as long as Luis Scola and Bonzi Wells (and perhaps even a resurgent Steve Francis, who posted 10 points in 20 minutes during the team’s win against Denver on November 24) continue to impress on the shotmaking side. Yao’s biggest goals this year on the court, according to Dawson, are to reduce turnovers, and to notch more assists, in addition to keeping his scoring percentage high. Even thought it’s Yao’s sixth year in the NBA, he’s still learning – and Project Yao is still very much a project with a multi-year time horizon.
“By the time he’s 30, he’s going to really be special,” says Dawson.
Of course, Dawson knows that in China, Yao already is special. He saw it firsthand this summer when he traveled to Beijing and Shanghai to start training Yao on Rick Adelman’s new offensive system. They worked out during the day, but when they went out to eat together, Dawson was reminded of just how popular Yao Ming is in his homeland. He compared being out with Yao to what it might have been like to eat out with American rock legend Elvis Presley, who attracted legions of screaming fans wherever he went.
“Yao is very endeared to everybody in China – they love him,” Dawson says. “It’s clear that he’s one of the most popular basketball players in the world.”
For the U.S. edition of Sports Illustrated, the Sportsman of the Year award is a huge honor. It’s been bestowed upon Olympic gold medalists, world champions, and athletes who simply transcend sport. There was tennis star Arthur Ashe in 1992, months away from dying of AIDS after having taken a public stand fighting the disease. Olympic speedskating champions Bonnie Blair and Johan Olav Koss, heroes of the 1994 Olympics. A golfer by the name of Tiger Woods. And a basketball player by the name of Michael Jordan.
But in China, this is a new award, being bestowed for only the second time. Liu Xiang, coming off the heels of his 110-meter hurdles world record in 2006, was last year’s recipient. This year, though, many of Yao’s teammates had a question for SI China as we asked around, looking for their thoughts on their teammate and the award. Who else could possibly qualify for the award? Yao should have it until he retires.
Rick Adelman: “It’s just terrific [that he’s Sportsman of the Year]. He’s a very impressive young man. I’ve run across a lot of guys and I’ve said, he’s one of the top people I’ve met. He reminds me a lot of how Vlade Divac was. Just his mannerisms, the way he handles himself, the way he treats people, he’s just very unassuming. He treats everybody the same, it doesn’t matter who you are. For a superstar, he’s very unassuming, and he’s not caught up in it. So that’s a very good thing.”
Tracy McGrady: “Yao’s a true professional, a very classy guy. He’s a great teammate, a great guy away from the court, a great charitable guy, everything you could want from a professional player, he’s that guy. We’ve learned from each other. He’s just such a humble guy despite everything great happening in his career and with him off the court, having so many people pull for him. He’s just a wonderful guy.”
Shane Battier: “Yao could be sportsman of the year every year, he really could. He’s that good of a guy. He does so much for his country and for the community, and for his teammates. If they wanted to award the sportsman of the year to Yao every single year for the rest of his career, I would have no problem with that, and I don’t think a lot of other people would either!”
Mike James, Rockets’ backup point guard: “Yao deserves the award. Yao’s gotten better every year of his career. Even at his size, he’s very dominating. A lot of times, when a person is that big, he’s very uncoordinated. But he has a lot of coordination, a soft touch, and he’s only going to get better, he’s still young in this game.”
Geez – can’t anyone say a bad word about this guy?
When Carroll Dawson was in China with Yao this summer, he recalled seeing a lot of posters of Yao hung around Beijing and Shanghai. “And that hurdler,” he said . “Both of those guys represent their people very well.”
And that’s where Yao Ming has transcended even the accomplishments of Liu Xiang. Not to take anything away from Liu, who also lent his time to the Special Olympics this summer, but Yao has crossed international boundaries in a way that no other Chinese athlete ever has before.
In the NBA, we met Mengke Bateer and Wang Zhizhi before anyone had heard of Yao. Excellent players though they were, neither had the perfect combination of giant-like height, superhuman wingspan, an easy sense of humor, and – do not discount the importance of this one – a name that was easy for Americans to pronounce – in order to capture the spirit of what Yao was to the NBA: a bridge to a country very few Americans truly understand.
And that meant that from Day One in the NBA, the pressure was on for Yao to perform.
And perform he did. Dared to score 19 points in a game during his rookie season by Charles Barkley, Yao went out and did just that – against the then-NBA champion Lakers, no less. When the first reports came in that Yao was awkward and slow, he worked on his conditioning like a man possessed. Search Internet site YouTube for Yao’s workouts and you’ll find him sprinting 100 yards across a football field, running on a treadmill, and doing serious weight workouts.
We caught glimpses of his conditioning workout on the day we were in Houston to do the Sportsman of the Year interview. Rarely are journalists and photographers given permission to enter the Rockets’ weight training room, but enter we did – just long enough to see Yao doing a set of power cleans with a jump. The force of his 140-kg body coming down on the platform again and again as he hoisted the barbell to his shoulders was all it took to remind us: this man is not normal.
His list of charitable activities is as long as he is tall. In addition to his work with the Special Olympics, Yao has lent his image and influence to many causes, both Chinese and international: the fight against SARS, HIV/AIDS prevention, and environmental protection (demonstrated when he publicly gave up shark’s fin soup). He works with the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program, and purchases tickets to Rockets home games for Houston-area disadvantaged youth.
But the pressure to perform remains – especially in China, far from the spotlights of the NBA but perhaps closer to Yao’s heart than anything a Charles Barkley would say on American national television. Dikembe Mutombo may have said it best last season, when he quietly said to a visiting locker room reporter, “We all feel a little sorry for Yao sometimes.”
Despite the pressure coming from teammates, a city that wants an NBA championship, and a country that wants him to always perform at his best, Yao has made it happen. He works with Carroll Dawson before the team’s regular practices begin, and he stays longer – sometimes way longer – than his teammates. The work ethic he brings to the Toyota Center is unquestioned. Yao has, very simply, figured out how to make it all work. [END NEW]
For an athlete who came into the NBA with the challenge of learning a new language and a new culture, it’s hard to imagine how anyone but Yao could have done it so skillfully, so smoothly, and with such good humor and sportsmanship.
Carroll Dawson: “I can’t think of a person who could have done the transition from that culture to this one any better than he did. Talking with the CBA, getting permission to draft him…From that point on, the maturity he’s shown – I don’t know how he did it so well. He feels the burden of everyone in China pulling for him, of everyone in Houston wanting a winning team. He’s the hardest working player I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve had Moses Malone, Olajuwon – it’s amazing how much success we’ve had in the post and he fits right in.”
Jeff Van Gundy echoed those words on national television this fall, during an ESPN broadcast of the Rockets-Lakers game on November 14. “He’s the hardest-working player I’ve ever coached.”
He’s even handled himself well in times of controversy inside China. Take this past September, when Yao and the national team flew into Shanghai from Hefei. Representatives from the Special Olympics wanted to pick Yao up at the airport for an event that evening in the city, but national team manager Hu Jiashi insisted Yao first go to Kunshan with the team. That led to an argument between Yao and Hu at the airport, but in the end, Yao went with the team, then put in stellar performances against Italian team Benetton Treviso and Russia’s CKSA (Central Army Sports Club) before leaving for his Special Olympics commitments.
It almost seems like somebody forgot to tell the guy that NBA superstars are supposed to be aloof, arrogant, spoiled. They’re supposed to yell at underlings, make them feel inferior. They’re supposed to get in trouble with the law – or to give the impression that they could, and get away with it if they did.
Didn’t somebody forget to tell Yao what being an NBA player was all about?
Or was he just so strong in his character that he himself decided what an NBA player should be all about?
We’re taking Door Number Two. Somewhere inside of himself, Yao found a quiet place of peace as he tuned out the naysayers and gradually became better and better every year. He’s also consistently been one of the easiest players to work with, giving interviews to media before and after games, and making himself available for Houston-area NBA charity events as well as charity work in China.
Look at just one statistic: average points scored per game, per year in the NBA. In 2002-03 it was 13.5 points. 2003-04 – 17.5. 2004-05 – 18.3. 2005-06 – 22.3. 2006-07 – 25.0. And 18 games into the 2007-08 season, he’s kept his scoring average high even with a new offensive strategy and a far deeper bench that doesn’t count on him to be only one of two scoring options any longer. [END NEW]
Does anyone sense a trend here?
Americans don’t get it. They’re still apt to talk about the “7-6 [2.29-m] center from China,” even during NBA broadcasts, as though the “from China” part is still a novelty, even though Yao has been here for years, owns a restaurant and a home in Houston, even though new wife Ye Li is a university student in town, even though he’s assimilated to the point where he knows exactly how to josh with the media and then sweat himself silly in a workout. National sports networks still get his name wrong. During the broadcast of the Rockets’ November 26 game against the Los Angeles Clippers, a screen graphic appeared to show that “Ming” was his family name.
There is still so much work to be done to bridge the cultural gap between China and America that it may take the rest of Yao’s career to make more inroads on bridging that gap.
But Canadians? That may be another story.
Steve Nash, of course, spearheaded a charity game and benefit in September in Beijing after having a conversation with a Chinese friend who mentioned how difficult the lives of needy children in rural China are today. Nash thought about it and said, we have to do something.
And then, as with all things charitable involving China and the NBA, Nash went directly to Yao’s door.
“I thought it would be great to ask Yao if he would be willing to do a charity game in China,” Nash told SI China while in Vancouver this past October for a preseason game against the Seattle SuperSonics. “I asked him, he was gracious, and he accepted, and by no small feat it came to happen. We had a fantastic trip, and we raised a lot of money. Yao’s a terrific ambassador for basketball, and he’s China’s biggest cultural icon in any field so it was a special trip.”
Nash couldn’t help but give SI China a campaign speech for Yao’s candidacy as Sportsman of the Year, as well.
“He’s a very humble, giving person, somebody who in many ways shies away from the spotlight, but at the same time is very giving and is able to use his position to help people. I admire the fact that he is really carrying the flag for the biggest nation on earth, and that he’s been able to do it with so much humility and care for people. We’re really lucky as a global community to have an icon like that in that country who can really help, who can impact change. He’s made a lot of change in that country. It’s a pleasure to call him a friend and to say that I was able to partner with him to help kids in China.”
Nash knows something about being a cultural icon for an entire country – he gave that interview after having just played in front of a sellout crowd of 17,000 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, just down the street from his hometown of Victoria. Every time he entered the game, the crowd whooped and hollered as though – well, as though it was Yao Ming in China. Maybe Nash, even more than an American NBA superstar, understands what it’s like to be a symbol of so much hope to so many people at home. Maybe it’s the international stars of the NBA, of which Yao is certainly the most famous worldwide, who really understand.
So as you walk through your days, anticipating Yao Ming’s return to Beijing for the 2008 Olympics, playing with a national team made up of men who he’s single-handedly inspired to look for success at the highest levels of sport, pay attention. Is there somebody you can help, even in a small way? Is there something you can do to give back to society?
People normally talk this way about Nobel Peace Prize winners, but may we humbly submit the idea that Yao Ming, a bridge between nations, cultures, sports federations and international charities, has done so much already for his country and the world that the inevitable question arises, what can he do next, after basketball, to continue helping others?
To answer those questions, we will just have to sit back and watch Yao for his next move.
But back to that question of your own life. What will you do when you see someone in need, someone who you know you’re capable of helping? When you have seen a gentle giant of a man sink basket after basket, fly home every year to play for his national team, and then lend his help and influence to the lives of people far, far less fortunate than he?
Perhaps the next time you encounter such a situation, you will think of Yao Ming, the 2007 SI China Sportsman of the Year, and then you will ask yourself, in this situation, what would Yao do?
And in the end, that may be Yao’s greatest legacy of all.