The Great Wall of Yao

Revisiting incredible stories from Yao Ming’s biography

Yao Ming | Ball and One

Whenever I talk to someone about basketball, one question I always get asked is “You’re from New York right, so why are you a fan of the Houston Rockets?” Well, two words. Yao Ming. 

Yao inspired me to start following basketball roughly 14 years ago, and even though he retired in 2011, I will always be a Rockets fan first and Knicks fan second. Yao has written two books – a biography in 2004 on his rookie season, and “A Journey in Africa (Chinese Edition)” in 2014 advocating wildlife animal protection.

After reading Yao Ming’s Players Tribune article, I re-read his 2004 biography, YAO: A Life in Two Worlds, last week and found a lot of interesting stories, ideas and quotes that I think readers will really appreciate.

Before he joined the Rockets

Yao Ming | Ball and One
“Many people believe that if I fail, it says something about all of China… sometimes I feel as if I’m carrying those millions of Chinese with me, that my failure will be their failure.” – Yao
“I got sick when I was seven years old… As a side effect of the medicine, I went deaf in my left ear. I didn’t know I’d lost my hearing until one day the phone rang. My dad picked it up. It was my mom, and he gave me the phone to talk to her. I put the receiver to my left ear, and then asked my dad why mom wasn’t talking… I wouldn’t say it’s a problem today. The only problem is that when I sit with someone to talk, I ask them to sit on my right side.” – Yao
“I can still remember that when I was a kid, America was not considered a good place to go… I was told that America was a bad place and Americans were bad people, especially because of the Korean War… There was a lot of bad stuff about Americans in our school textbooks too, but by the time I was a teenager, there was less and less. That’s also when they started broadcasting NBA games in China. You could see Americans in the stands, and they didn’t look or act like we had been taught. We had been told they were all poor and didn’t have enough food to eat or clothes to wear. They were happy and smiling. You could just feel they weren’t as bad as we were told. That’s when I began to see that people can be different, but that doesn’t mean one way is right and the other is wrong.” – Yao
Lebron James
“The smartest thing I’ve ever done is never waver about taking Yao Ming with the number-one pick. When we won the lottery and received the number-one pick and people started calling, asking if we’d trade it or take so-and-so, I said “No, we’re going to draft Yao Ming.”… If we’d been wish-washy, I do believe he would’ve sat in China another year. Cleveland probably would’ve had the choice of taking either Yao or Lebron James in the 2003 lottery.” – Carroll Dawson, former Rockets GM
“Before Wang Zhi Zhi and me, China’s top athletes were in sports that are special to China – diving, gymnastics, badminton, table tennis. We’ve always been good at those sports. Not basketball. It’s a Western sport, and we’ve never been good at it. So it means much more to China to have a star in basketball, because it says that in at least one way we can compete with the West. That’s something China has not believed in a long time.” – Yao

On other NBA players

Bill Walton
“I met Bill Walton for the first time as I left the hotel for the workout. Walton was wearing a very funny T-shirt -all green and red and yellow – and he had on a tie but his shirt had no collar. He gave me one of those T-shirts. I thought, “What is he doing?” We just talked for a minute or two. He’s always been nice to me and helped me, but from that day I’ve thought of him as a crazy, crazy guy. That was my first impression, and it hasn’t changed.” – Yao
Quentin Richardson
“Clippers guard Quentin Richardson had come to the tryout. Although I didn’t know it at the time of our dinner, he said some not-so-flattering things about Yao to reporters afterward. He said he wasn’t that impressed and that if Yao were on his team, they’d probably just take turns dunking on his head for the first few practices.” – John Huizinga, Yao’s advisor
Steve Francis
“Now I know that he doesn’t hit the clubs or hang out, but nobody on the team sweats that. Everyone understands that’s just his culture… He doesn’t need it. Nine times out of ten, bad things happen, anyway. And man, being devoted to one girl, that’s straight. The only thing that’s different about it is, once he starts talking about her, he gets all googly-eyed and his cheeks get all red. Other than that, there’s nothing wrong with having only one girlfriend, I don’t think. A lot of younger guys would do well to be the same way. Me? I’m an old guy; it doesn’t apply.” – Steve Francis
Arvydas Sabonis
“I wanted to play [Arvydas] Sabonis more than anybody. More than Michael Jordan or Hakeem… It’s just that Sabonis was a great player, he was from another country, he was big like me, and he showed everybody the art of basketball…. When I was 20 years old in China and just starting to think about the NBA, I used “Sabonis” as my online screen name.” – Yao
“Most people love Charles, and a few don’t like him. But nobody really hates him. He’s too funny and not serious enough to hate. I don’t know how much of what he says is what he really thinks and how much is just to be noticed, but I think it’s probably around 50-50… If I could invite any three people in the world to dinner, Charles still would be one of them. Sabonis would be another. My girlfriend would be third. (But if she asks, say I mentioned her first)” – Yao
“Phil Jackson makes me think of an army strategist from ancient China named Sima Yi… It’s almost as though he outwaits everyone and then comes out on top. He doesn’t attack; he waits for you to go first and then counterattacks.” – Yao
“There is nobody like Shaq. The only way for me to score was to run fast and beat him to the other end of the floor and go to the basket before he could get ready. But trying to keep him from the basket is very hard work. Just trying not to fall over when Shaq leans on you can make you tired. I could only fight him and then run hard to the other end for so long. When I had to choose between trying to score and trying to stop him, I chose trying to stop him.” – Yao
ben wallace
“Everything about [Ben Wallace] scared me – his face, his body, his hair, his shot-blocking, everything…. He was so scary, he made me forget how to play basketball.” – Yao

On NBA life

ye l ballandone
“If you’re a young guy in the NBA, you usually have a fast car, and lots of girls want to meet you. It doesn’t matter what you look like. For some players in China, it’s like that, too – but not for me, in China or in the U.S. I didn’t have a fast car as a rookie, and only one girl tried to talk to me. I was in Seattle, in the hotel lobby. I don’t think she was a fan of mine. She wanted to convert me to Christianity. She was pretty cute. I wanted to be nice, so I couldn’t say no. I didn’t talk to her because she was cute – but she was cute” – Yao
all star
“I met a lot of famous people [during all star weekend] but the best part of the weekend, for me, was being in my room by myself watching TV and playing video games and being very quiet.” – Yao
yao famous
“Because of my height, I’ve always stood out, especially in China, where there aren’t as many tall people. But I’ve always wanted to fit in, to be just another kid, or just another teenager, or just another person on the street going to a movie or shopping or playing video games. Before people came to know me as a basketball player, I still had that most of the time. I always wanted to be famous, but I saw only the things being famous gives you; I never thought about what it takes away.” – Yao

Quotes and thoughts

Yao Ming philosophy
“This is my philosophy about everything: the most important thing is to live your life the way you want it. I don’t believe in a certain way of thinking for everybody. As long as you’re comfortable with the way you live and don’t feel that something has been taken from you, your life should be OK.” – Yao
“Many Chinese people are afraid to change rules and ideas that have been passed down for thousands of years, or even decades. I think this is why: If a law or thought comes from the ancestors and doesn’t work, then it’s their fault. But if you change it and it fails, it’s your fault. This goes back to the fear of failure. It’s as if some Chinese believe not being at fault is more important than finding a way that works. Nothing works all the time. No one gets it right the first time, every time. Sometimes you must fail. Sometimes you must make changes. This is life.” – Yao
“I also think you have to understand what you need to take seriously and what you shouldn’t. I’m very careful about what I say now. But sometimes you can be too concerned about people looking down on you or saying something about you. You create a problem that is not there…. If you only look for mistakes, you are always going to find them.” – Yao
“Making as much money as I do in the NBA makes me think I can do a lot of things to help other people, and we can’t always wait for something like SARS before we act. Even the idea of helping build a hospital is attacking a problem after it already exists. Giving money to research is one way to get ahead of problems; donations to education or building schools is another. People’s minds are the first place you can help… More than anything, I want to do that for China. I’d like to see all the money I am making by being in the NBA – both for myself and the league – go back home. China is a big country with a lot of resources, but I think my help is needed there more than in the U.S.” – Yao

On differences in China vs US

“I know what “n-word” means, and I know it’s a bad word. There is a word in Chinese that sounds a lot like it, but it doesn’t mean the same thing at all. It really sounds like “NAY-guh” and it means “that” in Mandarin… Everybody would stop anytime they heard Colin (translator) or me use that word, especially if we said it more than once. They couldn’t understand anything else we were saying, but they thought they understood this one word.” – Yao
“Race and the color of people’s skin is a much bigger thing to worry about in the U.S. than it is in China. Maybe one reason is that we Chinese are mostly of the same race and we don’t think about it. We know there are lots of people in the world who look different and have different skin colors, and we’ve even made war with some of them. But if you’re smart, you know there are good and bad people of every type of skin and from every country. I’m not going to like you or hate you just because you look like me or don’t look like me. Sometimes those most like you can hurt you the most.” – Yao
yao china
“Individual talent is the start of everything in the NBA; that’s different from China, where everything starts with teamwork. I can’t say one style is better than the other, or that I like more than the other; they’re just different, and I like that I get to play them both. I do think that if you can build team chemistry and cooperation around individual talent, it’s a very strong combination” – Yao
yao ming media
“The media in China and the U.S. are different. In the NBA, after a game the media will ask me a specific question, like, “In tonight’s game, why didn’t your team get more rebounds?” It will have to do with a problem. In China they will ask, “How do you feel about tonight’s game?” They give you a big question and let you say what the problem was. Chinese reporters also never stop reporting. In the NBA, after the game we stay in the locker room, and sports reporters ask questions, and that’s where it ends. In China, they will follow you home or back to the hotel.” – Yao
yao ming scream
“Like every young Chinese player, I was taught not to use trash talk on the court, not to get mad, not to do anything except play basketball. In China, we don’t really understand what trash talk is. We’re not even supposed to curse. Now I think that’s impossible for me. I really like talking on the court.” – Yao
“I know a lot of fans think NBA players make too much money, but I don’t think the game would be better if they had to win to get paid. It’s one thing to do that in China, where we grow up with the idea that we are all equal and must work together, but in the U.S. it would be very bad for team chemistry. Players would play harder, of course, but the game wouldn’t be better. Players would be very careful. Turnovers would be down, but there would be a lot of pressure. Every miss would make a player afraid to shoot again. No one wants to watch a game like that.” – Yao
“We play a lot of pick and roll, but that’s a little bit different, too. In China, pick and roll is to get the ball to the center going to the basket. The guard almost never shoots, especially not long jump shots. In the U.S., the guard first tries to use the center as a pick to lose his man and drive to the basket to score. The second option is for the point guard to use the center to get open and shoot a jump shot. The third option is to have the center set another pick and try again. Maybe the fourth option is to pass the ball to the center going to the basket, but only if he’s wide open. You’re almost never wide open near the basket in the NBA.” – Yao

Yao Ming’s goals and dreams

Yao Dream Ballandone
“My dream is to be an adventure traveler someday, too. I would visit different countries, see different kinds of people. I wouldn’t do it as a job, but just to go and do it. I’ve already been on a show in America, National Geographic Ultimate Explorer, where they pay people to do that, but I was the subject for a story, not the traveler. TV host Lisa Ling came to China to show how the country is changing and to talk to me about that on the show. If I could make money adventure traveling, that would be nice, but more than anything I just want to see the world.” – Yao

*Yao Ming now travels around to world fighting to protect endangered animals.

yao ming car
“My dream is to one day sell cars in Shanghai. That way I could have many different cars and learn about each one. I look at cars as big toys but also interesting tools…. If I do become a car dealer, I will have to tell my customers the cars are secondhand, because I will drive all of them first.” – Yao
yao ming sharks
“I don’t dream about owning a basketball team. Owning a team is not just business and not just sports. There’s too much politics, too much of a dark side, and I don’t really like any of that” – Yao (who ironically bought the Shanghai Sharks in 2009)
zhou qi
“My dream is for athletes in China to be treated as individuals. Sports should always be played for the good of the country; I’m not against that. But a player also should be allowed to benefit from it himself. He should be allowed to make decisions about where he will play and what he thinks will make him a better player.” – Yao
yao ming flag
“My dream is to carry the Chinese flat at the Olympics, either in 2004 or in 2008 in Beijing. You know who carried the flag for China at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney? Wang Zhi Zhi. My dream is that Wang Zhi Zhi will return to the national team and help us win a gold medal in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. This may be my biggest dream of all.” – Yao
yao mcgrady
“My dream is to win an NBA championship. That dream may be just as big as a gold medal in 2008. I don’t know which one is closer. If I play ten or more years in the NBA, that would be a successful career. Lots of players have done that, but it would mean more because I’m a Chinese professional player. Maybe if I win a championship or I am an MVP, NBA teams will feel more comfortable singing or drafting Chinese players. I have seen some young guys in China who I think are good enough. They play tough and are aggressive; they just need coaching and competition” – Yao

Closing thoughts

“If you were going to have an ambassador for your country in a sport, you couldn’t find a better one than Yao Ming” – Jeff Van Gundy

Yao Ming
YAO: A Life in Two Worlds

After finishing the book, the first thing that struck me about Yao Ming is how incredibly mature and aware he was at just 24 years old. He knew that his every move would be watched by millions of people, that whatever he did would have huge implications for the future of Chinese basketball, and that many Americans were getting their first taste and understanding of China through him. Yet despite the unimaginable pressure he was under, Yao made sure never to take himself too seriously. His book is filled with gratitude, humor and sincere appreciation for “the ordinariness of life.”

I could not recommend this book more, regardless of whether or not you are a basketball or Rockets fan. 10/10, would will read again.

Author: Jasper Wu

Jasper is a consultant in New York City and founder of and Wu Advisory. He graduated from Cornell University.

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