Yao and Yi are appreciated around the world.
(Bill Baptist/NBAE/Getty Images)
By Josh Cohen





April 11, 2008 -- At a local park in New Jersey, two middle school-aged students enjoy a one-on-one basketball game. They relish the beautiful weather conditions, the brand-new cement court, and the opportunity to emulate their favorite NBA stars.

Five of their friends, who hang out just beyond the out-of-bounds sideline, share conversation and laughter. They patiently wait to play next.

The two on the court, meanwhile, glow with fervor. They each want to impress their buddies. They want the discussion in homeroom tomorrow to be about how they excelled on the court.

It’s exactly how Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian felt on Nov. 9 and Feb. 2 of this season – except with even more pressure and with certainly more spectators.

Unlike the children at the park, Yao and Yi attempted to astound an entire country. Chinese natives flocked to television sets like Americans did for the final episode of The Sopranos last year to watch something just as exhilarating and suspenseful.

In fact, on each occasion when Yao faced off against Yi, an estimated total of nearly 200 million people in China tuned in. The 2008 NFL Super Bowl, by comparison, attracted nearly 98 million viewers in the United States. Each Bucks-Rockets meeting this season, as a result, set NBA broadcast television records.

Although it wasn’t the first time two Chinese natives squared off on the NBA hardwood, it was, by and large, the most anticipated. Yao and Yi are as popular in their country as David Beckham is in England or Ronaldinho in Brazil.

For each game, the first played in Houston, the second in Milwaukee, Chinese nationals celebrated with their families and friends. People partied like it was their first night spent at college – all rejoicing with dignity and pride. Some watched from nearby restaurants, others from the privacy of their own homes.

Yao’s stellar 28-point, 10-rebound performance in the initial meeting stole the show as the Rockets trounced the Bucks. Yi’s effort, nonetheless, in just his fourth game of his young NBA career, was extremely impressive. The 20-year-old, who won three straight Chinese Basketball Association championships with the Guangdong Southern Tigers, recorded 19 points on 7-of-12 shooting from the field and added nine rebounds.

After the game ended, Yao praised his Chinese counterpart and national teammate.

“His talent is unbelievable,'' he said. You ask me how good he can be? I can't say that. But I think he'll be better than me.''

While the first head-to-head matchup lived up to the hype, the second didn’t quite do the same. Plagued by early foul trouble and a tweaked ankle, Yao finished with just 12 points but did manage to tally 12 boards and three blocks. Yi, on the other hand, injured his shoulder early in the game and posted just six points on 1-for-10 shooting. Houston came away with the victory again.

Irrespective of their game performances, Yao and Yi offer a unique constituent to the NBA. Their personalities are alluring to fans across the globe like derivatives are for aspiring mathematicians. They are significant for the growth of the NBA and may ultimately be the motivation behind worldwide expansion.

In 2004, the NBA became the first American professional sports league to stage games in China. Subsequently, fans got the opportunity to watch LeBron James and Dwight Howard during the preseason when they participated in NBA China Games 2007.

NBA Commissioner David Stern addressed during the All-Star break in New Orleans that he hoped eventually the league would expand outside the U.S., specifically citing Europe as a possible destination. You could expect China to be next on the list.

Nevertheless, like the students at the park who entertained their classmates, the two international superstars offered the world a pair of memorable moments during the 2007-08 season. But let's just say, the NBA is definitely 'Where Chinese Super Bowls Happen'.

Yi certainly admires his buddy Yao.
Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images

Respect is earned.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images

Yao and Yi are fierce competitors.
Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty Images