Yao: China's gift to basketball
This sports bio is also a tale of globalization - and the odd place where two cultures met.
Let me begin this review by admitting that I am no great fan of professional basketball. I don't even particularly like college basketball - although I am athletic and played the game competitively through high school. Somehow as an adult I just never became a spectator.
So before picking up Operation Yao Ming, I knew little about National Basketball Association superstar Yao Ming, other than that he is from China and stands 7 ft., 5 in. tall. But thanks to author Brook Larmer, an American journalist who lives in Shanghai, I now know a lot - and find myself fascinated.
Larmer (who was a staff writer at the Monitor) more recently reported from Shanghai for Newsweek magazine. This thorough and compelling biography of Yao is the outgrowth of a series of articles he wrote for Newsweek between 2000 and 2003.
What I learned from Larmer's book will not convert me into a professional basketball fan. But I would recommend "Operation Yao Ming" to anybody who cares about globalization and wants to read a strange but true story about the intersection of America's sports business machine and the pride and ambition of the Chinese government.
Larmer has crafted an endlessly fascinating book that stresses Chinese culture in its first third, the meeting of Chinese and American cultures in its second third, and the dominant American culture in its final third.
Throughout the narrative, Larmer touches on US-Chinese diplomatic relations, business dealings (with the Nike shoe manufacturing company of Oregon playing a huge part), the growth of professional sports as a global brand, and much more.
Yao Ming, born in 1980, is definitely the main character. But another Chinese basketball star, Wang Zhizhi, plays a major role as a foil to Yao.
Wang, several years older than Yao and at a "mere" 7 ft., 1 in. quite a bit shorter, played professional basketball in the United States, too.
But he performed less well on the court, and found himself an exile in a strange country off the court. He eventually returned to China a spiritually broken man.
Avid basketball fans and China watchers undoubtedly know that the gigantic Yao is the product of a genetic experiment. He is the offspring of a mother who was 6 ft., 2 in. and and a father who was 6 ft., 10 in. The two were forced to marry by Chinese officials eager to dominate sports globally.
The early chapters of the book, focusing on Yao's parents (who lived through the tumultuous Cultural Revolution) and the world into which Yao was born, offer a telling glimpse of the China of their times - a country whose leaders were fiercely competitive with the West and at the same time almost oddly naive in their belief that they could mould their athletes. (One of 10 Rules for Athletes published in The People's Daily News: "Refrain from falling in love.")
Yao - who was required to play basketball whether he wanted to or not - received special treatment from growth experts from birth, and the treatments seem to have succeeded beyond anybody's imagination.
The second section of the book leads off with NBA commissioner David Stern stepping out of a Mercedes in Beijing in November, 1990, and so begins the meshing of the very different sports empires in the two countries.
Equally fascinating - and often humorous - are the later chapters on Yao's integration into life in the US.
We see him thrilled to learn words like "gangsta" but then having to cope with embarrassment when he couldn't throw a party for his teammates in his new home because his mother wouldn't let him. ("How could [his teammates] begin to understand a 7' 5", 296-pound Mama's boy?" Larmer asks.)
If Operation Yao Ming were a novel starring such a character, the plot would have seemed outlandish.
Instead, Larmer has proved, as have many talented authors before him, that truth can sound stranger than fiction.
Yao is quite likely to remain the center of attention in the United States, China and other nations for at least a decade to come.
I look forward to following his career from now on - not because I care about whether his team wins or loses, but because he is a fascinating manifestation of the globe looking smaller, for better and for worse.
• Steve Weinberg is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.