When Yao gets good
position and faces up, he is virtually unguardable, as is clear two hours later
versus the Pacers. When Yao squares up in the first quarter, Foster doesn't
even try to alter his shot. Later, against O'Neal, the leading shot blocker in
the league, Yao only has to turn his shoulder to shoot uncontested jump hooks.
Though his knee is still balky--it is the first night he has worn a sleeve
rather than a brace--he makes 10 of 17 shots from the field (and 12 of 13 from
the line), and finishes with 32 points and 14 rebounds in an 86--76 Rockets
Eastern Conference scout stands outside the locker room and stares at the stat
sheet. "Nobody could stop him," the scout says. "If he plays like
that, they could do some damage in the playoffs. I would not want to play them
in the first round."
imperceptible to most, but another element of Yao's evolution was on display.
When he entered the league, he was criticized for being passive. Now, not only
does Yao call for the ball, but he also occasionally breaks a play, as in the
fourth quarter when, instead of setting a screen for McGrady, he posted up on
the right side. (After the game he sheepishly admits he made the move because
his shot was feeling so good.) "If it was up to me, I'd throw the ball to
Yao every time down court," says McGrady. "The more his confidence
grows, the better he gets."
have noticed the change in attitude. Van Gundy says Yao has added the proper
amount of stubbornness, and Thibodeau says, "His self-assurance now is as
high as it's ever been." Yao agrees that he feels more confident, but
despite his numbers, he still sees himself as an outsider among the NBA elite.
"I still have a long way to go," he says. "I feel that every year I
getting better, better, then--boom--next level. And then new, stronger player
coming. And I feel, Where is the end?" He pauses. "If you relax or take
it easy for yourself, they will beat you, someday. Maybe tomorrow, maybe day
Told this is a
fatalistic viewpoint for a five-time All-Star, he smiles: "That is what 1.3
billion people watching you will do."
Nearly an hour
after the end of the Pacers game, almost midnight, Yao arrives at his locker to
meet the media. Immediately after every game, while his teammates shower, he
heads to the weight room with Falsone to lift for 40 minutes. Despite the late
hour and early deadlines, 17 journalists remain around his locker. Nine are
from Chinese outlets, including Wang (Rock) Meng, a Shanghai writer who has
covered Yao since his first NBA game. Wang files 6,000 words on Yao three times
a week for Titan Media. At first, much of the material was about Yao's life off
the court. Now, Wang estimates, only 10% is about Yao's life, and the rest
covers Yao's play and the Rockets. "There are now lots of Yao haters in
China," says Wang, who nonetheless estimates that 70% of Chinese fans
support Yao. "In my opinion, it is because they do not like centers because
they are sort of slow and cannot do the fantasy moves that Kobe or McGrady
Once the questions
begin, Yao, as is his custom, does not dwell on the positives. In spite of the
32 points he scored, he is concerned with his decision-making.
Did he feel
comfortable on offense?
"A lot of
turnovers," Yao says. "Six. A very high number. I'm sure right now
Coach Thibodeau is putting those turnovers on a tape, and I'll watch for one
laugh because Yao is joking, but not really. As Yao is speaking, Thibodeau is
going over game film in an adjacent room. By morning he will have a DVD ready.
The next time the two men meet, Yao will study the DVD, look for tiny mistakes
and determine what adjustments he should make. Then he will practice those
adjustments, over and over, until they become part of him, until he has evolved
further. This, Yao Ming hopes, is how he will overcome history, his own
oversized limbs and the expectations of an entire country. This is how the