- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
The sports community didn't have to wait long for the first offspring of what the press was calling "the first couple of Asia." In the small apartment where Da Fang and Da Yao lived, surrounded by other athletes and coaches, everyone gathered to see the miracle child--long-awaited Yao.
The joy that normally attends the birth of a son in China was muted, in Yao's case, by his family's sense of uncertainty. The end of the Cultural Revolution, which followed Mao's death in 1976, had ushered China into a new era of hope and economic opportunity under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, the former Communist Party secretary who had returned to power after three stints in political exile. But Deng was not the only one who had risen from the ashes. Zhu Yong had also been rehabilitated, and Da Fang would suffer as a consequence.
When she retired from playing in '78, Da Fang moved naturally into the position of assistant coach for the Shanghai junior women's team, a job that many assumed would soon lead the former star to more prestigious assignments. But according to several former teammates and coaches, her fate changed when Zhu assumed a top position in the Shanghai sports commission, at which he would eventually become deputy director. After barely six months as a coach, Da Fang was shunted off to what one former teammate described as "the worst job in the sports system": doing menial work at a compound for retired athletes.
For a time the former national hero stocked bathrooms with soap for the equivalent of a few dollars a week. Later she would be transferred to a clerical job at the Shanghai Sports Science Research Institute. She would never work as a coach again, and she lacked the basic education to find other employment. Her husband, too, failed to land a job as a coach and would work his entire career in the Shanghai port. Together the couple made less than 80 yuan per month--about $50 at the time--barely more than half the average salary of an urban Chinese household and hardly enough to raise a rapidly growing child.
The vendors at the outdoor food market on Shanghai's Wukang Road got to know Da Fang well. Nearly every evening at dusk she would appear before them--a tall, elegant figure in worn clothes, quietly bargaining for day-old cuts of pork or surplus rations of rice. Da Fang and Da Yao spent nearly their entire income on food, and yet they often sat at the table watching their son eat while they themselves went hungry. By the time Yao Ming turned four, he measured well over four feet and weighed a whopping 60 pounds.
Four years later Yao was already 5'7", and his potential as a basketball player was literally too big for anyone to ignore. By then Zhu Yong had retired from the sports commission, and one of Da Fang's old friends from No. 651 Nanjing Road, Xu Weili, wanted Yao Ming for the Xuhui District Sports School for children, where she was the top party official.
It would not be easy to pry the boy away from his parents, who were keen to give him the education they themselves had been deprived of. But Xu gently reminded Da Fang and Da Yao that their son's special talents belonged to the nation--and that the Xuhui school could provide him not just with training but also with more milk and other nutritious foods. Yao's parents eventually acquiesced, grudgingly accepting that their only child might have to follow in their footsteps. "We didn't choose this career for him," Da Fang says, "but we were basketball players. All of our old colleagues and coaches had their eyes on Yao Ming since he was young."
Born on the cusp of China's economic resurgence, Yao Ming was part of the first Chinese generation in 40 years that could entertain personal ambition and visions of success. As a child he fantasized about being an explorer traveling into new worlds rather than his parents' old one. "I've always wanted to be an archaeologist, to go looking for adventure everywhere," Yao said, adding that "it would be hard for me, of course, to crawl in and out of those small caves."
Nevertheless, when his parents told him he would have to start basketball training, Yao--not yet nine--didn't utter a word in protest. Ever the obedient child, he agreed to stand outside his primary school, waiting for his coach to come and guide him by bicycle through the maze of Shanghai streets to the Xuhui Sports School, where the boy would initially train five afternoons a week and on Saturdays. Yao hated basketball with a passion, but he resigned himself to attending practice "purely for my parents, because I respect them so much."
Yao's size and clumsiness made him the object of ridicule at first. The teasing embarrassed him, but it wasn't nearly as painful as the training itself. Every day, the boys ran until they almost collapsed, jumped until their legs burned and shot baskets until they couldn't lift their arms. What often seemed even harder to take was the numbing boredom of repetitive training, a process the sportswriter Zhao Yu likened to "trying to create a tiger by copying the drawing of a cat." It would take nearly a decade before Yao took a genuine interest in basketball.