It happened twonights before Christmas. Six minutes into a game against the Los AngelesClippers, Houston Rockets center Yao Ming jumped to block a shot. As he did,teammate Chuck Hayes toppled toward him. Yao remembers a great weight bearingdown on his right leg, then a sharp pain. He sank to the floor at Houston'sToyota Center, clutching his right knee.
With help, hehobbled off the court, hoping for the best--perhaps he'd sit out one or twogames, then return. All summer he'd said the same thing over and over toassistant coach Tom Thibodeau during their workouts: "Eighty-two games, Ineed to play 82 games." At the hospital, however, an MRI revealed the grimnews: a bone fracture under the knee. Six weeks minimum.
Yao was crushed.Before the setback, he was finally being recognized not for what he representedbut for his performance. No longer was he a curiosity, the Asian giant come toconquer America, to be paired in TV commercials with 2'8" Verne Troyer, ashe had in an Apple ad in his rookie season of 2002--03. Nor, as had happenednext, was he seen primarily as a symbol, a 7'6" totem of the explodingglobal sports economy and warming relations between East and West. Rather, forthe first time, the most interesting thing about Yao Ming was the way he playedbasketball. He was averaging 27 points and nine rebounds and being mentioned asan MVP candidate. After Yao scored 36 points in a rout of the Mavericks inNovember, Dallas coach Avery Johnson marveled, "He was playing like we werenot even on the floor."
Yao's ascendancytook many by surprise, as it seemed sudden, but it was not. In the U.S., wherepeople are fascinated by six-day diets and overnight idols, consistency has nocult following. For Yao, whose work ethic may be unsurpassed in the NBA, hisskill had accreted day by day, drill by drill, film session by film session,until he'd become a player unique not just in today's league but also in thehistory of the NBA. Not because of his nationality, as most assumed, butbecause he had evolved into the first truly dominating "supersized"player, that breed of NBA behemoth who is 7'4" or taller.
As such, Yao wasthe centerpiece of a grand experiment by the Rockets. Never before had therebeen a supersized player who wasn't a specialist or injury-prone. Mark Eaton(7'4") and Manute Bol (7'6") were one-dimensional, useful only as shotblockers. Shawn Bradley (7'6") couldn't adapt to the pace or thephysicality of the league. Gheorghe Muresan (7'7") was skilled, but heplayed only three full seasons; the same was true for Ralph Sampson (7'4").None of those players were asked to log 35 minutes a night and carry a team.But now, in his fifth season, Yao was doing just that. Finally comfortable withboth American culture and the NBA game, he had reached the third step in hisevolution. No longer a novelty or an emblem, he had become the best big man inthe NBA.
And then theinjury. Yao spent the night with his leg immobilized, despondent. He wonderedwhether his career would be defined by what could have been. Members of theRockets' staff, which had invested so much in Yao, worried too. How would herespond? He'd already been through two rehabs in the previous year. In April2006 he'd broken a bone in his left foot, requiring surgery. Four monthsearlier, he had undergone surgery to clean out an infection in his left big toethat required doctors to shear off part of the bone. Though only 26, he alreadyhad the worn, creased feet of someone 20 years older.
But when Yao beganhis rehab five days later, he had ceased brooding, deeming it unproductive.(This is how Yao thinks.) He started by lifting weights, working with AnthonyFalsone, a onetime Rockets strength coach who became Yao's personal trainer in2005. Falsone is a short, energetic man with a shaved head, the kind of guy whoshows off his biceps by declaring, "Welcome to the gun show!" AsFalsone maintained Yao's strength, Thibodeau worked on Yao's basketball touch,overseeing him as he shot baskets from a chair. By early February, Yao wasrunning again, weeks ahead of schedule.
On a cool morningin the second week of the month, Yao arrived at the Toyota Center in downtownHouston at nine for his workout. Though he doesn't look bulky, Yao is far andaway the strongest player on the Rockets. (He can bench 310 pounds.) This is acontrast from when he joined the team: During one of his first workouts, as hedid incline presses with 45-pound dumbbells, Yao watched then teammate JasonCollier hefting 100-pounders. He turned to Falsone and asked if he'd ever beable to do that. Says Falsone, "This year, we bought 120-pound dumbbellsjust for Yao."
What makes Yao'sincreased strength more remarkable is that he has developed it without addingweight. When he entered the league, he was 300 pounds; today he is 302. This isby design. The Rockets want him to stay around 300 pounds to limit the stresson his joints, in hopes he will not be hobbled like his outsized predecessors."Most guys gain three or four pounds a year, which doesn't sound like much,but after 10 years it adds up," says Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy. "NotYao. No player I've been around works harder."
Only once did Yaostray, after his first season. He'd gone home to Shanghai, then returned toDallas to practice with the Chinese national team. The Rockets sent Falsone tocheck up on Yao. The two met in the lobby of Yao's hotel. "He lookedgood," recalls Falsone, "and he said he felt good. So I say, 'Let's goup to your room and check your body fat.' Well, I get up there, and there areabout 30 beer cans in the room."
Yao protests,smiling. "But only about 20 percent of them were mine! I had an old friendin town."
Yao had beenenjoying his summer and had thickened to 330 pounds. "At that time, I don'tknow how much hard work I need to put into my career," he says. "Idon't know how to keep myself in shape. Two summers ago, I stay here and trainwith Tom Thibodeau, and that was the first year that Anthony totally worked forme. I feel really good after that summer. I feel the next year is totallydifferent."
If there is anopponent who originally drove Yao to become stronger, it was Shaquille O'Neal.Now that role is filled by Dwight Howard, the Orlando Magic's 6'11",265-pound center. When Howard's name comes up during the workout, Yao peppers areporter with questions. "Does Howard have a trainer?" "How much ishe lifting--[former teammate] Steve Francis said he was always lifting." Itis an understandable concern. With Shaq on the downside of his career, Howardis the one NBA center athletic and strong enough to pose a threat to Yao overthe next five years. (Ohio State's Greg Oden may soon join that group.) "Alot of NBA centers are not that strong," Yao says. "They are big but alittle soft. But he is strong, very strong." (Howard views the dynamicsimilarly. "Every time we play each other it seems he plays extrahard," Howard says of Yao. "It's sort of like a rivalry." Told Yaois benching 310, Howard says with a smile, "Oh, that's pretty good."After a pause he adds, "My highest is 345.")
Once done lifting,Yao and Falsone head to the practice field at Reliant Stadium, home of theNFL's Texans, so Yao can run on its forgiving rubberized surface. It is a20-minute drive, and because of Yao's knee, Falsone drives Yao's Infiniti QX56SUV. Though it's not on display on this morning, Yao's driving is a topic ofamusement for many of the Rockets. When he first came to the U.S., Yao hadnever driven a car. "He was riding a bike the day I first met him [inBeijing]," says general manager Carroll Dawson. Yao learned to drive inparking lots, then passed his driving test (a source of great pride), but therewere still some close calls. He backed into a teammate's car and was known topoke along on the highway at 40 mph.
As Falsone drives,Yao sits in the front passenger seat, one enormous leg crossed over the other.Falsone puts on a U2 CD and cranks it up. Yao asks him to skip forward onetrack, then one more.
"Thisone?" says Falsone.
The opening chordsof Desire rumble through the car, Bono's opening exhalation followed by thatstaccato guitar riff.
"I can'tlisten to this song and drive," proclaims Yao, slowly moving his head."I begin to drive too fast."
They arrive atReliant, and once inside the practice bubble, Yao begins running, starting atone goal line and loping toward the other. Each day, Falsone will up the pace,as Yao is anxious to return. The following week, responding to pressure fromhis team and representatives, Yao flies to Las Vegas for All-Star Weekend onone condition: that he can continue his rehab work. Though he is booked for ahalf dozen events each day, Yao is up at 6 a.m. working out. "I guaranteeyou he was the only NBA player who didn't attend a party that weekend,"says Bill Sanders, the vice president of marketing for BDA Sports Agency, whichhandles Yao's affairs. "When you talk about the Americanization of Yao,that's the one part I'm glad he hasn't taken on."
In most respects,however, Yao has adapted to American culture. He hasn't used an interpretersince his third season, and his English is good, if at times choppy. (In arecent conversation, he did not know the word competitive.) To some, this comesas a surprise because of the misconception that Yao knew no English when hearrived in the U.S. In fact, at their initial meeting in 2001, Dawson recalls,"The first thing he said was, 'Coach Dawson, welcome to China.' I wasamazed."
Yao also possessesa dry wit that has served him well in the locker room--asked what he is best atbesides basketball, he offers: "Maybe make jokes?"--though it doesn'talways translate in print. For example, when a reporter inquires whether Yaomight add a new move in the off-season, he replies, deadpan: "We thinkabout dribble the ball coast to coast for slam dunk."
It is now lateMarch, and after missing 32 games, Yao is back in the lineup. The league,caught up as it is in the Mavericks-Suns rivalry, has not taken notice yet, butHouston is making a push. The Rockets have won six of eight since Yao's return,and there is reason for more optimism. When the starting five of Yao, TracyMcGrady, Shane Battier, Rafer Alston and Hayes have played together, Houstonhas outscored opponents by an average of 32 points per 48 minutes, by far thetop margin in the league. The caveat: Because of injuries, the Rockets' quintethas logged only 275 minutes together. Still, the team feels good about itschances of passing the Utah Jazz for homecourt advantage in the first round ofthe playoffs. On this night the opponent is the Indiana Pacers.
As he does beforeevery game, Yao arrives at the arena at 9 a.m., an hour and a half before theshootaround. As always, Thibodeau is there to meet him. The coach begins bygoing over tape, showing Yao how he will be defended by a pair of 6'11"Pacers, center Jeff Foster and power forward Jermaine O'Neal. After 45 minutes,the two men head to the court, where Yao runs through shooting drills foranother 45 minutes. Then, sweaty and breathing hard, Yao joins his teammates,some of whom have just arrived and are still sleepy-eyed, for theshootaround.
Yao is also thefirst on the floor at the Toyota Center that evening, hitting the court at 6p.m. for an 8:30 game. He begins with spot shooting, circling through ninelocations, seven on the perimeter and the two "short corners," 15 feetto either side of the basket along the baseline. The goal is to hit eight of 10from each spot; if Yao fails, Thibodeau gives him a second chance. Most of thetime, he doesn't need it.
Yao makes nine of10 from the left elbow, then only seven of 10 from the wing.
"F---,"says Yao, under his breath. On other misses he grimaces or shakes his head.Alston calls Yao's approach "almost perfectionist," while Rocketsforward Juwan Howard says it's "extreme, in a good way." To watch himshoot is to see the motion at its most refined. He keeps the ball high andreleases it with his right hand in a short flicking action. He does not jumpand barely even moves his legs. It is almost robotic.
Next Yao steps tothe line, where he hits all 10 of his free throws. Through Sunday he wasshooting 86.0%, second only to Kobe Bryant among players who were averagingeight or more attempts per game. Yao's percentage not only led the team (hefrequently shoots the Rockets' technicals) but also was nearly six percentagepoints better than that of any other center. In fact, there has never been aback-to-the-basket center as accurate from the line. (Jack Sikma shot 84.9% forhis career--almost three points higher than Yao's five-season average--but hewas a 6'11" jump shooter.)
"O.K., postmoves next," commands Thibodeau.
Yao sets up on theright block, practicing jump hooks, then turnarounds. It is part of hiscontinuing education as a low-post player: developing counters, taking angles,rooting for position. "What people forget is that he was an elbow playerwhen we got him," says Dawson. "He had a lot of finesse things in hissystem, and we felt like power moves were what he needed."
When Yao gets goodposition and faces up, he is virtually unguardable, as is clear two hours laterversus the Pacers. When Yao squares up in the first quarter, Foster doesn'teven try to alter his shot. Later, against O'Neal, the leading shot blocker inthe league, Yao only has to turn his shoulder to shoot uncontested jump hooks.Though his knee is still balky--it is the first night he has worn a sleeverather than a brace--he makes 10 of 17 shots from the field (and 12 of 13 fromthe line), and finishes with 32 points and 14 rebounds in an 86--76 Rocketswin.
Afterward anEastern Conference scout stands outside the locker room and stares at the statsheet. "Nobody could stop him," the scout says. "If he plays likethat, they could do some damage in the playoffs. I would not want to play themin the first round."
It wasimperceptible to most, but another element of Yao's evolution was on display.When he entered the league, he was criticized for being passive. Now, not onlydoes Yao call for the ball, but he also occasionally breaks a play, as in thefourth quarter when, instead of setting a screen for McGrady, he posted up onthe right side. (After the game he sheepishly admits he made the move becausehis shot was feeling so good.) "If it was up to me, I'd throw the ball toYao every time down court," says McGrady. "The more his confidencegrows, the better he gets."
Rockets coacheshave noticed the change in attitude. Van Gundy says Yao has added the properamount of stubbornness, and Thibodeau says, "His self-assurance now is ashigh as it's ever been." Yao agrees that he feels more confident, butdespite his numbers, he still sees himself as an outsider among the NBA elite."I still have a long way to go," he says. "I feel that every year Igetting better, better, then--boom--next level. And then new, stronger playercoming. And I feel, Where is the end?" He pauses. "If you relax or takeit easy for yourself, they will beat you, someday. Maybe tomorrow, maybe dayafter tomorrow."
Told this is afatalistic viewpoint for a five-time All-Star, he smiles: "That is what 1.3billion people watching you will do."
Nearly an hourafter the end of the Pacers game, almost midnight, Yao arrives at his locker tomeet the media. Immediately after every game, while his teammates shower, heheads to the weight room with Falsone to lift for 40 minutes. Despite the latehour and early deadlines, 17 journalists remain around his locker. Nine arefrom Chinese outlets, including Wang (Rock) Meng, a Shanghai writer who hascovered Yao since his first NBA game. Wang files 6,000 words on Yao three timesa week for Titan Media. At first, much of the material was about Yao's life offthe court. Now, Wang estimates, only 10% is about Yao's life, and the restcovers Yao's play and the Rockets. "There are now lots of Yao haters inChina," says Wang, who nonetheless estimates that 70% of Chinese fanssupport Yao. "In my opinion, it is because they do not like centers becausethey are sort of slow and cannot do the fantasy moves that Kobe or McGradydo."
Once the questionsbegin, Yao, as is his custom, does not dwell on the positives. In spite of the32 points he scored, he is concerned with his decision-making.
Did he feelcomfortable on offense?
"A lot ofturnovers," Yao says. "Six. A very high number. I'm sure right nowCoach Thibodeau is putting those turnovers on a tape, and I'll watch for onehour tomorrow."
The reporterslaugh because Yao is joking, but not really. As Yao is speaking, Thibodeau isgoing over game film in an adjacent room. By morning he will have a DVD ready.The next time the two men meet, Yao will study the DVD, look for tiny mistakesand determine what adjustments he should make. Then he will practice thoseadjustments, over and over, until they become part of him, until he has evolvedfurther. This, Yao Ming hopes, is how he will overcome history, his ownoversized limbs and the expectations of an entire country. This is how theexperiment continues.
Stretch-run analysis from Jack McCallum, Ian Thomsen,Marty Burns, Chris Mannix and Kelly Dwyer.
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His skill had accreted drill by drill, film session byfilm session, until he'd become a player UNIQUE IN THE HISTORY of the NBA.
No longer as passive on the court, Yao displays moreconfidence and what Van Gundy describes as A GOOD STUBBORNNESS.
TALL ORDER Many of his supersized predecessors were one-dimensional, but Yao has developed into the NBA's top center.
TALK SHOW Yao hasn't used an interpreter since his third season and is now comfortable addressing the media horde.
DRIVEN Originally a finesse player, Yao has worked hard in the weight room to become a more physical presence inside.
AUTOMATIC One of the best big men ever at the free throw line, Yao frequently takes Houston's technical foul shots.
ANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
ONE-TWO PUNCH McGrady, the Rockets' No. 2 scorer, says he would gladly throw the ball in to Yao every time down the court.