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China RPCV Peter Hessler writes about NBA basketball player Yao Ming
China RPCV Peter Hessler writes about NBA basketball player Yao Ming
The Ming Dynasty
This week in the magazine, Peter Hessler writes about the N.B.A. basketball player Yao Ming, the seven-foot-six-inch Chinese center for the Houston Rockets, who is changing the game and its audience both here and abroad. Hessler spoke to The New Yorker’s Ben Greenman about Yao, basketball, and the culture of sports in China.
BEN GREENMAN: How famous is Yao in China? It’s such a vast country; are there still hundreds of millions of people who have never heard of him?
PETER HESSLER: Yao is the most famous Chinese athlete ever. There are, of course, extremely remote areas where people haven't heard of him. But, increasingly, Chinese have access to television, regardless of whether they live in the city or in the country, and if they have a television, then they will have seen Yao Ming. In northern China, on the loess plateau, there are people living in caves who not only have heard of Yao but watch him regularly on their televisions.
As far as recognition and interest, Yao is breaking new ground in this country. He's the first Chinese athlete to gain his greatest fame in something other than a national-team jersey. It's a key step toward making Chinese sports international.
Do they know how famous he is in the U.S.?
People in China realize that Americans are very interested in Yao, but they often don't quite understand why. Chinese friends have asked me why Americans cared so much about Yao last year—given that he was so young, and that his team didn't even make the playoffs, they couldn't figure out where the interest came from.
As an American who has lived in China for the past few years, I found it fascinating to watch the different media interpretations of Yao. The U.S. media seemed to latch onto the novelty factor of this enormous Chinese man who spoke through an interpreter but was clearly very bright and mature. That sort of figure was unexpected. There are these old stereotypes about basketball players—the ghetto star, the playground legend, the slow country kid who can shoot the lights out—but Yao was something new.
Meanwhile, the Chinese press saw him in nationalistic terms. Sometimes I sensed that they hadn't noticed he wasn't wearing a China team jersey anymore. In the end, I felt like Yao was redefining some of the sports stereotypes of both cultures.
In your article, you said that Yao told you he thinks other Chinese players will be slow to come into the league. Is he right?
When it comes to talent development, China still has a long way to go. They are dealing with an outdated sports system; there is too much emphasis on early recruitment for sports schools. It's the same for soccer. People in China love soccer, and they play it all over the country, but most schools simply don't have coaches. In the end, that's what matters—you need to have leagues and coaches in all communities. People get blinded by the population figures, but it's quality, not quantity, that counts. The Netherlands will beat the Chinese national soccer team nine games out of ten. And Serbia and Montenegro will trounce the Chinese basketball team.
What about fan development? The N.B.A. is obviously going to try to capture the Chinese market. Will they?
There's no question that the N.B.A. is becoming enormously popular in China. Their fan base has exploded over the past five years, and Yao has already made a big impact. A recent survey by Asian Market Intelligence showed that, of Chinese males between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four, sixty-two per cent watch the N.B.A. on television at least once a week.
Who do Chinese fans root for, other than the Rockets?
The Chinese often talk about the Lakers, and they like Kobe Bryant; it's also common to hear people talk admiringly about Allen Iverson. Currently, the most frequently broadcast N.B.A. teams in China are Houston, Dallas, and Toronto. It's partly a matter of personnel—Houston and Toronto each have a Chinese player—but it's also slightly political. The Dallas Mavericks were the first team to sign a Chinese player, Wang Zhizhi, and they worked really hard to build good relations with the Chinese officials in charge of the basketball team for which Wang played. Once Wang's relations with the Chinese authorities deteriorated, in 2002, partly because Wang had delayed his return to his team in China, Dallas didn't re-sign him—and people around the N.B.A. and in China told me that it was, in part, because Dallas didn't want to ruin its good relations with the Chinese. Since Wang signed with the Los Angeles Clippers, their games have been banned from China.
Sometimes I wonder about how all of this looks to the Chinese—it's a confusing mix of cultures and political systems. Half-truths and misperceptions can snowball. When I was wandering around Houston's Chinatown, some people told me that Wang was actually better than Yao, but that Wang wasn't getting N.B.A. playing time because he had angered the Communist Party. Immigrant communities are often fertile ground for conspiracy theories. Back in China, one Chinese sports announcer told me that he disliked Dallas, because, in his opinion, they were too close to the Chinese authorities. In his world view, the Mavericks kowtowed to the Communists.
Another Chinese player, Ma Jian, told you that when he joined the N.B.A. he felt he had to decide whether he associated with the white players or the black players. What does Yao think about race relations in the league, or in America in general?
Yao has, clearly, gotten along well with all of his teammates, regardless of race. I think that for all of them it was completely new—and it wasn't highly charged in the way that black-white relations sometimes are on an American sports team. And I don't think that Yao has a strong opinion about race relations in America. You have to realize that he grew up in China and spent many of his formative years in sports schools. It's foreign territory for him—it's like asking Steve Francis about the Opium War. There was an incident early on in which Shaquille O’Neal made what was taken by many to be a racist remark about Yao in an interview—he said, “Tell Yao Ming, ‘Ching chong yang wah ah so.’”
Yao handled the Shaq comments beautifully, and some of the credit has to go to the Rockets. They have Mandarin-speaking staff who saw this issue building on Chinese Web sites, and they warned Yao. But the bottom line is that Yao handled it gracefully, in part because he had no idea how thin the ice was. I asked Yao's translator, Colin Pyne, if he thought that Yao really understood how tricky these issues can be in America. Colin told me that he thought the best way to describe Yao with regard to this issue was “danchun”—a Chinese term that means simple or pure, or something like “naïve,” but without a negative connotation. There's something very disarming about him. If you put an American in that situation, no matter how bright, thoughtful, and experienced that person is, I bet he would stumble. He'd be too aware of how sensitive race issues are in America. But Yao just made simple, honest, and brief statements. It was clear that he hadn't tortured himself about how to handle it.
For years, basketball fans have been bemoaning the fact that sponsorship deals often overshadow on-court play. In the LeBron James era, a player can make a hundred million dollars before ever playing in an N.B.A. game. How real are these numbers to Yao and to the other Chinese basketball players?
Yao is already there—his shoe contract is potentially more lucrative than LeBron's. I think that he is concerned about it. I asked Yao about this the day after he signed his Reebok contract, when he was in Harbin, China, and Yao said: "My thought is that if I make a lot of money, then I should play well. I need to improve; I need to earn that money. I also believe that if I make so much money, then there should be benefits not only to myself. If I can help somebody else, then I should."
But I think the average Chinese basketball player can't really grasp it. Really, almost nobody in China sees sports as a way to improve his financial situation. This is actually one of the problems with the sports system: many Chinese parents are reluctant to see their child enter a sports school, because they would prefer for him to be in a normal school, which would better prepare him for the changing economy. There is little motivation apart from nationalism. And nationalism is fun to watch on television, but you don't want to send your own child to a sports school for a decade because there's an outside chance he'll wear the Chinese jersey someday.
Apart from the wealth, how has Yao handled the by-products of N.B.A. stardom—the celebrity status, the groupies?
Yao was remarkable last year in the way that he handled his displacement. But I think that he misses his Chinese friends badly during the N.B.A. season. And during the off-season, when he's back in China, he misses the level of basketball competition that he finds in the U.S. He's still between two worlds.
A sports marketing executive in Shanghai named Terry Rhoads, who has known Yao since he was sixteen, told me recently, "If anybody in the N.B.A. needed a posse, it's Yao Ming." He was saying that Yao could really benefit from having some Chinese friends around, especially Liu Wei, the starting point guard for the Shanghai team, who is his closest friend. People always bad-mouth the N.B.A. posses, but it's an understandable development. The bottom line is that there is not a single player in the N.B.A. who was raised in a way that would make N.B.A. life feel normal. It's foreign to all of them, and nobody is really ready for it. They are all lonely to some degree. They have taken different paths and represent different worlds, but every one of them has been displaced.
How far will Yao go as a player?
I think that Yao, to develop as a player, needs to spend less time in China. He spent about four months with the Chinese national team, where the competition is sub-par and the coaching is too conservative. It would have been far better for Yao the player if he had spent part of that time in the States, working out with N.B.A. athletes, and then joined his Chinese teammates in time for the Asian Championship.
On a personal level, after the whirlwind of his first season, the time in China might have been good for him. He was able to spend time with his friends and his girlfriend. The national team stayed in a gated compound, so he was fairly well protected from the outside world. But in the future, as Yao adjusts to life in the U.S., his needs will change, and I think that he will become more concerned about improving himself as a player. He has the clout and the diplomatic skills necessary to negotiate with the Chinese national team about his obligations, which is what hamstrung Wang Zhizhi.
Does he want to be an N.B.A. all-time great? Does he have a sense of the league’s history?
He wants to be one of the greats, no question about it. And I think he has a good sense of what that means. He's been following the league since he was small, and he's now with an organization that had one of the great centers, Hakeem Olajuwon.
In your piece, you mention that China produces centers and not guards because it’s easy to produce (and then spot) size, as opposed to skill and determination. As Chinese athletes get a better sense of Yao’s fame, will the playground-basketball mentality become more prevalent?
For a sport like basketball, you really need a combination of structure and freedom. The playground mentality by itself doesn't go very far. Actually, China already has a lot of playground players, but most of them have never been coached for even a day, and they don't have any fundamentals. Playing with them is a strange experience. Often, I have the sense that they've logged countless more hours on the court than I have, but there are very basic things about the game that they don't understand.
The ideal is to have players receive some kind of coaching in a structured environment, and then to turn them loose to play on their own. You don't want too much structure. Pete Carril, the former Princeton coach, used to complain about “two-car-garage guys,” the type of athlete who often plays in the Ivy League. Carril was a firm believer in the theory that wealth undercuts an athlete's drive. Nowadays, middle- and upper-class kids in America play almost exclusively in leagues, and often they spend enormous amounts of time driving to tournaments and waiting for games. That's time they could spend on the playground with other kids.
The Chinese system is basically an extreme version of that situation. They recruit big kids early and put them into sports programs and sports schools. After that, everything is structured—even daily life. And basketball loses that indefinable spontaneity and drive that it so important, especially for skill players like guards. You can see it on the faces of many of the Chinese players: there's something missing. You know that expression that Allen Iverson often wears during a game? It's one of the most eloquent faces in sports: a combination of wounded anger and determination, as if he has exactly forty-eight minutes to avenge a lifetime of injustices. I've never seen that expression on the face of a Chinese athlete.
Will this change over time?
Well, people here tell me that the Chinese sports system is twenty years behind the rest of the country. They are still partly in the Mao era. Paradoxically, athletes are one of the few groups left in China today who have not been thrown into a brutally competitive environment. Almost everybody else is a survivor. This is one of the reasons that Americans worry about Chinese products flooding our market. The climate here is incredibly competitive, and people are willing to work hard for not very much money.
And sports adheres to an old model of China?
Yes. It might as well not be contemporary China. If you talk to any of the three Chinese players currently in the N.B.A. about their formative years, they'll all say, “Well, I was chosen for a sports program as a child, and then I moved into the dorm, and they gave me meals. . . .” That's what impressed me about Juaquin Hawkins, the role player on last year's Rockets. He grew up in Los Angeles without a father, but sports was a way for him to get a college degree and then earn a good living. He played all over the world, dreaming of a chance to go to the N.B.A. In the summer of 2002, when he was hoping one last time for an invitation to an N.B.A. preseason camp, he purchased a double-deck VCR, so he could create a highlight reel from all the places he had played all over the world—China, Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines. I always thought about what went through Hawkins's head whenever he watched that tape. There's a depth of experience and determination there that simply isn't yet a part of sports in China.