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One day in Shanghai in 1956, a basketball coach named Tian Fuhai spotted a 6ft 8in man drumming in a Communist street parade, writes Simon Kuper. Initially Tian assumed the man was standing on a soapbox. Realising his mistake, he tapped him on the back: “Excuse me, comrade, how old are you?”
“I’m 33,” said the factory worker Yao Xueming, turning round. Sadly for Tian, he was too old to be taught basketball. “Do you have children?” asked Tian. “Four,” answered Yao. “Any of them as tall as you?” “Well, not yet. My eldest son is only six.”
Yao Xueming’s grandson, the 7ft 6in Yao Ming, is today a star of the US’s National Basketball Association, and probably the best known Chinese person alive. Though born only in 1980, Yao is best understood as the product of a 50-year joint venture between two of the most awesome forces in history: the Chinese Communist party and American capitalism. It’s a story magnificently told in Brook Larmer’s new book, Operation Yao Ming.
Yao Xueming’s son, Yao Ming’s father, was 6ft 10in tall. The boy’s mother, Da Fang, was 6ft 2in. They had vaguely known each other during their careers in basketball, a game neither liked but both had to play for the glory of China. Later the state encouraged them to form possibly the country’s tallest couple, and to breed a basketball star. A moderated form of this sporting eugenics survives in China today.
Yao was 23 inches at birth, nearly twice the size of the average Chinese newborn. As an infant, he almost ate his parents out of their apartment. The family were poor even by the standards of Shanghai in the 1980s.
The boy liked basketball as little as his parents had. Nonetheless, the state – which had created him – sent him to sports school. Big as Yao already was, the school made him bigger. He was assigned afternoon naps on his custom-made bed, fed all manner of supplements and told to “drink milk as if it were water”.
Yao Ming was on track for gianthood. The only problem was that he wasn’t much good at basketball. He couldn’t shoot, hated doing the same drills all day every day, and as a teenager needed 17 seconds to run 100 metres. Only when Nike sent him to the US for a summer aged 17 did he learn to slam-dunk. In China, the dunk was frowned upon as flashy.
By then he had become a decent player, who even liked the game. This made his American adoption inevitable. The NBA had been waiting years for a star from the Chinese market. However, Yao’s team, the aptly named Shanghai Sharks, considered him their lifetime property, “womb to tomb”. If Yao was going to the NBA, the Sharks – and other bits of China’s sports-industrial complex – wanted the millions. The negotiations lasted forever. The upshot is that Yao, now with the Houston Rockets, is paying the Sharks between $8m and $15m of his lifetime earnings, with other bucks going to the China Basketball Association.
“Houston, I am come!” announced Yao on becoming the NBA’s first draft pick in 2002. He arrived in a world possibly even weirder than the one he had left. Where his new team-mates owned fleets of cars, he couldn’t drive. Where he spoke little formal English, they spoke little formal English either, but a strange tongue replete with “wassups”, “cribs” and “ho’s”. He lived with his mother, who showed up at training sessions carrying bags of McDonald’s burgers for his lunch. Out of his $18m contract, she gave him a weekly allowance.
When Yao scored zero points in his first NBA game, the commentator Charles Barkley promised a colleague on air: “If Yao Ming can make 19 points in any game this season, I will kiss your ass.” Barkley soon had to do so – a mule named Shorty was found to act as recipient – because Yao improved. Three years on, he is one of the NBA’s better players. As a marketing device, however, he is a superstar. Yao’s deal with Reebok alone is worth up to $100m. It’s the value of being not merely the face of China, but also a good boy in the NBA. “A clean-cut, 1950s-style team player who exuded humility rather than hubris,” marvels Larmer.
Making it in America has made Yao beloved in China. When he actually lived there, he was upstaged by divers and ping-pong players. Now he is a hero in a country whose sole recent excursion into hero-worship was Mao Zedong. Some Rockets games are watched by 30m Chinese. “For a country consumed by the desire to become a great nation, [Yao] seemed to prove that China could compete with the world’s best,” explains Larmer.
All this is but a prelude to the Beijing Olympics, when Yao will be the face of the planet. This is wonderful for everyone except perhaps him. Asked once where he most wanted to go, he replied, “The moon. Nobody is there.”
‘Operation Yao Ming’, Gotham Books $26