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The Evolution of Yao
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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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 win.

Afterward an 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."

It was 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."

Rockets coaches 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 after tomorrow."

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 do."

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 hour tomorrow."

The reporters 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 experiment continues.

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