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The Evolution of Yao (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday April 10, 2007 9:04AM; Updated: Monday April 16, 2007 4:54PM
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One of the best big men ever at the free throw line, Yao frequently takes Houston's technical foul shots.
One of the best big men ever at the free throw line, Yao frequently takes Houston's technical foul shots.
Greg Nelson/SI
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Only once did Yao stray, after his first season. He'd gone home to Shanghai, then returned to Dallas to practice with the Chinese national team. The Rockets sent Falsone to check up on Yao. The two met in the lobby of Yao's hotel. "He looked good," recalls Falsone, "and he said he felt good. So I say, 'Let's go up to your room and check your body fat.' Well, I get up there, and there are about 30 beer cans in the room."

Yao protests, smiling. "But only about 20 percent of them were mine! I had an old friend in town."

Yao had been enjoying his summer and had thickened to 330 pounds. "At that time, I don't know how much hard work I need to put into my career," he says. "I don't know how to keep myself in shape. Two summers ago, I stay here and train with Tom Thibodeau, and that was the first year that Anthony totally worked for me. I feel really good after that summer. I feel the next year is totally different."

If there is an opponent who originally drove Yao to become stronger, it was Shaquille O'Neal. Now that role is filled by Dwight Howard, the Orlando Magic's 6'11", 265-pound center. When Howard's name comes up during the workout, Yao peppers a reporter with questions. "Does Howard have a trainer?" "How much is he lifting -- [former teammate] Steve Francis said he was always lifting." It is an understandable concern. With Shaq on the downside of his career, Howard is the one NBA center athletic and strong enough to pose a threat to Yao over the next five years. (Ohio State's Greg Oden may soon join that group.) "A lot of NBA centers are not that strong," Yao says. "They are big but a little soft. But he is strong, very strong." (Howard views the dynamic similarly. "Every time we play each other it seems he plays extra hard," Howard says of Yao. "It's sort of like a rivalry." Told Yao is benching 310, Howard says with a smile, "Oh, that's pretty good." After a pause he adds, "My highest is 345.")

Once done lifting, Yao and Falsone head to the practice field at Reliant Stadium, home of the NFL's Texans, so Yao can run on its forgiving rubberized surface. It is a 20-minute drive, and because of Yao's knee, Falsone drives Yao's Infiniti QX56 SUV. Though it's not on display on this morning, Yao's driving is a topic of amusement for many of the Rockets. When he first came to the U.S., Yao had never driven a car. "He was riding a bike the day I first met him [in Beijing]," says general manager Carroll Dawson. Yao learned to drive in parking lots, then passed his driving test (a source of great pride), but there were still some close calls. He backed into a teammate's car and was known to poke along on the highway at 40 mph.

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