SI Vault
 
Coming to America
Charles Hirshberg
October 25, 2004
Yao Ming's life story (so far) shows him to be a nice guy who can only smile at the strange world he's entered
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
October 25, 2004

Coming To America

Yao Ming's life story (so far) shows him to be a nice guy who can only smile at the strange world he's entered

View CoverRead All Articles

YAO: A LIFE IN TWO WORLDS

by Yao Ming with Ric Bucher

Miramax Books, 290 pages, $22.95

Before Yao Ming ever handled a basketball, his kindergarten teacher spotted the problem that bedevils him to this day. The boy, she told his mother, Fang Feng Di, was "too idealistic."

The choice of words may seem odd, but in Communist China at that time people were assumed to have ideologies rather than personalities. So Yao's mother knew precisely what the teacher meant: Her son was just too damn nice, and the teacher worried that people would take advantage of him. Indeed, ask basketball fans what the Houston Rockets' seven-footer needs to develop if he's to become a truly great center, and they'll tell you: a killer instinct.

At the same time, what everybody loves about Yao is ... his niceness. "No matter where you're from," gushes former teammate Juaquin Hawkins, "you can relate to him." It must be weird to be Yao, trying to figure out when people want you to be nice and when they want you to be mean. Weirder yet, this unassuming 24-year-old suddenly finds himself China's first international sports star--and potentially the greatest marketing force in sports history.

So it's appropriate that Yao's book is a little weird too. His life is almost surreal. In the world he comes from, he writes, when people "think about going somewhere, they think only of bicycles." But in the world he lives in now, luxury cars are purchased and used up like so many disposable razors. He's puzzled by the Chinese tattoos on NBA players, many of which don't mean what the players think they do. ( Kenyon Martin's, he says, means "indecisive.") He laughs at his own pronunciation of his agent Bill Duffy's first name: Beer. Still, the lovable Yao wins over his teammates. He impersonates then coach Rudy Tomjanovich, frowning at the halftime stat sheet, cursing and stomping away. When Yao gets his first technical, the Houston bench celebrates like proud parents. "Now you look like a real NBA player," Cuttino Mobley tells him.

It's all so cute. But it leads one to wonder: Just how much did Yao have to do with assembling his book? Everyone knows jocks often neglect to read, let alone write, books published under their names. But Yao is a character of some historical significance, so the question matters more than usual. The book's content has been deftly chosen by ESPN's Bucher and by Team Yao, the five-member politburo of agents and managers who control Yao's destiny, but it's obvious that Yao is being run ragged by the endless demands of stardom. You can almost hear the voice of his kindergarten teacher warning his mom that people might take advantage of him someday. Yao is obviously accustomed to putting other people's needs first. Someday that may grow tiresome.

Yao isn't just a symbol of and catalyst for worldwide change; he's also someone who is sure to be changed by it. This is a remarkable book, but the one he writes in 20 years' time will be more remarkable still.

1