The Evolution of Yao
No longer a novelty, Yao Ming has arrived as the first dominating supersized player in NBA history -- picking up a driver's license, some U2 CDs and a dry sense of humor along the way
It happened two nights before Christmas. Six minutes into a game against the Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets center Yao Ming jumped to block a shot. As he did, teammate Chuck Hayes toppled toward him. Yao remembers a great weight bearing down on his right leg, then a sharp pain. He sank to the floor at Houston's Toyota Center, clutching his right knee.
With help, he hobbled off the court, hoping for the best -- perhaps he'd sit out one or two games, then return. All summer he'd said the same thing over and over to assistant coach Tom Thibodeau during their workouts: "Eighty-two games, I need to play 82 games." At the hospital, however, an MRI revealed the grim news: a bone fracture under the knee. Six weeks minimum.
Yao was crushed. Before the setback, he was finally being recognized not for what he represented but for his performance. No longer was he a curiosity, the Asian giant come to conquer America, to be paired in TV commercials with 2'8" Verne Troyer, as he had in an Apple ad in his rookie season of 2002-03. Nor, as had happened next, was he seen primarily as a symbol, a 7'6" totem of the exploding global sports economy and warming relations between East and West. Rather, for the first time, the most interesting thing about Yao Ming was the way he played basketball. He was averaging 27 points and nine rebounds and being mentioned as an MVP candidate. After Yao scored 36 points in a rout of the Mavericks in November, Dallas coach Avery Johnson marveled, "He was playing like we were not even on the floor."
Yao's ascendancy took many by surprise, as it seemed sudden, but it was not. In the U.S., where people are fascinated by six-day diets and overnight idols, consistency has no cult following. For Yao, whose work ethic may be unsurpassed in the NBA, his skill 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 the history of the NBA. Not because of his nationality, as most assumed, but because he had evolved into the first truly dominating "supersized" player, that breed of NBA behemoth who is 7'4" or taller.
As such, Yao was the centerpiece of a grand experiment by the Rockets. Never before had there been 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 shot blockers. Shawn Bradley (7'6") couldn't adapt to the pace or the physicality of the league. Gheorghe Muresan (7'7") was skilled, but he played 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 with both American culture and the NBA game, he had reached the third step in his evolution. No longer a novelty or an emblem, he had become the best big man in the NBA.
And then the injury. Yao spent the night with his leg immobilized, despondent. He wondered whether his career would be defined by what could have been. Members of the Rockets' staff, which had invested so much in Yao, worried too. How would he respond? He'd already been through two rehabs in the previous year. In April 2006 he'd broken a bone in his left foot, requiring surgery. Four months earlier, he had undergone surgery to clean out an infection in his left big toe that required doctors to shear off part of the bone. Though only 26, he already had the worn, creased feet of someone 20 years older.
But when Yao began his rehab five days later, he had ceased brooding, deeming it unproductive. (This is how Yao thinks.) He started by lifting weights, working with Anthony Falsone, a onetime Rockets strength coach who became Yao's personal trainer in 2005. Falsone is a short, energetic man with a shaved head, the kind of guy who shows off his biceps by declaring, "Welcome to the gun show!" As Falsone maintained Yao's strength, Thibodeau worked on Yao's basketball touch, overseeing him as he shot baskets from a chair. By early February, Yao was running again, weeks ahead of schedule.
On a cool morning in the second week of the month, Yao arrived at the Toyota Center in downtown Houston at nine for his workout. Though he doesn't look bulky, Yao is far and away the strongest player on the Rockets. (He can bench 310 pounds.) This is a contrast from when he joined the team: During one of his first workouts, as he did incline presses with 45-pound dumbbells, Yao watched then teammate Jason Collier hefting 100-pounders. He turned to Falsone and asked if he'd ever be able to do that. Says Falsone, "This year, we bought 120-pound dumbbells just for Yao."
What makes Yao's increased strength more remarkable is that he has developed it without adding weight. When he entered the league, he was 300 pounds; today he is 302. This is by design. The Rockets want him to stay around 300 pounds to limit the stress on 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. "Not Yao. No player I've been around works harder."
Only once did Yao stray, after his first season. He'd gone home to Shanghai, then returned to Dallas to practice with the Chinese national team. The Rockets sent Falsone to check up on Yao. The two met in the lobby of Yao's hotel. "He looked good," recalls Falsone, "and he said he felt good. So I say, 'Let's go up to your room and check your body fat.' Well, I get up there, and there are about 30 beer cans in the room."
Yao protests, smiling. "But only about 20 percent of them were mine! I had an old friend in town."
Yao had been enjoying his summer and had thickened to 330 pounds. "At that time, I don't know how much hard work I need to put into my career," he says. "I don't know how to keep myself in shape. Two summers ago, I stay here and train with Tom Thibodeau, and that was the first year that Anthony totally worked for me. I feel really good after that summer. I feel the next year is totally different."
If there is an opponent 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 a reporter with questions. "Does Howard have a trainer?" "How much is he lifting -- [former teammate] Steve Francis said he was always lifting." It is an understandable concern. With Shaq on the downside of his career, Howard is the one NBA center athletic and strong enough to pose a threat to Yao over the next five years. (Ohio State's Greg Oden may soon join that group.) "A lot of NBA centers are not that strong," Yao says. "They are big but a little soft. But he is strong, very strong." (Howard views the dynamic similarly. "Every time we play each other it seems he plays extra hard," Howard says of Yao. "It's sort of like a rivalry." Told Yao is 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 the NFL's Texans, so Yao can run on its forgiving rubberized surface. It is a 20-minute drive, and because of Yao's knee, Falsone drives Yao's Infiniti QX56 SUV. Though it's not on display on this morning, Yao's driving is a topic of amusement for many of the Rockets. When he first came to the U.S., Yao had never driven a car. "He was riding a bike the day I first met him [in Beijing]," says general manager Carroll Dawson. Yao learned to drive in parking lots, then passed his driving test (a source of great pride), but there were still some close calls. He backed into a teammate's car and was known to poke 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 one track, then one more.
"This one?" says Falsone.
"Yes," says Yao.
The opening chords of Desire rumble through the car, Bono's opening exhalation followed by that staccato guitar riff.
"I can't listen to this song and drive," proclaims Yao, slowly moving his head. "I begin to drive too fast."
They arrive at Reliant, and once inside the practice bubble, Yao begins running, starting at one 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 from his team and representatives, Yao flies to Las Vegas for All-Star Weekend on one condition: that he can continue his rehab work. Though he is booked for a half dozen events each day, Yao is up at 6 a.m. working out. "I guarantee you 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, which handles 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 interpreter since his third season, and his English is good, if at times choppy. (In a recent conversation, he did not know the word competitive.) To some, this comes as a surprise because of the misconception that Yao knew no English when he arrived 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 was amazed."
Yao also possesses a dry wit that has served him well in the locker room -- asked what he is best at besides basketball, he offers: "Maybe make jokes?" -- though it doesn't always translate in print. For example, when a reporter inquires whether Yao might add a new move in the off-season, he replies, deadpan: "We think about dribble the ball coast to coast for slam dunk."
It is now late March, 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, but Houston 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, Tracy McGrady, Shane Battier, Rafer Alston and Hayes have played together, Houston has outscored opponents by an average of 32 points per 48 minutes, by far the top margin in the league. The caveat: Because of injuries, the Rockets' quintet has logged only 275 minutes together. Still, the team feels good about its chances of passing the Utah Jazz for homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs. On this night the opponent is the Indiana Pacers.
As he does before every game, Yao arrives at the arena at 9 a.m., an hour and a half before the shootaround. As always, Thibodeau is there to meet him. The coach begins by going 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 for another 45 minutes. Then, sweaty and breathing hard, Yao joins his teammates, some of whom have just arrived and are still sleepy-eyed, for the shootaround.
Yao is also the first on the floor at the Toyota Center that evening, hitting the court at 6 p.m. for an 8:30 game. He begins with spot shooting, circling through nine locations, seven on the perimeter and the two "short corners," 15 feet to either side of the basket along the baseline. The goal is to hit eight of 10 from each spot; if Yao fails, Thibodeau gives him a second chance. Most of the time, he doesn't need it.
Yao makes nine of 10 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 Rockets forward Juwan Howard says it's "extreme, in a good way." To watch him shoot is to see the motion at its most refined. He keeps the ball high and releases it with his right hand in a short flicking action. He does not jump and barely even moves his legs. It is almost robotic.
Next Yao steps to the line, where he hits all 10 of his free throws. Through Sunday he was shooting 86.0%, second only to Kobe Bryant among players who were averaging eight or more attempts per game. Yao's percentage not only led the team (he frequently shoots the Rockets' technicals) but also was nearly six percentage points better than that of any other center. In fact, there has never been a back-to-the-basket center as accurate from the line. (Jack Sikma shot 84.9% for his career -- almost three points higher than Yao's five-season average -- but he was a 6'11" jump shooter.)
"O.K., post moves next," commands Thibodeau.
Yao sets up on the right block, practicing jump hooks, then turnarounds. It is part of his continuing education as a low-post player: developing counters, taking angles, rooting for position. "What people forget is that he was an elbow player when we got him," says Dawson. "He had a lot of finesse things in his system, and we felt like power moves were what he needed."
When Yao gets good position and faces up, he is virtually unguardable, as is clear two hours later versus the Pacers. When Yao squares up in the first quarter, Foster doesn't even try to alter his shot. Later, against O'Neal, the leading shot blocker in the 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 sleeve rather than a brace -- he makes 10 of 17 shots from the field (and 12 of 13 from the line), and finishes with 32 points and 14 rebounds in an 86-76 Rockets win.
Afterward an Eastern Conference scout stands outside the locker room and stares at the stat sheet. "Nobody could stop him," the scout says. "If he plays like that, they could do some damage in the playoffs. I would
not want to play them in the first round."
It was imperceptible 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 only does Yao call for the ball, but he also occasionally breaks a play, as in the fourth quarter when, instead of setting a screen for McGrady, he posted up on the right side. (After the game he sheepishly admits he made the move because his shot was feeling so good.) "If it was up to me, I'd throw the ball to Yao every time down court," says McGrady. "The more his confidence grows, the better he gets."
Rockets coaches have noticed the change in attitude. Van Gundy says Yao has added the proper amount of stubbornness, and Thibodeau says, "His self-assurance now is as high as it's ever been." Yao agrees that he feels more confident, but despite 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 I getting better, better, then -- boom -- next level. And then new, stronger player coming. And I feel, Where is the end?" He pauses. "If you relax or take it easy for yourself, they will beat you, someday. Maybe tomorrow, maybe day after tomorrow."
Told this is a fatalistic viewpoint for a five-time All-Star, he smiles: "That is what 1.3 billion people watching you will do."
Nearly an hour after the end of the Pacers game, almost midnight, Yao arrives at his locker to meet the media. Immediately after every game, while his teammates shower, he heads to the weight room with Falsone to lift for 40 minutes. Despite the late hour and early deadlines, 17 journalists remain around his locker. Nine are from Chinese outlets, including Wang (Rock) Meng, a Shanghai writer who has covered Yao since his first NBA game. Wang files 6,000 words on Yao three times a week for Titan Media. At first, much of the material was about Yao's life off the court. Now, Wang estimates, only 10% is about Yao's life, and the rest covers Yao's play and the Rockets. "There are now lots of Yao haters in China," says Wang, who nonetheless estimates that 70% of Chinese fans support Yao. "In my opinion, it is because they do not like centers because they are sort of slow and cannot do the fantasy moves that Kobe or McGrady do."
Once the questions begin, Yao, as is his custom, does not dwell on the positives. In spite of the 32 points he scored, he is concerned with his decision-making.
Did he feel comfortable on offense?
"A lot of turnovers," Yao says. "Six. A very high number. I'm sure right now Coach Thibodeau is putting those turnovers on a tape, and I'll watch for one hour tomorrow."
The reporters laugh because Yao is joking, but not really. As Yao is speaking, Thibodeau is going 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 mistakes and determine what adjustments he should make. Then he will practice those adjustments, over and over, until they become part of him, until he has evolved further. This, Yao Ming hopes, is how he will overcome history, his own oversized limbs and the expectations of an entire country. This is how the experiment continues.
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