Yao talks about life before NBA in excerpt from his new book
'A Life in Two Worlds'
At just 24 years old, Yao Ming is already one of the most popular and respected players in the NBA. But Yao's road to professional basketball wasn't clear-cut until just a few years before he joined the league. In this excerpt from his new book, "Yao: A Life in Two Worlds" (written by Yao Ming with Ric Bucher), Yao recounts the winding and often humorous road he took from China to the NBA. Here's how Yao and others remember his journey to sports stardom.
I left China for the first time in 1997 to go to the Nike camp in Paris. That’s where I met my first NBA star, Tim Hardaway, who was one of the camp counselors. He looked like the rest of us—two hands, two legs, one head—but he was quicker than anybody I’d ever seen, especially the way he dribbled the ball. His footwork, his hands—all quick. He would challenge everyone to play one-on-one until he was too tired to move. I don’t remember who the best player in camp was because I didn’t know what good basketball was then. There were eighty-five players at the camp, and I wore number 85. I wasn’t worried about how good Hardaway was because at that time I was just thinking I’d play in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA). I didn’t think I’d see anyone like Hardaway again.
YAO ZHI YUAN (Yao Ming's father): The trip to Paris made a big impression on Yao Ming. He was there for only six days, but he learned a lot—not just about basketball, but maybe about himself and his place in the world of basketball. He found out there are a lot of great players outside of China and how good a player could be. He knew for the first time where he stood among the best young players in the world. He thought, “I’m not that good, but I’m not that bad.” When he went to Paris, he learned what was possible. There was no way to really know that until he left China. Then when he went to the U.S., it was more about learning how to improve his game and reach the level he’d seen in Paris.
|Yao at a recent book signing at the NBA Store in New York.
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The winter after I went to Paris, I broke my left foot. This was near the end of my last season with the Shanghai Sharks’ junior team. I jumped for a rebound and landed on somebody else’s foot. I sprained my ankle on that play, too. I think if I hadn’t gotten hurt, they would’ve brought me up to the Sharks before the season ended.
Instead, I finally joined the Sharks the next season, didn’t get hurt, and averaged 10 points and 8.3 rebounds. I didn’t win Rookie of the Year, just like in the NBA—but the CBA didn’t have a Rookie of the Year award at that time. Now they do. They also have moved the CBA All-Star Game from after the season to the middle of the season, just like in the NBA. The two leagues are looking more and more alike.
The next year, I broke the same foot again, this time in a pre-season game in December. Someone stepped on my left foot just before I tried to move. I didn’t play until the end of the season, the last twelve games. When Houston first saw X-rays of my feet, they saw that my left foot had been broken a couple of times and were worried I might have serious problems and not be able to play. They had their team doctor fly to Beijing and check me out.
The doctor said I was OK, but I can tell you I haven’t jumped the same since the second break. Not that I could jump high before then. The first time I tried to dunk, I was thirteen years old and about 6-2. I didn’t miss by a little, I missed by a lot. Dunking wasn’t that important in China, so I didn’t worry about it. A couple of years later I tried again and still couldn’t do it. Then one day when I was fifteen, about six months after I’d last tried, I was walking across the court to put a ball away after a junior Sharks practice and decided to try. I surprised myself. I did it. I was about 6-8 then. The Chinese always say, “You don’t want to think about it, you just do it. That’s how you become strong.” But when I tried again the next day, I missed.
It was after that season, playing for the junior national team, that I dunked in a game for the first time. I had fallen down near our basket, and the other team went on a fast break but missed the layup. Someone threw me the ball, and I was all alone. I remember I jumped really, really high. My head was at the rim.
The next time I dunked was playing for the Sharks in my second game as a rookie. We were down by 10 with a minute left and won! I scored 7 points, including a dunk while being fouled. A guard drove and passed the ball to me, and I made it even though someone bumped me.
I know I can’t jump very well, but I feel lost at the start of a game when I don’t jump for the tipoff. I’m almost always the tallest player on the court, so it feels strange to watch someone smaller jump center. I’ve had time to get used to it; even before I joined the Rockets, there were times I didn’t jump center. When both Wang Zhi Zhi and I were on the national team, he would jump for tipoffs because he can jump much quicker and higher than I can. He even won the CBA dunk contest during his last year playing in China. In my rookie year with the Rockets, our power forward, Eddie Griffin, jumped center, except for the first time I played Shaquille O’Neal. Eddie started to line up to jump when Stevie pushed me in the middle and told me to do it. That meant a lot. It showed he had confidence in me. It was almost like a movie the way he did it, waiting until the last second and then pushing me in there. Very dramatic.
I first thought I might be good enough to play in the NBA when I was eighteen years old and came back to China after two months of playing in the U.S. I never expected to play as well as I did. As a junior player, I had played against players in China who were two and three years older, and when I joined the Sharks senior team at seventeen, the players were as much as five and six years older than me. I struggled because they were so much stronger and had been playing much longer. In the U.S., I finally played against players around my age, and it made a big difference.
The trip started in Indianapolis with a Nike camp. Then (Chinese national team and Shanghai Sharks teammate) Liu Wei and I went to Dallas to join an AAU team called High Five. That team traveled all over the country playing in tournaments. That was when you could take players from anywhere and put them on one team. Now it’s different, I guess: you have to live within 100 miles of your team’s home city. Dallas is where I first met Teyo Johnson, who is now a tight end for the Oakland Raiders. Teyo and I have been friends ever since.
Yao earned respect from Tyson Chandler during amateur basketball camps.
(Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images)
TEYO JOHNSON (tight end for the Oakland Raiders): I flew on a red-eye into Dallas. When I got to the hotel and gave my name, the girl at the front desk said, “Oh, you’re with the big Chinese dude.” I thought, “What, I’ve joined a team of foreign-exchange students?” I went up to the room and knocked, but when no one answered, I stuck my key in the slot. Just then Yao Ming answered the door. In his underwear. Tighty-whities. And all I could see was up to his chin in the doorway. He and Liu Wei were sacked out. He let me in and went back to bed. They had a cot set up for me. I called my mom right away and whispered, “There’s this 7-6 dude in my room, and he’s Chinese!” She said, “Yeah, the Mongolians and Huns can be really big.” I didn’t know what to think until we went to practice the next day. That’s where I found out—this dude could play.
I played everywhere in those two months. After Dallas we went to Stetson University in Florida; AAU summer leagues or tournaments in Orlando, San Diego, Phoenix, and Augusta, Georgia; and Michael Jordan’s camp in Santa Barbara. We didn’t know where we were or where we were going most of the time. At Stetson I worked out every day with Lee Scruggs, the center who played at Georgetown. He’s playing now in the NBDL, the NBA’s minor league. The coach working with us was Tates Locke. He had just become a scout for the Blazers, after many years as a college coach.
I played with High Five for the last time in San Diego. We stayed in dormitories at United States International University. The High Five camp was in a big building right next to the campus. On the other side of the highway there was a military base with fighter jets; we could see them landing and taking off every morning as we walked from the university to the High Five gym.
I played against Tyson Chandler for the first time in San Diego. He was only fifteen years old, and people were already saying he could play in the NBA. He dunked on me and he played very well, but I played good defense, and I had a good jumper already then. I was three years older, but after that I thought, “Some day I could be good enough to play in the NBA, too.”
TEYO JOHNSON: We lost that game by one point. I thought Yao destroyed Tyson. He threw one of his shots back to half-court near the end of that game. Yao was hitting his jumper, too. Even then he could shoot and I could tell how athletic he was. I knew he’d get tougher and that’s all he really needed.
TYSON CHANDLER (forward and center for the Chicago Bulls): The first time I saw him, I thought, “That’s an amazing man.” I was always the biggest guy around, but he towered over me—a big dude with a soft touch who could pass the ball. I hadn’t played with any foreigners at that time. Being on the court with this huge man, someone who didn’t know English and came all the way from China, was just a crazy experience for me, so it had to be a crazy experience for him.
The whole game he was just knocking down his jump shot, showing no emotion. Then I came down, dunked on him, and screamed at him. Awww, man, I didn’t know what he was saying, but the next time down he clapped his hands, called for the ball, backed everybody down, and threw it down. Nobody could do anything about it.
The other thing I learned in those two months was that you had to shoot as much as you could. “Look for your own shot”—I learned that fast. I had no choice. Nobody passed the ball. It wasn’t a very good team. We had good players, but we didn’t play together. The one really nice guy on that team was Teyo. They say he’s 6-6 and 260 pounds now, and I think he was close to that already then. Our rooms at the university were right next to the pool, so we spent a lot of time goofing around in the water. I really liked that because in China, once they knew I could be a good basketball player, they didn’t want me to swim. They thought it was too dangerous. They would’ve been really worried if they had seen Teyo body-slamming me in the pool.
TEYO JOHNSON: I played point forward on that team, and I’d get ten assists a game, eight of them throwing the ball to Yao. What he liked most, though, was just hanging out, because it was the one time in his life he was allowed to be just another teenager.
We couldn’t communicate, but we connected. We’ve been boys ever since. I didn’t see him again for years, but I’d call him every six months or so and set up a three-way conference call with a translator. He called me from China the day I was drafted by the Raiders to congratulate me, and when I saw him at his second All-Star Game, he gave me his jersey. The way I see it, we’re friends for life.
After San Diego, I went to Jordan’s camp and worked as a counselor, but we played every night. In the trophy case in my home in Shanghai, I have two pictures of me with Jordan. One is the picture he took with everybody who worked or played at the camp. The other is of me walking off the court and Jordan patting me on the back. I’m smiling, but I look very skinny. One reason is that I had only $200 for the whole two-month trip. Liu Wei took something like $150 with him. The first two weeks, we didn’t need to pay for anything; Li Yaomin, the Sharks GM, took care of us. But after the Nike Camp in Indianapolis, he went back to China and took all his money with him. We were two young Chinese kids without any money, playing in places like Augusta, Georgia, and Orlando.
So for two weeks, Liu Wei and I ate nothing but 99-cent double cheeseburgers and the free breakfast they had in our motel lobby every morning. We made sure to get there very early.
When another coach from China came over to check on us, he said, “You look skinny.”
Liu Wei and Yao lived off of cheeseburgers and hotel breakfasts during their stay in the U.S.
(Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images)
“Of course,” I said.
LIU WEI: Actually, Yao Ming ate two cheeseburgers every day while I had one. Since I was injured and couldn’t play, we decided he needed more food than I did.
I guess Li Yaomin didn’t know that in America a player has to pay for his own food. Maybe he thought it was like in China, where there’s always a free buffet for the players at every hotel or the team pays for everything. I’m hoping that’s what he thought. The High Five coach, Rle Nichols, lent us each $100 after we used up our own money. Rle is 5-6 and I couldn’t speak English then, so we called him “Little Coach” in Chinese. I don’t know where he is now, but I still owe him $100.
After Jordan’s camp in Santa Barbara, Nike took me to Portland to relax. They let Liu Wei come with me. We went to a batting cage and I tried to hit a baseball. Out of ten swings, I hit the ball maybe once. Maybe. They also took us to Jet Ski on the Willamette River. I liked it, but that was pretty scary—maybe the scariest thing I’ve ever done.
TEYO JOHNSON: He had me flown up to Portland, too, to hang out with him. Nike was going after him hard then already. He showed no fear Jet Skiing that I could see. When I was riding on the back he’d gun it, take a sharp turn, and fling me off the back. He got a kick out of doing that.
LIU WEI: When we went to the batting cage, he took more than ten swings and didn’t come close to hitting the ball, not even once. The best part of the Jet Skiing was when Yao Ming fell off and couldn’t climb back on. He finally had to grab the back of my machine, and I towed him back to the dock.
When we finally flew back to Shanghai, there was a lot of media waiting at the gate. I’d been away two months, and I hadn’t had a haircut the whole time. My hair was so long, I thought I looked like Dr. J or Ben Wallace. And even though we ate better in San Diego and Portland, I was still really skinny. Big hair, skinny body. When I saw myself on TV, I thought, “That’s me?”