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<  Yao on the court, and his most recent game  ~  Sports Illustrated Article on Yao.....

PostPosted: Fri Sep 23, 2005 11:52 pm
User avatarPosts: 71Location: LAJoined: Sat Oct 25, 2003 6:06 pm
The current issue of SI 9/26/05 with TO and McNabb on the front cover has an excellent article on Yao and his mom, called "The creation of Yao Ming" by Brook Larmer.

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PostPosted: Sat Sep 24, 2005 2:52 am
User avatarPosts: 6563Location: Don't ever underestimate the heart of a championJoined: Thu Feb 20, 2003 3:15 am
? can u post it here?
:roll: :roll: :shock: :shock:

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PostPosted: Sat Sep 24, 2005 7:25 am
User avatarPosts: 10633Location: PhillyJoined: Sat Apr 02, 2005 8:03 am
Creation of Yao :lol: So they are going to discuss how Yao was born? :lol:

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PostPosted: Sat Sep 24, 2005 1:16 pm
Posts: 3803Location: Bet on us!Joined: Thu May 27, 2004 2:29 am
Here... just letting u guys know that buying SI is really worth the cost...

The faint whispers of a genetic conspiracy coursed through the corridors of Shanghai No. 6 Hospital on the evening of Sept. 12, 1980. It was shortly after 7 p.m., and a patient in the maternity ward had just endured an excruciating labor to give birth to a baby boy. An abnormally large baby boy.

The doctors and nurses on duty should have anticipated something out of the ordinary. The boy's parents, after all, were retired basketball stars whose marriage the year before had made them the tallest couple in China.

The mother, Fang Fengdi, an austere beauty with a pinched smile, measured 6'2" -- more than half a foot taller than the average man in Shanghai. The father, Yao Zhiyuan, was a deferential 6'10" giant whose body pitched forward in the stoop that comes from a lifetime of ducking under door frames and leaning down to listen to people of more normal dimensions. So imposing was their size that ever since childhood, the two had been known simply as Da Yao and Da Fang -- Big Yao and Big Fang.

Still, the medical staff at No. 6 Hospital surely had never seen a newborn quite like this: the enormous legs, the broad, squarish cranium, the hands and feet so fully formed that they seemed to belong to a three-year-old. At more than 11.2 pounds and 23 inches, the infant was nearly double the size of the average Chinese newborn. The name his parents gave him, from a Chinese character that unifies the sun and the moon, was Ming, meaning bright.

News of Yao Ming's birth was quickly relayed across town to the top leaders of the Shanghai Sports Commission. They were not surprised. These men and women had been trying to cultivate a new generation of athletes who would embody the rising power of China. The boy in the maternity ward represented, in many ways, the culmination of their plan.

The experiment had no code name, but in Shanghai basketball circles it might as well have been called Operation Yao Ming. The wheels had been set in motion more than a quarter century earlier, when Chairman Mao Zedong exhorted his followers to funnel the nation's most genetically gifted youngsters into the emerging Communist sports machine. Two generations of Yao Ming's forebears had been singled out by authorities for their hulking physiques, and his mother and father had both been drafted into the sports system. "We had been looking forward to the arrival of Yao Ming for three generations," says Wang Chongguang, a retired Shanghai coach who played with Yao's father in the 1970s and would coach Yao himself in the '90s. "That's why I thought his name should be Yao Panpan." Long-Awaited Yao.

Giddy with the sense of possibility, some officials wanted to start helping the family immediately with food and finances. Others even began pushing for an exception to the country's strictly enforced one-child policy. If China truly wanted to compete internationally, they asked, why shouldn't the nation's tallest couple be allowed to breed an entire team of champions?

One Communist leader didn't share in the delight. This man, one of the most powerful sports officials in Shanghai, had bitter memories of the torment inflicted on him by a group of youthful revolutionaries that included Yao Ming's mother. It had taken him nearly a decade to battle his way back to the top. He was in no mood to start bending the rules to help Da Fang.

For him, revenge sounded far sweeter.

The marble archway at No. 651 Nanjing Road loomed ahead of her -- enormous and forbidding, even to a girl who was more than six feet tall. It was 1965, and Fang Fengdi, age 15, had arrived at the elite sports-training center that would become her home for the next five years -- a place that would witness her transformation from frivolous girl to basketball star to something even more pivotal to Chinese history. But the entrance to No. 651 Nanjing Road may have seemed all the more forbidding for one simple reason: Da Fang didn't want to be there. "I was just a young girl who loved to sing and dance," she recalls. "I always thought I'd be an entertainer, but I didn't like basketball at all."

Da Fang, however, had sprouted like bamboo after the spring rains, attracting the attention of Shanghai sports officials, who had paid an unexpected visit to her family's small apartment. They explained to her parents that Da Fang had the potential to bring glory to the city and perhaps to the nation through her efforts on the basketball court. The officials' unspoken message was also clear: Because the sports system would become her "iron rice bowl," taking care of her food, shelter and employment for the rest of her life, she wouldn't have to follow her mother into the cramped assembly lines of the local garment factory.

Life in the sports factories, however, wasn't so different from life on the assembly lines. Both occupations provided workers with (or condemned them to) lifetime employment within the same danwei, or work unit. The best athletes usually lived five or six to a room, but they received a steadier diet of milk and meat than the rest of the population, a significant perk in a land where food was still severely rationed. But like a factory job, athletic training was physically punishing and subject to the danwei's dictatorial rule. The danwei's minipotentates made, or at least enforced, nearly all of the key decisions in people's lives: where to live, where to work, what to eat, whom to marry and -- most insidiously -- what to think.

Da Fang's generation, born in the flush of the revolution, was the first to be indoctrinated from childhood in the rigid certainties of Mao Zedong Thought. By the mid-1960s the ideological training at No. 651 Nanjing Road had become almost as intense and monotonous as the athletic training. Every week there were obligatory sessions called, without irony, Democratic Life Meetings. Party leaders extolled the Great Helmsman and exhorted the faithful to show ever more revolutionary spirit. Then the athletes engaged in a self-flagellating round of confession and repentance.

In Da Fang's day the high priest presiding over many of the Democratic Life Meetings at No. 651 was a handsome but imperious party cadre named Zhu Yong. Zhu (pronounced Joo) was technically the official in charge of women's basketball, even though he didn't know the rule book nearly as well as he knew Mao's Little Red Book. His real authority, however, came from his position as deputy Communist Party secretary, which gave him the power to shape the minds of the young athletes. Several times a week Zhu summoned the basketball players to the institute's first-floor lecture hall for "political thought" meetings, at which he chastised them for sacrificing too little for the revolution, succumbing to the evils of individualism and even engaging in romantic relationships, which were not allowed.

Young and impressionable, Da Fang was putty in the hands of such propagandists. Molding her basketball game proved more difficult. The teenager may have been the tallest female player in Shanghai, but "she was terrible at first," says one of her early coaches. "She ran very slowly, she couldn't catch the ball, and she got so tired she could run up and down the court only a couple of times before she had to stop."

The young athletes trained eight to 10 hours a day, year-round, on outdoor courts that were bitterly cold in winter and blisteringly hot in summer. Coaches routinely beat players and forced them to play while sick or injured, pressing them to display revolutionary spirit. Some players became too exhausted to eat, and others cried tears of pain throughout practice. Still others vomited at the sight of a basketball court. But they kept going. Lin Meizheng, an agile forward on the Shanghai women's team, suffered for years from a painful kidney infection but never missed a practice. "We always felt that showing spirit was the top priority," she says. "You may not be able to improve your technique, but you can always improve your spirit."

Da Fang developed that spirit, too, and it began to show on court. After more than a year of training, the 16-year-old was still an awkward player, but she fought more aggressively for rebounds, and she sometimes hurled her now 6'2" body to the ground in pursuit of loose balls. Her former coaches and teammates say her stiffening resolve had to do with a growing conviction in the purity of her "red" roots as the descendant of a long line of poor workers. For the time being, playing basketball was her only way to carry out the revolution. But that, like everything else, would soon change.

The girl with the red armband pushed the prisoner through the frenzied crowd into a familiar space at

No. 651 Nanjing Road, a basketball court that now, in early 1967, was being used as a "people's tribunal" for the dispensation of mob justice. "Enemy of the people!" screamed the young athletes, shoving and punching the prisoner as he stumbled past. "Spy! Traitor! Counterrevolutionary!"

The prisoner's head was crudely shaved. His hands were tied behind his back. And his dark eyes seemed so filled with fear that several of the young athletes in attendance had a hard time believing he was Zhu Yong. Could this hunched figure really be the powerful party secretary who, just months before, had ruled over the sports institute with an iron fist?

Zhu, who had been locked up in solitary confinement for several months, knew there was no escape from the ritualistic humiliation of these "struggle sessions." All the middle-aged party leader could hope for was to survive. "Enemy of the people, confess your crimes!" The voices came from all around him, and one of the loudest belonged to the girl in the armband, a voice he had heard many times -- thin and high, but now chillingly hard. It was the voice of Fang Fengdi.

Da Fang was barely 17, but she seemed transformed. Her lively banter was gone, supplanted by fervent recitations from Mao's Little Red Book. Her hair had been cut very short in a display of revolutionary ardor. Her usual sports garb had been replaced by a baggy dark Mao suit and black cloth shoes. The only splash of color on her was the red armband, which bore three characters that struck fear in millions of Chinese: Hongweibing. Red Guard.

Da Fang had enlisted as one of Mao's "little revolutionary generals," the shock troops who would carry out the most extreme acts of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. The decade-long cataclysm, which Mao had launched in 1966, produced cruelty and oppression on a horrific scale. Thousands of intellectuals, former capitalists and people with ties to the West were beaten to death. Millions more were imprisoned and tortured, while tens of millions were forcibly displaced to the countryside for "reeducation" through hard labor.

Like many Chinese, Da Fang is loath to talk about her role during that tumultuous period. "The Cultural Revolution really didn't affect me very much," she says while sitting in her son's house in Houston, looking out at the fountains bubbling in the man-made lake outside. "We had to stop our basketball training and focus on other things for a while. But I came from a workers' family, so it didn't have much impact on us." In a narrow sense, she's right. Her family belonged to one of the "five red categories" (workers, soldiers, poor peasants, martyrs and Communist cadres), so Da Fang was spared the persecution visited upon the "five black categories" (landlords, rightists, capitalist roaders, counterrevolutionaries and rich peasants). But according to her friends and former teammates, the Cultural Revolution would shape her life and personality -- and the future of her only son.

During the early days of the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards rampaged through the streets of Shanghai, shutting down schools and universities, demolishing ancient temples and monuments, and ransacking the homes of capitalists and intellectuals. The young zealots eliminated anything with a trace of decadent foreign influence, from women's cosmetics to French bakeries to classical music. Competitive sports, another insidious legacy of Western domination, were similarly consigned to the trash heap. Training stopped; competitions were canceled. The best coaches and athletes were attacked for their supposed obsession with medals, a counterrevolutionary crime that even had a name: jinmao zhuyi, or trophyism.

The Red Guards laid waste to the sports system. They plowed under athletic fields, shut down the national sports commission and imprisoned its chairman, Marshal He Long, who had formed the first Red Army basketball team in the 1930s and would die on the floor of his prison cell in 1969. The Red Guards also hounded and harassed some of the country's most beloved champions. Table-tennis star Rong Guotuan, whose 1959 world championship victory had set off celebrations across China, escaped continual beatings and humiliation by hanging himself in his jail cell.

Nearly all of Da Fang's older teammates were trundled off to factories, most of them never to play basketball again. In some ways, however, being banished to the labor camps was better than staying behind at No. 651 Nanjing Road. The Red Guards imprisoned Zhu and some three dozen other top coaches and administrators in makeshift jails on the second floor. At night the young captors harangued their former bosses to keep them from sleeping. During the day, Red Guards forced them to read Mao's Little Red Book, write self-criticisms and -- worst of all -- face the terrifying specter of "struggle sessions."

Da Fang was one of the Red Guards the old leaders feared most. As an acolyte of the so-called Strong Wind Rebels, who took over the institute, the 17-year-old became a leader of the basketball section. Her group of Red Guards had one primary task: to investigate, punish and reeducate the "bad elements" among their former coaches and leaders. "Da Fang seemed especially eager to improve herself as a revolutionary," says one of her former teammates. "Some of us wanted to join the Red Guards to avoid trouble, because anybody who wasn't with them was considered an enemy. But Da Fang was a true believer. And true believers, you know, were capable of anything."

According to former players and coaches who lived in the compound during these years, Da Fang became one of the most zealous disciplinarians. "She treated people badly," says one former coach, who remembers watching her cut off another woman's braided hair in one of the gentler forms of punishment. "The Cultural Revolution gave her a sense of pride, arrogance," says another coach. Thirty years later, he still searches for an explanation. "She was just a child. What did she know, right?"

Hunched before his captors at center court, Zhu Yong listened as Da Fang and the other Red Guards recited his list of supposed crimes: working at a department-store candy counter before the revolution, maintaining contacts with the enemy Nationalist Party, deviating from the true path of Maoist thought. The deposed commissar had been active in Shanghai's Communist underground long before Da Fang was born, but now the revolution was eating its own, and among local sports leaders Zhu suffered the most. The Red Guards deprived him of food. They beat him with fists and clubs, and they pulled his arms up behind his back in the excruciating "airplane" position. There's no evidence that Da Fang participated in Zhu's physical abuse, but several witnesses say she often led the public denunciations against him. During one such session, in an apparent attempt to turn the onetime leaders against each other, Da Fang commanded Zhu to engage in hand-to-hand combat with his former second in command. The two men refused, and Da Fang erupted in anger.

For months Zhu had denied the charges against him, but now, weak and exhausted, he was starting to break. Da Fang and his other captors once again shouted out their list of accusations, and the mob of athletes repeated each denunciation in full-throated unison. Somebody pulled Zhu's arms into the airplane, and the former party leader finally cracked. "Yes, yes," he said. "I confess."

Zhu was shipped to a reeducation camp in the countryside outside Shanghai. He would spend the next five years doing hard labor. One of the other deposed leaders remembers seeing Zhu once during that time, standing knee-deep in an icy stream, pulling rotten grass out of the water. The former commissar's hands were cracked and bleeding from frostbite, and his eyes had gone dead.

Chairman Mao didn't need his "little revolutionary generals" for long. By late 1968, having used the turmoil to consolidate power, he called in the army to establish order. The Red Guards were demobilized. Within weeks, millions of them were shipped off to the countryside to temper their revolutionary zeal with years of hard labor. Some would never make it home again.

Da Fang, however, would have a different fate. The revival of basketball -- a sport she had been taught to vilify as a bourgeois Western import -- saved her from going to a labor camp. Trophyism was still considered a crime, but the nation's Communist leaders now saw sports as a way to restore the lost sense of communal feeling inside China and to rebuild diplomatic relations outside. Training sessions resumed tentatively in Shanghai at the end of 1969. Many of the nation's best athletes, however, were still toiling away at factories and collective farms. The dearth of veterans benefited the 19-year-old Da Fang and hastened the rise of Yao Zhiyuan, the 6'10" center who joined the Shanghai men's team after escaping the brunt of the Cultural Revolution as a worker at the Shanghai No. 8 Machinery Factory.

Da Fang would soon become the standout Chinese center of her generation, one of the best in Asia. Tall and solidly built, she developed a steady shot to go with her tenacity under the basket -- skills that would later help her power the women's national team to an unforgettable upset win over South Korea in the 1976 Asian Championships.

Da Fang was a loyal Maoist, too, and the leadership in Beijing sensed that she would be a perfect role model for the nation. She was selected year after year as the national team captain -- and, in 1974, as a representative at the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Communist Revolution in Beijing's Great Hall of the People. As captain, Da Fang often was assigned to greet foreign delegations at the airport, meet presidents and dignitaries and mingle with members of the politburo. She moved easily between the basketball court and the highest echelons of political power. But around her teammates she rarely cut loose. "Da Fang was very closed," says Luo Xuelian, the national team's effervescent point guard. "After practice she would just sit in her room knitting sweaters." The aloofness only added to her aura of authority.

Nagging health problems, however, hindered Da Fang's career. The grueling practices exacerbated the pain in her lower back, and she constantly teetered on the edge of exhaustion, playing hard one day and barely having the energy to move the next couple of days. She traveled with the national team to Iran, France and Cuba, but health problems forced her to miss several other trips, including a 1975 tour of the U.S. Three years later, at age 28, Da Fang was ready to hang up her sneakers.

When Chinese athletes reach the end of their playing days, they are never truly released from their obligation to the state. Until recently the sports system automatically absorbed most retired athletes as coaches or administrators, who passed on their knowledge to the next generation. If they happened to be extraordinarily tall or talented, they were expected to pass along something even more fundamental: their genes. Indeed, when Shanghai sports officials finally let Da Fang retire, they suggested that she produce a champion.

But whom could Da Fang marry? She had never kissed a boy, much less dated one. Her entire adolescence and adult life had been focused on just two things: sports and revolution. Even if Da Fang had had the time or inclination, dating was strictly prohibited in the sports system -- and marriage was forbidden until athletes either retired or turned 28. If a player got pregnant, she would have to get an abortion or be kicked off the team and reassigned to a less desirable work unit.

The responsibility for arranging marriages among the most gifted retired athletes often fell to the coaches. "We had to do a lot of work as matchmakers," says Wang Yongfang, the former sports-institute leader who coached Da Fang early in her career and, after a long stint of hard labor in the countryside, was rehabilitated as the leader of the Shanghai women's team. "These girls spent far more time with the coaches and team leaders than with their own parents. Who else was there to make sure everything was O.K.?"

Before Da Fang even started to look for a husband, Shanghai officials had identified a suitable partner for her: Yao Zhiyuan. Yao, an active player who was two years her junior, was an agreeable man whose ready smile and love of a good quip contrasted sharply with Da Fang's grim demeanor. For several years the two players had eaten in the same cafeteria, lived in the same dormitory and practiced on adjoining courts, but, Da Fang says, "we didn't know each other very well."

Shanghai coaches teased the two towering centers that they were made for each other. But it was up to a portly team leader named Liu Shiyu to make the match a reality. He spoke with the players separately and convinced them that they could "make do" with each other -- adding that they had the Communist Party's stamp of approval to do so. Given such high-level interest, how could Da Fang and Da Yao refuse?

The sports community didn't have to wait long for the first offspring of what the press was calling "the first couple of Asia." In the small apartment where Da Fang and Da Yao lived, surrounded by other athletes and coaches, everyone gathered to see the miracle child -- long-awaited Yao.

The joy that normally attends the birth of a son in China was muted, in Yao's case, by his family's sense of uncertainty. The end of the Cultural Revolution, which followed Mao's death in 1976, had ushered China into a new era of hope and economic opportunity under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, the former Communist Party secretary who had returned to power after three stints in political exile. But Deng was not the only one who had risen from the ashes. Zhu Yong had also been rehabilitated, and Da Fang would suffer as a consequence.

When she retired from playing in '78, Da Fang moved naturally into the position of assistant coach for the Shanghai junior women's team, a job that many assumed would soon lead the former star to more prestigious assignments. But according to several former teammates and coaches, her fate changed when Zhu assumed a top position in the Shanghai sports commission, at which he would eventually become deputy director. After barely six months as a coach, Da Fang was shunted off to what one former teammate described as "the worst job in the sports system": doing menial work at a compound for retired athletes.

For a time the former national hero stocked bathrooms with soap for the equivalent of a few dollars a week. Later she would be transferred to a clerical job at the Shanghai Sports Science Research Institute. She would never work as a coach again, and she lacked the basic education to find other employment. Her husband, too, failed to land a job as a coach and would work his entire career in the Shanghai port. Together the couple made less than 80 yuan per month -- about $50 at the time -- barely more than half the average salary of an urban Chinese household and hardly enough to raise a rapidly growing child.

The vendors at the outdoor food market on Shanghai's Wukang Road got to know Da Fang well. Nearly every evening at dusk she would appear before them -- a tall, elegant figure in worn clothes, quietly bargaining for day-old cuts of pork or surplus rations of rice. Da Fang and Da Yao spent nearly their entire income on food, and yet they often sat at the table watching their son eat while they themselves went hungry. By the time Yao Ming turned four, he measured well over four feet and weighed a whopping 60 pounds.

Four years later Yao was already 5'7", and his potential as a basketball player was literally too big for anyone to ignore. By then Zhu Yong had retired from the sports commission, and one of Da Fang's old friends from No. 651 Nanjing Road, Xu Weili, wanted Yao Ming for the Xuhui District Sports School for children, where she was the top party official.

It would not be easy to pry the boy away from his parents, who were keen to give him the education they themselves had been deprived of. But Xu gently reminded Da Fang and Da Yao that their son's special talents belonged to the nation -- and that the Xuhui school could provide him not just with training but also with more milk and other nutritious foods. Yao's parents eventually acquiesced, grudgingly accepting that their only child might have to follow in their footsteps. "We didn't choose this career for him," Da Fang says, "but we were basketball players. All of our old colleagues and coaches had their eyes on Yao Ming since he was young."

Born on the cusp of China's economic resurgence, Yao Ming was part of the first Chinese generation in 40 years that could entertain personal ambition and visions of success. As a child he fantasized about being an explorer traveling into new worlds rather than his parents' old one. "I've always wanted to be an archaeologist, to go looking for adventure everywhere," Yao said, adding that "it would be hard for me, of course, to crawl in and out of those small caves."

Nevertheless, when his parents told him he would have to start basketball training, Yao -- not yet nine -- didn't utter a word in protest. Ever the obedient child, he agreed to stand outside his primary school, waiting for his coach to come and guide him by bicycle through the maze of Shanghai streets to the Xuhui Sports School, where the boy would initially train five afternoons a week and on Saturdays. Yao hated basketball with a passion, but he resigned himself to attending practice "purely for my parents, because I respect them so much."

Yao's size and clumsiness made him the object of ridicule at first. The teasing embarrassed him, but it wasn't nearly as painful as the training itself. Every day, the boys ran until they almost collapsed, jumped until their legs burned and shot baskets until they couldn't lift their arms. What often seemed even harder to take was the numbing boredom of repetitive training, a process the sportswriter Zhao Yu likened to "trying to create a tiger by copying the drawing of a cat." It would take nearly a decade before Yao took a genuine interest in basketball.

When Yao came home from practice demoralized and wanting to quit, his father would take him behind their building to shoot at the hoop hanging above the bicycle garage. For every basket Yao made, his father promised to buy him a little gift. "My father bribed me into playing!" Yao recalled with mock incredulity.

His mother tried a different tack. One day when Yao was nine, Da Fang snared a pair of tickets to see the Harlem Globetrotters. Never before had they seen basketball played with such joy. These visitors made the sport seem not so much a duty as a source of pleasure, even exhilaration. "I think that experience had a strong influence on Yao Ming," Da Fang said. "They turned basketball into a great show, a form of entertainment."

Nonetheless, Da Fang feared for her son's future. A life in basketball seemed to offer little reward. If China were truly opening up to the world, then Yao needed to prepare to seize the opportunities that would come outside the old socialist sports system. Da Fang's true redemption would be to give her son an education and a chance to lead what she wistfully called "a normal life."

In the name of normality Da Fang did something quite extraordinary: She tried to pull her son out of the sports system. In 1992, when Yao finished sixth grade, Xu Weili put pressure on the family to send him full time to Xuhui, where academics took a backseat to athletic training. Da Fang not only rejected Xu's plea. She removed him from Xuhui altogether and enrolled him full time in a middle school known for its academic rigor. "Da Fang only wanted Yao Ming to study," Xu recalls. "She didn't care if he played basketball again."

The scheme unraveled in just a few months. Halfway through his first semester, Yao was floundering in the classroom. His teachers didn't fault his effort or intelligence. The 11-year-old loved reading books about foreign lands and China's imperial history. But Yao had started the semester too far behind, and he couldn't keep up with the academic grind. Within a few months Xu Weili was back, and Da Fang felt compelled to enroll Yao full time at Xuhui, his experiment with education in the real world a disappointing failure. "Leaving school to play basketball," says one of Yao's close friends in Shanghai, "was his biggest regret."

Two years later Yao, just 13 but already 6'7", moved out of his parents' apartment to live at the Shanghai Sports Technology Institute. The city sports authorities, marveling at both Yao's size and his continuing awkwardness on the court, felt that he would succeed only with more professional training. Over the next eight years Shanghai's top coaches and scientists would work around the clock to turn the galumphing giant into a basketball star -- and his parents would barely see him.

Letting go wasn't easy for Da Fang. During those years she did her best to look after Yao's welfare, cooking big meals on his days off and, after home games, waiting outside the locker room to hand him food and clothing. At one point, frustrated by her inability to find basketball shoes big enough for her son in China, Da Fang made a desperate plea to a friend of the family who lived in the U.S. The girl's boyfriend found a pair of size-18 Nike Airs for $92 and shuttled them back to Shanghai.

Like so many of her compatriots, even former Red Guards, Da Fang would gradually turn to the capitalist West not just for shoes but for a vision of life beyond the confines of the Chinese system. Her main source of ideas, initially, was Nike, which was angling for an advantage in China's burgeoning consumer market. From the moment in late 1996 when a group of Nike executives first glimpsed Yao swaying like a giraffe into a Shanghai gym, they hoped that the then 7'2" teenager would become the kind of hero who would help them sell the swoosh to the Chinese masses. Nike reps quickly cozied up to his mother, offering, in addition to cool shoes and clothing, endless advice about how to turn Yao into a world-class basketball player. To reach his potential, they said, Yao would have to find a way out of the deadening world of Chinese basketball and expose himself to foreign competition.

At Nike's urging, Da Fang pushed Shanghai's sports leaders to let Yao attend a 1997 Nike junior basketball camp in Paris. After seeing the effects of that first foreign trip -- "He started to have more faith in himself," she said later -- she embraced Nike's plan to escort Yao on a two-month basketball tour of the U.S. in the summer of '98. It was the first time Chinese authorities had given a player so much freedom. By the time a newly confident Yao returned at the end of the summer, he and his mother had begun to believe he might one day be good enough to play in the NBA. And the crowd that showed up at the family's apartment in September for Yao's 18th birthday party offered strong supporting evidence: It included an NBA coach, an NBA scout and Nike's full retinue of marketing reps in China.

Two vastly different worlds -- China and the U.S. -- were colliding over Yao, and nobody could predict the consequences, least of all Da Fang. China itself was in the throes of a frenzied transformation. Rigid nationalists still ran the sports system, but many in the chain of command were acting more like businessmen on the make. One evening in April 1999, Li Yaomin, the deputy general manager of Yao's Shanghai team, summoned Da Fang and her family to the sumptuous Grand Hyatt hotel for an urgent meeting with a U.S. lawyer named Michael Coyne. "Your son has been taken care of for life," Li reportedly assured them. Late into the night, the club manager and his American friend tried to persuade the family to sign a contract that would give a third of Yao's future earnings to Coyne's company, Evergreen Sports Management. As the clock ticked past 2 a.m., Li reportedly warned the family that this would be Yao's only chance to go to the NBA. Reluctantly, Da Fang gave in.

Just before dawn that same morning, a tearful Da Fang called her contacts at Nike to bemoan the choice she had felt forced to make for her son. The company reps, shocked that another American had swooped in on the giant they had been grooming, moved quickly to quash the deal, enlisting an NBA agent who denounced it as a form of extortion. The NBA, he pointed out, allowed a maximum agent commission of 4%, not 33%. Da Fang reneged on the deal a few days later, but the Evergreen contract would hang over her son's negotiations for three years -- and her bitter feelings about the episode would harden into something that bordered on paranoia. Less than a month later Nike persuaded the family to sign a four-year endorsement contract initially worth about $20,000 a year. It was a princely sum for a poor family, but Da Fang would tell a friend later that she felt the Nike deal, too, "was shoved down our throats."

By 2002 the maelstrom around Yao was dizzying. Now nearing his full height of 7'6", the 21-year-old utterly dominated the Chinese league, piling up more than 40 points and 20 rebounds per game in the finals to lead Shanghai to its first national title in half a century. The performance convinced his Shanghai bosses that it was time to let Yao enter that summer's NBA draft. But new obstacles emerged, and Da Fang -- now the center of an amorphous group of advisers, Team Yao, that pointedly did not include Nike -- struggled to find a way around them. Shanghai officials insisted that the onerous Evergreen contract was still valid. Beijing also announced that Yao would have to hand over 50% of his future earnings to the central government. The biggest blow, however, came in early June, when Yao's rival Wang Zhizhi, a 7'1" army soldier who had been allowed to play in the NBA the year before, refused to come home to train with the national team.

Wang's defiance terrified Chinese authorities. What would happen if Yao decided to defect? With the help of Team Yao, Da Fang had been able to force the hand of Shanghai authorities, playing on their fears of being portrayed as greedy obstructionists. But now, faced with Beijing's refusal to release her son, Da Fang erupted. "If we don't reach an agreement," she threatened, "Yao Ming will never play basketball again." It wasn't until hours before the draft, after Yao himself offered a pledge of loyalty to the Chinese national team, that the authorities finally relented, sending the Houston Rockets the reassuring fax they needed to choose Yao as the No. 1 pick in the 2002 draft.

When Da Fang and her husband flew to Beijing to watch the draft with their son, the family seemed remarkably subdued. "They had felt tortured by this whole process," said one friend, "so they didn't have much emotion left." After NBA commissioner David Stern announced Yao's name as the top pick, Da Fang clapped lightly and gave only the faintest of smiles. NBA personnel had to prompt the family to show some excitement for the cameras, and the trio proceeded to make one of the most ungainly group high fives in TV history.

Mothers occupy a special niche in the macho world of the NBA. Even the most tattoo-laden, testosterone-driven ballers find no shame in heaping praise on their mothers, often strong single women who struggled to raise their families in the inner city. But until Yao arrived in the NBA, few if any players actually lived with their mothers -- and seemed to obey their every command.

After Yao was drafted, Fang Fengdi decided to accompany her son to America. The Chinese government officials who granted her a leave of absence (and, eventually, early retirement) from her work unit seemed relieved to know that a strict disciplinarian and loyal Communist Party member would be watching over their national treasure. (Yao's father, still employed at the Shanghai port, would be allowed to join the family for part of the season and then retire.) The arrangement would strike many Chinese and Chinese-Americans as an endearing affirmation of Asian values. But to many U.S. sports fans it would seem more confusing than Confucian: How could they begin to understand a 7'6", 296-pound mama's boy?

The arrangement, in truth, was also unusual for Yao. He had not lived with his parents in more than eight years, ever since he left home at 13 to begin training full time. "It was like, 'The mountain is high and the emperor is far away,'" Yao recalled, quoting a famous Chinese proverb. "My parents had no control over me. I got used to it." Now, at 22, he was living with his parents again, and the reunion -- for all the comfort it might provide -- would create new challenges for all of them.

If Yao had traveled a long distance to play in the NBA, it couldn't compare to the staggering journey his 52-year-old mother had made -- from Team Mao to Team Yao. The former Red Guard was now, in effect, the CEO of a capitalist enterprise, guiding every decision that would affect her son's multimillion-dollar career. With little formal education, Da Fang didn't pretend to understand the minutiae of endorsement contracts, the NBA's collective-bargaining agreement or the Houston property market. But she was a practical woman, and the experience of being misled and manipulated back in China had only deepened her desire to protect her son.

Da Fang landed in Houston more than a week before her son to clear the way for his arrival. On this, her first trip to America, she searched for a new family home. The real-estate agent eventually led her to Windsor Park Lakes, a gated community carved out of old cattle pastures some 20 miles west of Houston. Inside the front gate, past the uniformed guards with their uniform smiles, the pristine neighborhood of faux-Mediterranean mansions exudes a sense of theme-park perfection that could have been lifted from The Truman Show. Da Fang settled on a $500,000, four-bedroom house that seemed perfect for a family of giants -- and then spent half the night before Yao's arrival frantically cleaning the cavernous home.

Worrying about her son was Da Fang's full-time job now. She straightened his room, did his laundry, gave pep talks, offered basketball advice and prepared his meals. When Yao returned to the house late from road trips -- often arriving at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. -- Da Fang would wait up with a pot of his favorite chicken soup or a wok full of stir-fried vegetables. "My son plays so hard," she said. "If he doesn't eat well, how could he have enough energy?"

The most coveted feature of Yao's new home was its vast open-design kitchen, which stood like a chrome-covered altar a few steps up from the living and dining rooms. Da Fang, however, had no use for it. To cook her Shanghainese specialties, she converted the small laundry room on the side of the house into an enclosed Chinese-style kitchen -- the better to keep in the billowing smoke created by furious stir-frying.

Adjusting to life in the U.S. would be far more difficult for Da Fang and Da Yao than it would be for Yao Ming. Neither parent spoke English or had any interest in loping across the lawn to join their Texas neighbors in a backyard barbecue party. In Shanghai, Da Fang and Da Yao lived in the pulsating heart of the city, never more than a short bicycle ride away from their favorite markets, shops and friends. In Texas they were stuck in an isolated community far outside the Houston city limits -- with no means of escape.

Though Yao's new house boasted an enormous two-car garage, the family of three didn't have a driver's license among them. Colin Pine, the obliging translator they invited to live in the guest room across the hall from Yao, ferried the family around in his rental car. But when Pine and Yao headed off to practice or on road trips, the parents were stranded in their perfectly manicured American island. Many months later all three family members would learn how to drive, and Yao would buy two luxury cars. His parents would never feel completely comfortable behind the wheel -- Da Yao would get a ticket for driving too slowly on the highway -- but at least they would have more freedom than they had in those early days in Houston.

On the night of Yao's highly anticipated home debut, a preseason game against the Philadelphia 76ers, his parents were nowhere to be found in the stands. Instead, they were at Windsor Park Lakes, waiting for the cable company to come install their TV service. When somebody suggested they reschedule the cable guy so they could see their son's game, Da Fang demurred, "No, the serviceman told us to wait for him." It was a perfectly Chinese response, rooted in a culture of pliancy and long suffering.

Still, Da Fang kept close watch over her son. After one of Yao's early practices, she arrived at the Rockets' facility with his lunch -- a few bags of McDonald's hamburgers and french fries. As Yao gobbled down the food, his teammate Cuttino Mobley emerged from the locker room in a tailored lavender suit. "That s---'s gonna kill ya," he said to Yao, before turning to Da Fang. "Hi, Mrs. Yao." Flashing a seductive smile, Mobley leaned in and kissed her on the cheek. Da Fang recoiled.

Yao appreciated his mother's devotion, but sometimes even a giant can feel suffocated. Back in China, Yao had sometimes avoided going home on his day off simply to escape Da Fang's nagging. "My mother is like a mosquito constantly buzzing around my ears," he once complained to a friend.

Now the buzzing became louder. Yao may have been an adult with an $18 million contract, but he lived under his mother's thumb; early on he even had to ask her for an allowance. After one preseason practice he brought home one of his only Chinese friends in America, Yang Yi, a Shanghainese journalist on assignment in Houston. Da Fang threw a fit when she saw Yang walk through the door. "How did you get here?" she demanded.

Yao tried to calm his mother down. But later, when the journalist mentioned the name of Yao's gated community in an article, Da Fang forbade Yao to speak to him again. That evening, during a pregame warmup, Yao went up to Yang and told him gravely, "You're finished. Listen, it's my mother's fault. She's way too sensitive. But meiyou banfa -- nothing can be done." Yang later patched things up with Da Fang, but at the time he felt so discomfited that he left Houston two weeks earlier than planned.

In public Yao never failed to sing his mother's praises: Her chicken soup was his favorite food in the world. Her knowledge of basketball was so great that she should be made a Rockets assistant. Her judgment was so sound that he left all major decisions up to her. In private, however, Yao told a friend that he had finally mustered the courage to give her a warning. "You just put up walls around me," Yao told her, "but one day you may notice that you put yourself outside the wall. What will you say then?"

Over the last few years the walls around Yao have gradually come down, giving him more room to breathe. Now 25, he still lives most of the NBA season with his parents in Windsor Park Lakes, where, despite his suggestion that his mother hire a housekeeper, she insists on doing the laundry and cooking all the meals. But Yao has also rented an apartment in downtown Houston for game days and nights, enabling him to avoid the nightmarish Texas traffic -- and his mother's cloying affection.

By all accounts, Da Fang is learning to rein in her natural protectiveness. According to her close friends, the unbending matriarch now more readily accepts her son's decision to occasionally live on his own, to take unchaperoned trips with his first and only girlfriend, 6'3" Chinese national team player Ye Li, and to spend as he pleases his growing pile of cash. Da Fang and her husband have also busied themselves with projects of their own, including the opening of a sports caf

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PostPosted: Sat Sep 24, 2005 2:14 pm
User avatarPosts: 10633Location: PhillyJoined: Sat Apr 02, 2005 8:03 am
That is a great article, thanks.

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PostPosted: Sat Sep 24, 2005 2:27 pm
Posts: 686Joined: Tue May 03, 2005 12:50 am
Thanks for the post

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PostPosted: Sat Sep 24, 2005 2:47 pm
User avatarPosts: 10633Location: PhillyJoined: Sat Apr 02, 2005 8:03 am
Yao's mom is just like my mom, too protective.

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PostPosted: Sat Sep 24, 2005 8:08 pm
Posts: 2247Joined: Sat Feb 08, 2003 3:07 pm
Ha, thanks. Very interesting read.

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PostPosted: Sat Sep 24, 2005 8:14 pm
Posts: 2322Joined: Sat Nov 06, 2004 12:52 pm
Thanks, that's a great find. We are lucky to have a classy guy like Yao on the Rocket. :)

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PostPosted: Sun Sep 25, 2005 6:28 am
Posts: 1364Location: CanadaJoined: Fri Jul 23, 2004 11:51 pm
is that a logn article or what? iread the last and 1 middle paragrahp, but ti sem like yao een sheltered big time. i been living by myself since i was 14 so i woudln;t be able to realte to yao at all, maybe he;s needs to be byh h himself to get soem cackiness/

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