Thirteen years ago, I flew to Houston to see Yao Ming and Shaquille O’Neal go head-to-head for the first time.
Yao, elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame last Monday, wasn’t just playing for the Rockets. He was playing for the more than 200 million viewers in China who tuned into the game. He was playing for hundreds of thousands of Asian-American basketball fans in this country. And, although sports reporters are supposed to be impartial, I believed he was playing for my son, who several months later would be born in South Korea.
The game, played on Jan. 17, 2003, between the top teams in the Western Conference, had all the build-up of a title fight: The Lakers’ O’Neal was the dominant force in the league while Yao, the Rockets’ 7-6 rookie from China, was being billed as the next big thing. If that weren’t enough, O’Neal had raised the stakes for some by using a painful racial slur during an interview with Fox Sports Net. “Tell Yao Ming, “Ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-so,’’ he said while approximating kung fu moves. Though Shaq later issued a highly qualified apology, tensions remained high and a group of protesters gathered outside the arena.
Immediately after tipoff, Yao went toe-to-toe with O’Neal, blocking his first three shots. After his third block, Yao gave Shaq an “I’m-here-to-stay” stare. I found myself blinking back tears and doing a small, quiet fist pump under the press table.
Representing a large portion of the world is a lot to put on one man’s shoulders, even a man who stands 7-6. Yet no player in the history of the NBA — even Michael Jordan — has done more to globalize the sport and open it up to new fans in this country by challenging some long-held stereotypes of Asians.
This is a major reason that Yao, who played only 486 games before his career was cut short by injury, deserved to be elected to the Hall of Fame last week. But it is far from the only reason.
“People forget how good he was,” said Jeff Van Gundy, who coached Yao for four seasons with the Rockets. “I respectfully disagree with anyone who says he’s not a Hall of Famer, ’cause I guarantee you they’re looking at the stats and didn’t watch him play like his coaches did. Other than Shaq, he was the best player in his position in the NBA. He absolutely toyed with the next-best center, which was Dwight Howard.
“If Yao’s name was Joe Smith, he belongs in the NBA. But the added component of what he brought to opening up basketball to China and handling himself with grace and dignity each and every day . . . He’s a special person in the history of the NBA.”
Yao’s impact on Asian-Americans isn’t something you can easily measure with television ratings. Yet having a player with an Asian face be picked No. 1 overall in the NBA Draft and then be seen all over the world in commercials for everything from Pepsi to Visa was a very big deal to the Asian-American community.
“Growing up, being Asian on the basketball court in the United States was a novelty,” said Brian Yang, a Chinese- American actor and producer of the documentary “Linsanity” about Jeremy Lin. “There were so few role models. People didn’t know how to react. We were supposed to be just bookworms and the last guy picked for teams. Seeing Yao, someone who looked like us who was making it big in the NBA, we all gravitated toward it. Even people who didn’t really follow basketball, like my mother, were now trying to figure out how to get Rockets games on television.”
It couldn’t have been easy being a role model for so many, and doing it in an environment in which not everyone in the NBA was welcoming of international players. Van Gundy, however, said the pressure never seemed to bother Yao.
“A lot of people wanted to see Yao fail, quite frankly,” Van Gundy said. “They did not want to see him succeed. He won the room over and every room over with his game and his personality.”
Yao, however, did more than win over the room and bring in new basketball fans. He educated non-Asians, like Shaq and like me, about painful stereotypes.
I was several months into the adoption process when I attended that game in Houston. As a white person, I had never felt the sting of racial prejudice, but I knew it was something I was going to have to understand if I was going to successfully parent a child of a different race born in a different culture.
And so I cringed when O’Neal made his kung fu joke and when the Miami Heat held fortune cookie night on Yao’s first trip to Miami in 2002 despite the fact that Yao had never heard of a fortune cookie in China. And I worried about what my son might have to face one day.
I probably shouldn’t have. Yes, there still is prejudice out there against Asians, as we saw during several segments of the Academy Awards. Yet in basketball, we are seeing more and more acceptance.
Today, Shaq and Yao are headed to the Hall of Fame together, and in their news conference, Shaq greeted Yao in Mandarin and called him a brother. My son is an NBA-crazed middle-schooler who plays on three different basketball teams. He owns a Jeremy Lin jersey, wears a Kevin Durant hoodie and plays in LeBron James shoes.
His favorite all-time player is Shaquille O’Neal.