When 7-6 Yao Ming came to the NBA, Shaquille O’ Neal was dismissive and said this on a radio show: “Tell Yao Ming, ‘Ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-so.”
It was an ugly comment and O’ Neal subsequently apologized.
It took awhile for him to realize that he hadn’t just said something deeply offensive but that Yao was a man worthy of respect (he learned along the way that a younger Yao had written him fan letters. Even his father chastised him for his comments).
Eventually the two became fast friends and were inducted into the Hall of Fame in the same class.
Yao was a man worthy of considerable respect even if it took Shaq too long to figure it out.
As a basketball player Yao was incredibly important. He transformed the perception of Chinese basketball and inspired countless players in China and across Asia. You could make the argument that without Yao there could be no Rui Hashimura, the Japanese kid who went to Gonzaga and went to Washington in the recent draft at #10.
Now Yao is after bigger game: as president of the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), he wants to make Chinese basketball as good as any brand of basketball in the world.
He knows it’s a tall order, pun intended, and what’s interesting is how he’s going about it.
He faces limitations that you wouldn’t see in this country and also has to find some way to more or less replicate what the NCAA and AAU do to feed talent to the NBA. He’s building from the ground up in other words.
Having grown in a Soviet-influenced athletic system (his parents, both tall basketball players, were pushed to marry essentially to breed another), he has no appetite to push people into a system he didn’t much enjoy.
Could he pull it off?
It’s a huge challenge. The better way to look at it is a long view: can he set things into motion that in 20 or 30 years create a Chinese brand of basketball that could compete worldwide?
If he can deal with the various issues, we don’t see why not. Spain, France, Australia, Greece, Serbia, Brazil and Lithuania have built superb basketball cultures. In the last Olympics, we fell in love with the spirit of the Japanese team which could soon emerge as yet another. We hope they’re as much fun the next time out.
None of them have the population base that China does. With a billion plus people, you should be able to find enough athletes and prodigies to do it.
So far, China has produced a lot of big men, Yao being the best. When they start producing guards and versatile talents, they’ll be ready to take on everyone including, ultimately, the NBA’s best. When you start hearing about the “Chinese Ricky Rubio” pay attention. That’s the sign that things have changed and that basketball has moved from a government run program to something with deep roots in the culture.
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