Chinese sensation takes on the Shaq

Yao Ming meets the Laker star Friday night for the first time in a battle of the centers.

The story line is as tantalizing as it is familiar. The glitz of West Coast style versus the homespun superstar. The broad smile of a future Laker legend against the studied seriousness of his rival.

Surely, this was March 26, 1979, when a flashy, soon-to-be Los Angeles Laker named Earvin "Magic" Johnson matched up against a country boy named Larry Bird in the NCAA finals. What followed was the most-watched final in college basketball history and a new golden age for professional basketball, as the two went on to create one of the greatest personal rivalries in American team sports.

Yet it is also Friday night, when Yao Ming, the wide-eyed Chinese giant who lives with his mother and was once chastised for being too humble to dunk, tips off against Shaquille O'Neal, the human wrecking ball who alternately lays out opponents and rap records.

Arguably, no sport depends on personalities and rivalries more than pro basketball. For all the glory of the Michael Jordan years, the game then was a one-man show. Now, with that era past, the league is casting about for its next great novel, and Friday's game holds perhaps the greatest promise as a first chapter.

The chances for a bust are many. This is Yao's rookie season, while a far more seasoned Shaq has won three consecutive championships. Still, the possibilities are limitless. Indeed, these two opposites hold the possibility of uniting continents just as Magic and Bird united races, as well as bringing prestige back to a position - center - that has nearly become extinct amid the high-flying dunks and knifing drives of the Jordan era.

"We certainly hope that this develops into a great rivalry," says Bill Walton, a Hall of Fame center with the Boston Celtics and Portland Trailblazers. "Shaq is undoubtedly the king both on and off the court, but Yao has the ability to change everything."

Mr. Walton is not the only one with such praise. To many, Yao will be the next big thing - and not just literally. At 7 ft., 5 in., he is shorter only than beanpole Shawn Bradley. But one look at his legs shows that he is no stick figure, and his toolbox of passes, shots, and light-limbed moves is irresistible.

"He epitomizes what other countries are doing and we are not: They're really teaching kids the fundamentals of the game," says Pete Newell, whose nationally renowned Big Man Camp focuses on low-post play.

Adds Walton: "Yao can bring some of the beauty back to the game. He does everything, including think."

The league appears to be sold on him. It's started a Mandarin version of its website, and the Miami Heat last month gave out 8,000 fortune cookies when he came to town.

His teammates need no convincing, either. Although he speaks little English and has an interpreter with him 24 hours a day - even on the bench during games and at home at night - the Houston Rockets are smitten with the No. 1 pick in this year's draft.

First of all, there's his talent. In a game last month against the Dallas Mavericks - the best team in the NBA - Yao dropped in 30 points and grabbed 16 rebounds. Steve Francis, nicknamed "Stevie Franchise" for his importance to the Rockets, has taken to calling his Chinese teammate the "Ming Dynasty." He even gave him clothes bearing the name.

Then there is the man himself: The man who sent Christmas cards to every Rockets employee - even though he doesn't celebrate the holiday. The man who says his favorite thing to do is sleep. The man whose favorite meal is his mom's chicken soup.

His grace is admired, his wit is dry, and his wisdom, somewhere between Confucius and Yogi Berra. After the game against Dallas, a loss, he said: "One part of the enjoyment is playing. The other part, of course, is winning. Today, I achieved half of that."

Nothing about his opponent, however, is subtle. The Superman tattoo on O'Neal's left biceps is more a statement of intent than fashion.

O'Neal is a mountain of flesh unlike any other in the history of the game. The most successful defense yet devised against the shaven-headed, 340-pound battering ram has been to topple over theatrically in hopes of drawing a foul. Yet his size sometimes masks his quickness and repertoire of low-post moves.

"Shaq, when he retires, will go down as one of the greatest centers," says Mr. Newell.

At the top of his game, none can handle Shaq. Few have even tried. In a time when O'Neal has taken to calling himself "LCL" or the "Last Center Left," Yao may be his first true challenge.

Time was, centers were the most celebrated position on the court. From 1960 to 1980, 20 of the 21 league Most Valuable Players were centers. From 1984 to 2002, though, the ratio dropped to 3 of 19. With the retirement last year of Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon - and David Robinson's retirement at the end of this year - skillful centers have become dinosaurs.

Which is what makes Yao so unusual - and so important. Superman needs his nemesis, and while Yao might not quite be O'Neal's Kryptonite yet, few doubt that he has the potential.

"Shaq has already proven durable enough to dominate for a generation," says Walton. "But it will end at some point, and as to when that's going to happen, we'll start to get some of the answers Friday night."

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