He stepped onto the Compaq Center court bearing the hopes of a nation, the promise of global markets untapped, the memory of insults endured and the prospect of being embarrassed by a 7'1", 350-pound force of nature named Shaquille O'Neal. That is considerable pressure for any 22-year-old, even one who stretches the tape measure to almost 90 inches. But as the world would soon find out, Yao Ming, late of the Shanghai Sharks, seems to have entered Western hoops culture almost fully formed, a shot blocker and a shot maker, a back-slapping teammate and a dyed-in-the-wool gamer—in short (and that's an odd way to sum it up), a prodigy whose marvelous talent translates to any language.
Indeed, what happened last Friday night in Houston, where Yao's Rockets beat the Los Angeles Lakers 108-104 in overtime, was nothing less significant than this: Yao was accepted into the Club, that free-floating fraternity of NBA players whose membership is bestowed by certified superstars such as O'Neal. Unlike the All-Star vote—which on Thursday will officially install Yao as the Western Conference starter at center and O'Neal as his, uh, backup—this is something in which the fans have no voice.
It wasn't just one thing that gained Yao entry into the Club. It wasn't his invitation, extended to O'Neal a couple of days before the game, that they should break bread. (The dinner didn't happen because Shaq went to visit his oldest child, Taahirah, who lives in Houston.) It wasn't just the words of welcome that O'Neal, who had mocked Yao and the Chinese language six months earlier, whispered to him right before tip-off and again after the game. And it wasn't just Yao's inspired play in the first 4½ minutes, when he blocked three Shaq shots and held him at bay long enough to enable 6'8" forward James Posey to swat away a fourth, while burying a jump hook, a layup and a turnaround jumper at the other end, all with O'Neal's bald pate lurking in the neighborhood. (Shaq had shorn it that morning, always a sign that a battle would be joined.)
No, it was the way Yao has handled everything that has come his way. Yao is straight-up business. Yao doesn't work the refs or play to the crowd. Yao doesn't flop to draw offensive fouls, a moral failing, according to Shaq, of many centers. When O'Neal twice backed him down in overtime and rocked his world with rim-rattling dunks, Yao turned, ran upcourt and kept his head in the game. And with the Rockets leading 102-100 but about to turn the ball over because of a poorly run pick-and-roll, Yao spotted Shaq taking a quick step away from the basket to help defend scrambling point guard Steve Francis, then cut into the lane. Francis dished past Shaq to Yao, who caught the ball and dunked. Yao had his first points since the first quarter, and Houston had its 23rd win, a milestone that didn't come last season until March 10.
"He got some credibility in this game," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who before Friday had refused to be wowed by Yao. Though Shaq was dominant—31 points (including 10 of L.A.'s 12 in overtime) and 13 rebounds to Yao's 10 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks—he went out of his way to refer to Yao as "my brother" and praise his play. That's a departure for the Daddy, who generally extends props only to old-school opponents such as Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon. But there was good reason for Shaq's respectful treatment: In his first 26 games this season O'Neal had only 12 of his shots blocked; on Friday, Yao swatted away five.
Just seven months ago, when the Rockets made Yao the No. 1 pick in the draft, he was a mystery to anyone who hadn't seen him play live. But from the moment Yao arrived in Houston, 10 days before the season opener, the idea that he was some sort of ticket-selling sideshow was never again suggested. "You took one look at the man," says Francis, "and you just knew Yao belongs on a basketball court." His 296 pounds are well distributed over his solid seven feet, five inches—the height given by the NBA even though the Rockets list him at 7'6". There is no laboring in Yao's stride, none of that erector-set stiffness in his offensive moves. He has perfect coordination between his knees and his right wrist when he shoots jumpers or free throws. (He was hitting the latter at a 77.6% clip through Sunday, best among the league's starting centers.) He has the athleticism normally associated with players 6'5", not 7'5".
More important, Yao is a quick learner. His translator, 29-year-old Colin Pine, who looks like first trumpet in the school band, is still around at practices and games but is rarely needed to convert hoops lingo into Mandarin. "Yao speaks perfect basketball," says coach Rudy Tomjanovich. At first Yao had trouble processing quick changes in the Houston defenses, which are called by color, but he fully grasps them now. Language aside, his biggest problems on the court were: turning slightly and sticking out his hip instead of staying in front of a player who drove the lane; extending his hands out and over an offensive player (an almost sure foul call) instead of holding them straight up; and having no jump hook, a necessity for the offensive-minded frontcourtman. Yao has gotten away from the first two bad habits (he has yet to foul out of a game, which is unusual for a rookie center), and he's rapidly developing the jump hook, which he nailed over Shaq to open
When Yao is given an instruction, he repeats it slowly and commits it to memory. To defend a high pick-and-roll, for example, assistant coach Jim Boylen will tell Yao that he's got to jump out and "show" in the lane to discourage the ball handler from going right by him, while also keeping contact with his own man, the picker, in case he rolls to the basket or pops to the perimeter. "Show and contact," Yao will repeat slowly. "Show and contact." Says Boylen, "After that, he pretty much has it." You think? During a timeout in Houston's 102-96 victory over the Phoenix Suns on Jan. 15, Yao grabbed Tomjanvich's clipboard and quickly sketched for a teammate the proper foot position for a low-post defensive stance. "There's been some real goose-bump moments with that guy around," says Tomjanovich.
Yao has infused the Rockets with a new energy, and Francis's brilliance notwithstanding—he had a career-high 44 points plus 11 assists in the win over L.A.—this was a team running on fumes. Within a week after he showed up, Yao was wrestling with Moochie Norris, grabbing the 6-foot guard in a headlock and pretending to pound him to the floor. He is close to both Francis and shooting guard Cut-tino Mobley and revels in their endless joshing about the fact that he doesn't have a driver's license and used to get around Shanghai on a bicycle. (Pine still drives him everywhere, though Yao has been practicing on side streets, squeezing his body behind the wheel of a Toyota Sequoia. He has solicited Shaq's advice about how to get a car customized and has his eyes on a Mercedes Benz.)
Whenever Yao misses a free throw in practice and has to jog a lap, Francis will call after him, "Yo, Yao, pick me up some gum and a newspaper," or Mobley will yell, "Yo, Yao, bring back that BMX bike with the YAO MING license plate." Here are two established players, neither a shrinking violet, watching, without apparent animosity, a rookie from a foreign land attract most of the attention in what has so far been a renaissance season for Houston. "I'll tell you why I'm cool with it," says Mobley. "Because you can't deny that what we needed was a big man. And that man right there"-he points to Yao, holding court, Pine by his side, with about 100 reporters on game day—"is the real deal. The other part of it is, Yao is one great dude. Not cocky. Modest. Loving. Always hugging you. Always wanting to learn."