NBA beware: Here comes China's 'walking wall'
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Yao first caught broader American attention in Sydney when he rejected the shots of high-flying Vince Carter of the Toronto Raptors and Seattle Supersonics point guard Gary Payton on the opening play of the US-China game. He has been a counselor at Michael Jordan's basketball camp, and at the foyer of the Sharks office in Shanghai, there's a huge photo of MJ giving Yao a pat on the back.Skip to next paragraph
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Still, whether the young giraffe can mix it up under the basket with the high-speed elephants in the NBA is a question. Yao does not have the upper body physique and absolute power of Mr. O'Neal, or the big-cat nimbleness of a Hakeem Olajuwon. He's a bit more of a Vlade Divac or a young Bill Walton.
In a brief interview in the Shanghai dormitory room he shares with another Sharks player a room strewn with size 18 sneakers that is tinier than the walk-in closet of an NBA salaried player Yao says he will work to develop his strength.
"I have determination like Charles Barkley," says Yao, referring to the former Sixers, Suns, and Rockets player whom Yao regards as his model NBA player. "Even if Barkley never won a championship, he never lost his fire to win one. I also like his slam-dunks."
Born in Shanghai to a mother and father who are both basketball players, and both more than six feet tall, Yao's prospects for the NBA and the additions of other Chinese to the league in some ways close a historical circle: Basketball was first introduced to China in the 1890s by YMCA missionaries in Shanghai.
Yao speaks passable English, is a computer-games addict, sometimes inviting reporters to his room, not for interviews, but to find competitors for his new Sony game machine. He loves the international food scene in Shanghai, has a contract with Adidas tennis shoes and carefully studies the fashions, music, and images of the West.
Friends also say Yao has a kind of critical distance on himself. When he was younger, he didn't even like basketball and felt forced to play due to his size. "He is clever, and would succeed in whatever he did," says a friend.
"He's a special kid," says Mr. Benoit. "Off the court, I haven't seen many like him."
Even Sharks fans seem to understand. Outside the locker room at one championship game, after Yao scored 26 points with 23 rebounds, one fan said: "Yao Ming belongs to the world!"
At the same time, Yao, with his square jaw, confident grin, open face, looks like a model for a Chinese Army recruiting poster. His own hero, someone he reads and talks about constantly, is the famed Chinese adviser to kings, General Zhu Geliang.
"Ge didn't use power," says Yao. "He used his head."
Yao's parents who sit in the most honorable front-court seats under the home basket, both say Yao is not only ready for the NBA, but that their son's "development requires it." Yao's mom, unable to play in the Olympics "due to special historical circumstances in our country" her words for the Cultural Revolution in China coaches him daily. They talk about his defense, his offense, and his attitude.