Shanghai surprise
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

In the time before Time, near the end of the Shaq/Kobe Dynasty (1999-2004) and long before the King James Dynasty (2010-2014), a youth appeared on the NBA landscape. First, he was merely the Stranger, laughed at, mocked, positioned as a simple droid of a man, a stick, an NBA version of a reverse Manchurian Candidate, a diplomatic attaché who would help the Association expand its market into Asia, and mainland China, itself, with its billion-plus people, and its markets nowhere near maxed out. Bicycle shoes, anyone? Yao Ming wears them. It would go no further than that.

No one knew this was the second coming of Genghis Khan.

Yao Ming
Yao had the physical and mental gifts to teach us about the game.
This was not the Trojan Horse. This was worse. Or better.

This was the Shanghai Surprise. We thought we would teach him. No. He would teach us. And those billion-plus people. They didn't plan to just pay to watch. Not after seeing what he could do against the best. They planned to play, and see ...

(As a related aside, one of my ex-sisters-in-laws is Chinese-American; six feet tall; she lives in the Bay Area; and said wait until you see the size of some people in the more northwesternly provinces of China; there are many potential hardwood warriors there; and out of a billion-plus, properly motivated, somebody will have size be able to play; especially if he spends time watching Genghis conquer the world, and be loved and paid for it.)

Even his name became an entreaty for mercy. Yow! And so the Stranger known as Yao Ming spent 2002 and 2003 mostly winning over his own people, at home and abroad, his own in the locker room of the Houston Rockets. Once that was done -- ball game.

From 2005 through 2010, it was his world.

Yao's, Little Steve Franchise's, and Eddie Griffin's and Cuttino Mobley's, and perhaps most ironically of all, Moochie Norris'.

The wise began battening down and locking up the women and children early ... I remember it so ...

***** ***** *****

"My bleeping God," said Road Dog. I was with him upon first seeing Yao Ming's legs, back when seers like Charles Barkley had scoffed. "Look at them pins, Dub! Ain't no bootin' him off the low block. Once he sets up, he's in there. He's like the Colossal Rose."

"You mean the Colossus of Rhodes, Dog."

"Whatever. Look at them guns! Man that tall usually spavined in the legs. Look at Manute's legs. Pipe cleaners. Knocked-knee-did pipe cleaners. Clown. Boy could hardly stand up straight. Forget running. Same thing with Georghe Muresan. Base like a baby deer's. Even Billy Crystal could take him off the bounce. Not this boy. Look at that lateral slide, Dub! And this man ... his eyes ... he's watching, Dub. He's ... he's measuring us, Dub!"

"I see it. I see it, Dog."

Yao Ming
No one is moving Yao's legs, but Yao.
"Oh ... my ... God." As Dog said it, I thought of Timmy Hardaway. Briefly. Dog was right. Yao was watching, measuring, learning exponentially. Within a month he had the little touching-after-every-free-throw-on-the-fly-after-a-good-play, smiling, pointing-at, trash-being-talked world down. He began to wear a sweatband on his bicep. Like Stevie Franchise. Like Kobe ... "What-ever," Dog had said then. "but nobody that size has legs like Yao Ming. Yao Ming. That's his name now. Game so nice had to say it twice."

Road Dog is hard to fool about basketball. Sometimes his eyes break the code, even though he can't properly voice what it is he is seeing and feeling. You have to translate him, but Dog knows.

It wasn't numbers that revealed the coming future to Dog and also to me. Yes, sure, on November 17, 2002, after being in America and the NBA less than a month, he dropped 30 and 19 on the Lakers Shaq didn't play, the Lakes were death-spiraling (they could awaken from the throes at any time and cause great carnage, and would, but that's another story), but so what? In the NBA, 30 and 19 is what it is. And by a rookie? In country less than a month?

Yet people laughed it off. Charles Barkley kissed an ass and laughed. That was it. People did not realize the great wheel of fate had already begun to turn, and go opposite. Yao begin to ring up double-doubles, not 10 points and 11 rebounds, but high double-doubles, 18 and 15, etc. He did this while shooting, at one point, 90 percent from the field. A machine cannot shoot 90 percent from the field. Half the Association couldn't shoot 90 percent from the field on dunks, if slightly contested. Yao then fell off to 70 percent.

All the signs were there, had anyone but paid attention to them.

Legs: Check. (See above, can run, can brace, flexible; great pair.)

Lateral movement: Check. (This is big, bigger than you think; Yao could guard anybody side to side, and switch, and jump help -- this made him a defensive monster rather like Russell, in a different way; Russell had, in fact, predicted Yao to me. "Somebody will come along, who can run, and move his feet, and time blocked shots, who thinks the game, his own way, and that will be the Guy ..." Russ the Prophet said this 10 years earlier ago.)

Hands: Double-check. (Large, supple, sure, suction-tentacle-like.)

Handle: Check. Unbelievably. (Can two-bounce left or right.)

Passing ability: Check. (Sick passes from new angles only he sees.)

Touch: Check. (Deadly; can "see.")

Vision: Check. (Pre-sees passing and rebound angles, like JKidd.)

All-around Skills: Check. (So that's a full boat. Vertical a question? Who needed it? Even there, Yao hid in the weeds a bit. Early on, he only jumped as high as he needed to. Later, as he power-pogoed, even the best seven-footers were left in bent-kneed helplessness.)

Imagination and creativity: Check. (As far as we could tell, totally off our puny charts, like incomplete survey maps of a pre-Marco Polo world. Immeasurable. Unknowable. Put it this way, that board game, Go, the one in "A Beautiful Mind"? That's a Chinese game.)

***** ***** *****

On Dec. 10, 2002, against the Sacto Kings, Yao turned a simple entry pass into something new, wonderful and, yes, wonderfully ominous. An entry bounce pass was thrown in to Yao, just left and outside the middle of the lane. The defense congealed around him. With a dismissive wave of his right hand, the ball was no longer there. He swiped the ball precisely into the right corner to Steve Franchise, who actually yelped with glee before going base for a reverse. So much was implied in that single pass, so much to read and see, the mental quickness to figure out the needed level and type of effort, the creativity of the effort -- never saw a redirected pass like that, in that situation, the nature of the "pass" made it appear so lightning quick -- and the pure dexterity and hand control of the move. Put that on top of being 7-foot-5 ... Stevie Franchise hunted down Yao as they glided downcourt, to touch his hand.

A couple of months earlier, at a party on the garden escarpment of the Mondrian Hotel, Steve Francis had frowned when I had said to him that he would have to feed the post with Yao there. Of course, Francis didn't know Yao then. "Actually, I doubt it," he sniffed, his trusty sidekick Cuttino Mobley there with him, to Amen.

Yao Ming
Adjustment period? Try three games.
Soon Francis didn't doubt it any more. Yao's presence opens the floor up for him and others, and some of the others had abilities enough at least not to lose an NBA title, if they ever got to play for one. Stevie Franchise, to his credit, saw this quickly, that, by Yao, Ming could can get him there. So soon he was chest-bumping and high-fiving Yao, and accepting Yao's smiling benevolences the way a child accepts his big brother.

This was another tipoff, the way the Rockets were with Yao, around Yao, that they saw, and knew it so quickly. They thought he'd have to adjust to them, or founder. No. They have to adjust to him, in order to win, to stay with him, or else to die, figuratively.

When I saw Glen Rice sitting on the bench next to Yao during games in this period, smiling, yakking it up, putting his hand on Yao's shoulder or punching him in it playfully, whispering in his ear, then shaking his legs with laughter, bumping them into Yao's, saying, "Hunh? Hunh? Good one, huh, Yao? You wit me? You feel me?' with his body language, that was the tell, the sign that said, "Pay attention to Yao Ming, Dub. Look at him. Open your mind and See." And that's when it began to dawn on me. That's when I really knew. Accept him? They were already depending on and feeding off him. We were then not yet three months into his career.

You see, Rice already knew that the rookie -- imagine it; Yao was then only a rookie! -- was not only his peer, but already his superior, who could, at his whim, extend a grizzled veteran's stay in the Association with but a wave of his supple hand. Hey, a goo-tub relic and total waste of time like Dennis Scott got a tryout in the summer of 2002 from the Lakers just because "him and Shaq are boys." Scott made a career out of Orlando just by following Shaq around like a puppy and supplicating and genuflecting before him and being his sycophant. I do not suggest here that Glen Rice, by then a much more accomplished veteran than Dennis Scott ever was, was on such level, in the early time of Yao, but in a sense, his attentiveness made the point of Yao's regal inevitability even more clearly. Rice was a decorated veteran who, with a lesser player, by his imperial conditioning, would not deign to even acknowledge his presence. Yet here Glen Rice was, trying to get and be close to Yao, trying to get Yao, a man who did not yet speak any versions of the American language (although he was learning this, like the NBA Game, at an exponential rate) to laugh at his jokes!

You have to know what to look for. Signs.

***** ***** *****

The fact that on Dec. 18, 2002, against Indiana -- a team that held him to zero points in his NBA debut on October 30, less than two months earlier -- Emperor Yao Ming scored 29 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked six shots, was not any more relevant than the breath-hushing touch pass he flicked to Rice during crunch time, as the offense ran through him. On the left sideline, Rice threw in to Yao, who flashed -- yes, I mean flashed; he can move , this man -- out high, bounding out at a diagonal, at a speed no man his size could match, except Shaq, out toward the sideline, cutting down on any defensive angle. Of course, he had the real Angle -- straight up.

Rice inbounded. Yao, without looking -- he had that Thousand-Yard-Stare down even then, couldn't defense him or his passes or moves depending on where he seems to be looking -- touch-passed it back to Rice, who'd sunk baseline and cut to the hole. The pass hit him perfectly, high; all he had to do was basically redirect the ball into the basket ... I thought of Dog's "My god ..."

Not to mention the Déjà vu Dreamshake, the Yao Yoke that Ming put on Jermaine O'Neal in the same game. O'Neal was then, by acclimation, the young heir to his more famous namesake, Shaq. But Yao don't care what they throw up there. Yao dove down from the left base with a bounce, put it on the floor, pivoted, reverse-pivoted and feinted shot, Dreamshake all over again, only it was now Yao Yoke, yoking O'Neal completely, who was pump-faked up to his toes, then completely off his feet and into the popper.

Yao reversed it in as O'Neal and Brad Miller collided knees, sort of like those two Minnesota Vikings who ran into each other when they thought they had Michael Vick vectored in overtime.

The prodigy in any form seems to obey no prior physical law.

Of course, Yao was tested. On the same play, O'Neal shoved a hard hand in Yao's face, before O'Neal's knee bounced off Miller's and buckled. Meanwhile, Ron Artest cracked Yao across both mug and noggin, knocking him to the floor. Artest's game is fully based on physical play; it gets him the needed space to get his game off, and intimidates the opponent. That's why Isiah wanted him. Isiah was in a small mini-dynasty as a Detroit Bad Boy. He knows this way. And it would come in handy here. As with Jordan, or Shaq, there were few, if any, ways to legally guard Yao even then. So slap him, knock him down, bust him up, be physical. See if he shrinks. When Artest finished with Yao, Yao was on the floor, crumpled, his face covered by one large hand. And then, suddenly, he was up, stoic. More importantly, his mother, at the game, was equally stoic as this happened. What did this tell you? That Yao gets his stoicism honest. It is no act. Physical play will never crack him. Oh, it will be tried again and again. There is nothing else to do. The Rockets later got Yao an imperial bodyguard for that kind of dirty work.

Yao Ming's Asiatic mind also helped him here. That's my guess.

Physical discomfort was not so foreign that it broke him down.

His ignoring of it was, indeed, his way of saying, "Bring it on."

***** ***** *****

Yao Ming
Don't be fooled by the moves that he's got -- he's just Yao from the block.
As well as Yao fit in a hoop sense with the Houston Rockets, and Stevie Francis, Cat Mobley and Eddie Griffin, and perhaps one, maybe two, Rockets of 2002-03, maybe Kelvin Cato, or the other Collins big boy, or Kenny Thomas; it totally boggled the mind, what would've happened if he had played in the shadow of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, with the Golden State Warriors.

It is said there is a Chinese community numbering in the low tens of thousands, some 45,000, in Houston. But the Chinese-American and Asian populations of not only San Francisco, but Oakland, San Jose and points inclusive numbered in the hundred thousands, and they had holding and political clout they did not have in Texas. And this is not to mention the entire California and west coast, Seattle to San Diego, all along the eastern edge of the Pacific Rim.

I heard even early on there were women swooning for him in the Bay Area, that the Chinese symbol for Yao's name was left as graffiti, like the sign of the 12 Monkeys, and not exclusively by young men, but also by young women on playgrounds, buildings concrete abutments and other places around the Bay. Some said he looked like a god. And he was also followed by swarms when he visited the Bay, as the women chattered away in the Chinese or American equivalents of Dog Brooklynese: "Girl, he's foine."

In fact, Yao did, in those days, resemble a combination of Ivan Drago, Dick Tracy and one of those Chinese Olympic medalists on the rings in gymnastics. His was a profile made to inspire. He was certainly all-squared-away and interesting. With the Warriors ... my god. Anarchy.

One Caron Butler expressed anger that the Warriors didn't take him with the third pick in the 2002 draft. But Caron got Miami and a lot of shots out of it. He was short-sighted. Emperor Genghis Yao expressed no disappointment that the heavily Asian and closer to home Bay Area team didn't draft him. Instead, he got Houston, in a Texas culture that, as big and wide as it is, is foreign even to most Americans. Yao began his long conquest there, because to him it didn't matter where he began it. He was remorseless in that way.

Learning, then revising, the culture of basketball was his fate.

Houston got lucky, to host and thus be spared his inevitable rule.

As to the Warriors, they did not see into the future. Again. They specialized in this blindness. Mr. Cohan's club, as usual stocked with a few interesting players who didn't mesh well together, or even with the area, particularly, remained a mom and pop store between Saks and Barney's on Fifth Avenue, all because they did not think to package that No. 3 pick with whatever it would have taken to flip-flop with Houston's top pick in 2002. The Warriors sat on their hands with the future of hoop under their noses, and because they did not understand Yao Ming. They were blinded by the light, or something like that, and they took Mike Dunleavy.

All the signs said there was the coming Ming Dynasty. The signs did not say there would be a coming Mike Dunleavy Dynasty. If Mike was lucky, and he was, he would be a nice complimentary piece, a good pro, maybe one day to even play with King James, himself, and to form a famous last-stand skirmish line, in order to steal an NBA title from, or survive, the Dynasty of Yao Ming.

Some team would slip in there during and between the NBA hoop dynasties over the next ten years. New Jersey or Sacramento in 2003? Orlando or New Orleans in 2005? Charlotte in 2009?

All I can say is, after 2005, it was all Yao, all the time.

Yao Ming
It case you haven't heard -- Yao is here to stay.
After that, having accomplished his mission, having left his mark, having re-mapped the world, Yao left the game, not weeping like Alexander, because there were no more worlds to conquer, but not nearly as he had found it either. China was by then the new Homey of the game. And as it turned out, Homey really didn't play that. Middle-aged Emperor Yao stood against the eastern sky, bigger than the Great Wall, visible from space with the technology we had, and with our skins and scalps hanging off his lance, as four NBA title trophies were photographed by his countrymen wearing Nike bike shoes, as a Pepsi ad was shot in Tienamen Square, where the world's most bicycle-friendly ESPN Zone just opened ...

Then it was time for the Man. The King. LeBron James. To try to make things right. To try to take back the heart of the game ...

You may have heard LeBron James is a prove-it-to-me, wait-and-see player. To that, history and Road Dog says, "Did you see him the other night? Did you see?" People say it won't be the same in the NBA, against hard grown men, won't just be an early bloomer pounding on his age group. What people failed to see is that these same players would one day be his peers, only in the NBA. In 10 years, when LeBron is 28, he'll be playing against his peers again, of which he will have few, if any. If he lives, his time approaches. Shaq's will be gone. Kobe will be in Memphis, trying along with McGrady and the rest to steal one from Yao Ming and Steve-ay.

LeBron is destined to be the Man. One day. But that day can come only after the five-year reign of the perfectly terrific and terrible phenomenon, Emperor Genghis Yao Ming. It's epic, I tell you.

Can this future prevented? Should it be? Well, history is not set ...

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."





YAO-ZA!

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