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The Evolution of Yao
CHRIS BALLARD
April 16, 2007
No longer a novelty, Yao Ming has arrived as the first dominating supersized player in NBA history--picking up a driver's license, some U2 CDs and a dry sense of humor along the way
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April 16, 2007

The Evolution Of Yao

No longer a novelty, Yao Ming has arrived as the first dominating supersized player in NBA history--picking up a driver's license, some U2 CDs and a dry sense of humor along the way

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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.

As Falsone drives, Yao sits in the front passenger seat, one enormous leg crossed over the other. Falsone puts on a U2 CD and cranks it up. Yao asks him to skip forward one track, then one more.

"This one?" says Falsone.

"Yes," says Yao.

The opening chords of Desire rumble through the car, Bono's opening exhalation followed by that staccato guitar riff.

"I can't listen to this song and drive," proclaims Yao, slowly moving his head. "I begin to drive too fast."

They arrive at Reliant, and once inside the practice bubble, Yao begins running, starting at one goal line and loping toward the other. Each day, Falsone will up the pace, as Yao is anxious to return. The following week, responding to pressure from his team and representatives, Yao flies to Las Vegas for All-Star Weekend on one condition: that he can continue his rehab work. Though he is booked for a half dozen events each day, Yao is up at 6 a.m. working out. "I guarantee you he was the only NBA player who didn't attend a party that weekend," says Bill Sanders, the vice president of marketing for BDA Sports Agency, which handles Yao's affairs. "When you talk about the Americanization of Yao, that's the one part I'm glad he hasn't taken on."

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