WASHINGTON, October 31, 2011 — When NBA players and owners eventually resolve their differences and go back to work, a global icon will be missing from their ranks.
Back in July, Houston Rockets center Yao Ming – the greatest Chinese man ever to play the game of basketball – hung up his Reeboks and retired from the NBA. The 31-year-old had actually missed most of the last two seasons due to injury, but while physically absent from the court, he still was often visible on the sideline. And there was always the hope that he’d be back.
Now, there is just a pair of empty shoes that no one seems able to fill – certainly not Washington D.C.’s own Yi Jianlian, who was once tabbed to be “The Next Yao”.
Yao is one of the most prominent cultural figures to emerge from Mainland China in recent decades. In interviews, the Shanghai native came across as personable, funny, and humble. He never negotiated a single adjustment in the value of the Yuan. He never once brokered a deal to release some writer or pastor held in a Chinese prison under dubious charges. He didn’t as much make a political statement during his entire career, apart from advocating for the protection of sharks.
But Yao was the face of China in the US during the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Games. And what a human face he showed for a country that is mostly known in the US for its communism, large brick wall, and cryptic language.
Yao, in fact, proved to be an extraordinary cultural diplomat – the likes of which we may not see for years to come.
“He was a tremendously effective diplomat, and he really put a human face on the whole idea of the story of the Chinese athlete – because he could speak English, [and] because he was funny,” said M. Nicole Nazzaro, who contributed to the US and Chinese editions of Sports Illustrated magazine for the Beijing Olympics. “He was a real competitor, but … he was actually extremely approachable as a person, which is saying something. …There are very few people on his level of achievement and riches and fame who treat people the way he did.”
Nazzaro, who covered the Rockets and other US-based China sports stories, added: “I like to say about Yao that he is many, many times the person that he is the basketball player. And he’s quite a basketball player.”
We Americans take our homegrown global icons for granted – there are so many of them, after all. But for Chinese people like Wang Zi, a sports writer and editor at my former newspaper in Beijing, figures like Yao don’t come along very often.
Wang recalled to me his favorite anecdote in which Yao acted as a cultural diplomat.
“What impressed me the most was the NBA commercial where Yao and the Rockets mascot were doing Taiji [a traditional Chinese exercise] together,” he said.
“A Chinese young man was leading the fans of one of the most popular sports in the US in a traditional exercise. Before Yao, there were [other] Chinese players in NBA, like Wang Zhizhi in Dallas, but none of them got to bring the culture of China into the game. Yao’s success was that he not only proved himself to be a great center on the court, but also that through him, the American people could know, and want to know, more about China.”
My own favorite “diplomatic” moment from Yao’s career came in 2003, when he was asked about Shaquille O’Neal’s mocking attempt to speak Chinese. “Tell Yao Ming, ‘Ching-chong- yang-wah-ah-soh’,” Shaq had said – in jest – to an Asian reporter.
Yao responded with his typical calm and class: “There are a lot of difficulties in two different cultures understanding each other – especially two very large countries. The world is getting smaller and I think it’s important to have a greater understanding of other cultures. I believe Shaquille O’Neal was joking, but I think that a lot of Asian people don’t understand that kind of joke.”
He then added his trademark humor: “Chinese is hard to learn. I had trouble with it when I was little.”
Moments like these aren’t going to win Yao a Nobel Peace Prize. And his scoring 28 points and grabbing 10 rebounds against the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2009 Playoffs certainly didn’t change the world.
But to dismiss the man as irrelevant is to say that Hollywood movies and iPhones and presidents, like Barack Obama, ultimately cannot penetrate a foreign culture. They can, and they have. And Yao Ming has made his mark, too – not just in the game of basketball, but in the minds of young Chinese and Asian-Americans who now have a hero who excelled at the highest level of competition. For Yao, it was basketball, but for others, it could well be acting, writing, business or science.
The truth is, both China and America need more people like Yao to emerge in the coming decade.
Late last season, I talked with Yi Jianlian, the young Washington Wizards forward who is now the only remaining Chinese basketball player in the NBA.
He’s had a rough go at following in Yao’s footsteps. He was drafted by Milwaukee in 2007 but has since been bounced around to New Jersey and now D.C. While Yi shoots well in and around the paint, he has struggled to maintain his form thanks to frequent injuries that have kept him off the court. Last season, he averaged six points, four rebounds, and one blocked shot in about 18 minutes per game.
The man is a rock star back home, where millions tune in to watch his every game. But you wouldn’t know it by his life here in the US. Whereas Yao played a more prominent role on his team and in his community, Yi has more or less kept to himself during his stints in US cities.
John Wall, the young Wizards star from the University of Kentucky, told me that Yi went out to dinner with him once, but that was “because we have the same agent.” He adds: “He’s quiet. He doesn’t talk that much. He just goes to his apartment and stays to himself.”
Yi said he will often get online and chat with friends in China after a game. “During the season I don’t like going out too much,” he said. “For me I want to stay at home whenever I can because [there are] so many travels. If you have a day off, you just sleep all day. I will go out during the off-season, but during the season I rest my body as much as I can.”
Until the NBA lockout ends, Yi plans to play in China’s professional basketball league. His countrymen are no longer under any illusions that he will eventually replace Yao because it wouldn’t be fair to expect him to.
For Yao, there is no replacement, and that is the shame of it all.
Charlie Shifflett spent six years in China, including four working as a writer and section editor at a state-run weekly newspaper in Beijing. He is currently the website and communications manager at the international microfinance non-profit Five Talents, in Vienna, Virginia.
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