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Wednesday July 20, 2011 0:17 AM

A Truly Tall Tale


Reflections on the very real legend of Yao Ming

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com

HOUSTON - Yao Ming once offered to help me learn Chinese.

You know, because he didn’t quite have enough on his plate at the time, what with being one of the most recognizable figures in the world, a national treasure, an aspiring humanitarian and, oh yeah, the best center in basketball. Some nondescript writer is suddenly smitten with a passing fancy to pick up Mandarin and could use a little help along the way? Sure, why not? Let me check my schedule: I’m dunking on someone’s head tonight, but maybe I can offer assistance in between carrying my country’s flag at the Olympics and funding aid for earthquake victims. Sure, Yao, that would be great.

I mention this not as a point of personal pride, but rather an expression of pure incredulity about the essence of Yao Ming. How on earth did he do it? How did this living, breathing, real life Paul Bunyan shoulder the weight of everything – expectations and obligations that made even his 7-6 frame look small in comparison – while maintaining such patience, poise, humility, and a mind-boggling willingness to always attempt to do even more?

The man is simply special. Fans, media, Charles Barkley – we all learned the truth eventually. This was a one of a kind person and athlete from a foreign land, capable of playing like an MVP candidate one minute and subtly slaying the media mob gathered around him the next. Yao’s sense of humor is so sharp, in fact, I find myself wondering what those of us who covered him on a daily basis will miss more now that he’s announced his intention to retire: watching him efficiently carve up opposing defenses; or talking to him about it after the game? Such was his gift; yet another talent that also doubled as a burden because it so frequently meant interminably long media sessions with both the English and Chinese-speaking press corps. For Yao, however, it was just one more duty to be carried out with patience and aplomb.

Hall of Famer? An awful lot of very smart, rational-thinking basketball people say yes. Eight-time All-Star. Five times All-NBA. Career averages of 19 points and 9 rebounds per game. Playoff perfection in Game 1 against Portland. Throw in Yao’s role as one of the greatest global ambassadors the game has ever seen, and it should become quite clear why his place in Springfield seems both certain and deserved.

That, however, is a question for another time. And quite frankly it’s probably irrelevant anyway. Because the truth of the matter is that, regardless of whether or not Yao is Hall of Fame bound, his legacy is already etched in stone. No one who watched him play or covered his career will ever forget Yao Ming. How could you? He is, after all, the very embodiment of the American dream; a man from half a world away, arriving in this country to be tested against the very best, daring to dream, daring to fight, eventually rising to the top himself while overcoming a whole host of obstacles along the way. Leave it to Yao to represent his country in the most dignified way possible while simultaneously reminding us about the best of our own. That sort of sums him up, though, doesn’t it? A hardworking, humble and honorable man who somehow managed to stay down to earth despite rising so high above it.

I never did take Yao up on his offer of occasional language lessons. Truth be told, I was probably too lazy to assume such a massive undertaking, and I was without question far more interested in picking his brain about basketball and other assorted trivialities like his Transformers obsession (I’ll never forget the smile on his face when he regaled me with the tale of the time he bartered his way to a bargain basement price for a 3-foot tall Optimus Prime figurine).

There was something else that held me back, however; something I’m not particularly proud to admit: I took Yao for granted. I just always assumed he’d be there. Never once back then did I pause to contemplate the possibility that his days – as they are for every athlete, however great they may be – in a Rockets uniform would be numbered. Surely I’m not unique in that regard; stopping to consider our own and others’ mortality just isn’t something that’s frequently done. Humans are rather funny and flawed that way; we understand change is constant and acknowledge the fact we should always expect the unexpected, yet carry on with our lives in a manner that tends to suggest tomorrow will be no different than today. Perhaps that’s not a flaw at all. Maybe it’s just called survival.

Either way, there I stood several years ago, in a corner of Philadelphia’s visiting locker room, next to this giant of a man. Yao was seated, hands behind his head, relaxed and at ease as he patiently fielded pre-game questions in two different languages for what must have seemed like the 18,234th time. I casually mentioned how I’d been contemplating Mandarin lessons during the offseason as a means of improving my ability to communicate with both him and the Chinese media. At that moment Yao leaned forward, excitement flashed across his face and he said he’d be happy to help me however he could.

Understand that Yao’s excitement had nothing to do with a desire to get to know me better or to strengthen our bond. I was just another reporter and though we always got along, we never got to know each other well enough to become what I would call friends. What piqued his interest, I believe, was a recognition of my supposed willingness to go the extra mile. That was something he could relate to and appreciate. That was something he could encourage and applaud. Because Yao Ming was always willing to do more, whether that meant returning from injury in the fourth quarter to help lead the Rockets to a stunning Game 1 victory over the Lakers, or reaching out to assist the community at home and abroad. He never hesitated to accept added responsibility or to go further in all areas of his life. The burden never seemed too big for him.

Funny, that word “big.” It’s been attached to Yao since birth. Everything about the man is massive. Yet his life, like all others’, is lived in little increments, laid layer upon layer, until the passing of time allows us to determine whether we’ve constructed mountains or molehills. It’s already clear to see the enormity of what Yao is building. But it’s one of those layers – perhaps the most diminutive, inconsequential one, in fact – that’s stuck in my mind today: a simple gesture; so utterly trivial in scope; so small. Yet so overwhelmingly big.

Thank you for everything, Yao Ming. Or better yet: xièxiè.

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