The Center of the World

The NBA understands the power of an icon. When Michael Jordan retired from basketball, the league's ratings began to fall. To bounce back, the NBA expanded overseas and lured foreign talent to the game. And there is no one who is as big an ambassador as Yao Ming. The NBA sees its salvation in the 7-foot, 6-inch Chinese sensation -- and in 1.3 billion hoops fans.

The marketing wizards at the National Basketball Association (NBA) like to talk about China as basketball's "final frontier." But the Middle Kingdom's fascination with hoops began long before an affable 7-foot, 6-inch giant named Yao Ming debuted with the NBA's Houston Rockets in 2002. China may not have invented the game, as some Chinese sports historians claim, pointing to the ancient pastime of shouju, a form of Han dynasty handball. But basketball did, in fact, land in China before it arrived in Houston, and only a few years after an eccentric Canadian named James Naismith invented the game in 1891.

The marketing wizards at the National Basketball Association (NBA) like to talk about China as basketball’s "final frontier." But the Middle Kingdom’s fascination with hoops began long before an affable 7-foot, 6-inch giant named Yao Ming debuted with the NBA’s Houston Rockets in 2002. China may not have invented the game, as some Chinese sports historians claim, pointing to the ancient pastime of shouju, a form of Han dynasty handball. But basketball did, in fact, land in China before it arrived in Houston, and only a few years after an eccentric Canadian named James Naismith invented the game in 1891.

From the beginning, basketball was destined to be a global sport — and China its ultimate conquest — for one serendipitous reason: Doc Naismith created the game at the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) international training center in Springfield, Massachusetts, a place where young missionaries imbibed a vision of "muscular Christianity" before heading off to redeem the world. China was the biggest emerging market for souls to be saved, an empire of 400 million people in the waning years of the Qing dynasty. When YMCA missionaries arrived in the city of Tianjin in the 1890s carrying "The Thirteen Rules of Basketball," along with their Bibles, they believed that salvation would come through God and hoops, though not necessarily in that order.

More than a century later, another wave of Western evangelists has descended on the Middle Kingdom, preaching a glitzier gospel of globalization. Instead of Bibles and "The Thirteen Rules of Basketball," the foreigners who began trickling into China in the 1990s carried different symbols of their faith: the Nike swoosh, the NBA logo, highlight films of a miracle man named Michael Jordan — all played to the hip-hop soundtrack of global youth culture. China, 1.3 billion strong, had finally emerged from decades of isolation and was hurtling into a dizzying economic boom. Hoping to crack the last great untapped market on Earth, the new evangelists peddled a vision of sports as entertainment, a pleasurable commodity that channeled the values of freedom, competition, and individual heroism. The Westerners put their faith in the power of athletic icons — especially basketball stars — to inspire the kind of emotional bond that would drive the Chinese masses to watch, cheer, and fill their homes with loads of really cool imported stuff.

Even as Chinese youth latch onto the emblems of hyper-capitalist Western sports culture, the new generation of Chinese leaders still sees sports not so much as business, recreation, or entertainment, but as a projection of national ambition, a yearning that is particularly powerful as Beijing prepares to host the 2008 Olympic Games. China’s massive socialist sports machine, modeled on the old Soviet system, may seem like an anachronism in the global economy; indeed, only Cuba and North Korea still have such "womb-to-tomb" programs. But the sports factories keep churning out world-class athletes who bring glory to the motherland, and Beijing is loath to stop the assembly line of champions. The system’s successes, after all, serve as tangible evidence that China is once again standing tall in the community of nations.

The meeting of East and West — China and the world — will likely be the defining encounter of the 21st century. And perhaps no individual symbolizes this cosmic convergence more than Yao Ming. The life of the lantern-jawed 25-year-old star has been so thoroughly shaped by the two great forces of our time, China’s explosive rise and the expansion of transnational capitalism, that he can truly be considered the child of globalization. Were it not for China’s ambition to raise its international stature through sports, Yao’s parents (both basketball players, 6 feet, 10 inches and 6 feet, 2 inches, respectively) never would have been forcibly recruited into the Chinese sports system and paired up in retirement to produce the next generation of giants. If Yao had been born anywhere else — say, Chile, Chad, or even Chicago — he would likely not have been pulled out of school and pressed into basketball camps at an early age. And he almost certainly would not have delighted the NBA as much as the Shanghainese center did when, after a protracted East-West tug-of-war over his fate, he was finally allowed to go to the United States in 2002.

When Yao scored his first basket in Houston, it was almost as if, by closing the circle, an electrical current bolted back and forth across the Pacific. Millions of his compatriots, indifferent to his fate before, now celebrate him as a patriotic icon who smashes the stereotype of the weak and diminutive Chinese and shows how China can compete against the best in the world. American fans, initially transfixed by his staggering height, have embraced his throwback personality — the self-effacing humor, team-first attitude, blue-collar game — and sent him to the All-Star Game for three straight years. The world’s biggest multinationals, from Pepsi and Reebok to Visa and McDonald’s, have also leaped at the chance to sign Yao to multimillion-dollar endorsement contracts. The corporate executives love Yao not simply because he is 7 feet, 6 inches, talented, and congenial, a squeaky-clean athlete in a sea of preening and misbehaving superstars. They want him, above all, because he is Chinese.

Competing with the World

It is one of the delicious ironies of history that the fate of China’s tallest athletes rested in the hands of one of history’s shortest rulers. Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader when Yao was born, stood barely 4 feet, 11 inches, though his exact height was guarded like a state secret. Whether driven by his own size or not, Deng was consumed with returning China to its former heights as a global power.

When he assumed power in 1978, the country was still on its knees, barely emerging from the decade-long catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution. The economic renaissance he hoped to spark would take time. Even with high growth rates, it would be decades before China could contend with the West economically, militarily, or diplomatically. The one high-profile arena in which China could rapidly compete as equals with the rest of the world was sports.

For the previous two decades, China had either withdrawn from or been shunned by nearly every world sports federation, including the International Olympic Committee. One organization that switched its allegiance to the Communists in Beijing from the rival Nationalists in Taipei was the International Table Tennis Federation, a quirk of history that compelled China to become a world power in a game that, to American minds, was associated with the linoleum-lined basements of suburbia. With their unusual grips — until recently, they held their paddles like a pair of chopsticks — mainland Chinese have dominated the sport for 45 years, winning more than half of all world championships, including a sweep of the men’s and women’s titles this year.

Still, this was only ping-pong. The game requires agility and lightning-fast reflexes, but it hardly commands fear and respect around the world. Even in the Chinese bureaucracy, the sport was classified almost apologetically as one of the "small balls." The top leaders in Beijing knew that real respect would come only when China could compete with the Western powers in the "big balls" — soccer, volleyball, and basketball — and in the most illustrious of all sporting events, the Olympic Games. Deng’s diplomatic d’marche opened the way. In 1979, the same year Beijing and Washington normalized relations, mainland China elbowed Taiwan aside and rejoined the Olympic movement.

Frantic preparations for China’s debut in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles sent the sports system into overdrive. Using China’s main competitive advantages — a massive pool of youngsters and the state’s power to compel them to train — China’s "Gold-Medal Strategy" expanded the sports system (to more than 3,000 schools training almost 400,000 youth) and targeted sports that offered a high density of Olympic gold (even if some disciplines, such as kayaking, were not a tradition in China). Nothing could have gratified the insecure nation more than the final tally in Los Angeles: 15 gold medals, zero defections, and a cuddly reception from the rest of the world.

China’s march up the Olympic medals table has continued for the past two decades, always one beat ahead of the country’s economic rise. Before every Olympics, China’s sports authorities set ambitious goals for gold medals. The intense pressure, though blamed for a series of doping scandals in the 1990s, has created an athletic juggernaut. By the time the Olympics returned to their birthplace in Athens last year, China was challenging the United States for supremacy atop the medals table, winning 32 gold to the Americans’ 35 — a feat that sparked excited whispers in Beijing that China could certainly surpass the United States on its home soil in 2008. When the 407-member Chinese team marched proudly into Athens’s Olympic stadium, it was no accident that the five-star red flag of the People’s Republic flew higher than any other nation’s. The flag-bearer selected to lead the procession was none other than Yao Ming, who towered over every other athlete.

Deng’s dream of standing tall had literally come true.

Looking for the Final Frontier

Since the earliest Olympic Games in Athens, sport has been celebrated for its ability to reach across the barriers of race, culture, dialect, and nation. But now, fueled by forces of globalization — satellite television, the computer revolution, the demise of communism — the sports business has morphed into a multitrillion-dollar industry that effortlessly spans the planet. The historian Walter LaFeber has observed that, aside from the illegal narcotics trade, sport has become the world’s most globalized and lucrative business.

But that wasn’t how the NBA looked when David Stern became the league’s commissioner in 1984. The league was a wasteland plagued by bankrupt teams and drug scandals, its audience so meager that CBS had, just a few years earlier, broadcast the NBA finals late at night on tape delay. When Stern, the son of a delicatessen owner, suggested that basketball could one day rival soccer as the world’s most popular sport, his critics thought he must’ve been as high as all too many NBA players at the time. The NBA, they said, was too alien, too menacing, too "black" to sell to the mainstream American public, much less to the rest of the world. But Stern envisioned a game that defied the boundaries of race and culture and geography just as easily as its acrobatic players defied the limits of gravity. The emergence of marquee players — first Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, then Michael Jordan — helped lure fans. But the league’s growth into a $3 billion business and worldwide cultural phenomenon began with a man whose dreams were global. "It dawned on me," Stern recalls, "that the combination of the global appeal of our game and the growth of television markets around the world meant that NBA games were going to be seen everywhere."

The final frontier for the NBA, as for so many multinationals, was China. By the time Stern made his first trip to the Middle Kingdom in 1989, the NBA had expanded its reach into Europe, played regular-season games in Japan, and fielded its first player from the soon-to-be-former Soviet Union. But China wasn’t so welcoming. Stern had arrived with what he thought was a surefire deal: free programming for China’s state-run television monopoly that would help the NBA gain a foothold in the world’s biggest market. In other countries, Stern was given the red-carpet treatment. But as the most powerful man in American sports strode into the marble lobby of China Central Television’s headquarters, nobody was there to greet him; indeed, nobody even knew who he was. Snubbed by one TV executive, Stern was made to wait for hours to meet a low-level apparatchik who lectured him on the importance of ennobling, rather than entertaining, the masses.

The Chinese masses, however, longed to be entertained, no matter what state television said. Stern got an inkling of the people’s hunger for basketball when his tour guide at the imperial burial grounds in Xi’an confided that she was "a great fan of the Red Oxen." After a moment of confusion, Stern realized that Red Oxen was the Chinese nickname for the Chicago Bulls. The woman, it turned out, had been watching pirated videotapes of Michael Jordan. A year later, when China Central Television finally began to air the NBA finals on tape delay, it coincided with Jordan’s first championship with the Bulls. The "Space Flier," as the Chinese called him, struck a deep chord in a nation struggling to find a balance, which he embodied, between individual flair and team spirit. In one 1992 survey, a group of Chinese schoolchildren ranked Jordan as a more important historical figure than Mao Zedong.

For all of Jordan’s popularity, Stern understood that the Chinese public would never fully embrace the NBA until one of its own was playing in the league. "David Stern always wanted to find a Chinese Michael Jordan to break open the China market," says Xu Jicheng, a veteran basketball commentator. But finding a local hero who could make the leap to the NBA wasn’t a simple prospect. China’s best players were still being developed behind the walls of the nation’s socialist sports system as properties of the state. By the late 1990s, rumors spread in the West about two talented Chinese youngsters who stood more than 7 feet tall. Both Yao Ming and his older rival, 7 foot, 1 inch army soldier Wang Zhizhi, had developed solid skills in the Chinese system, and by the time the NBA scouts and Nike executives discovered them, they had already begun to model their games on the NBA stars they saw on television.

The first efforts to bring these players to the NBA were tragicomedies of cross-cultural misunderstanding. In early 1999, an American lawyer joined forces with the manager of Yao’s Shanghai team to sign the 19-year-old giant to a representation agreement, only to have Yao’s family angrily renege, claiming that they were forced into a deal that was tantamount to extortion. When the Dallas Mavericks surreptitiously drafted Wang less than two months later, the soldier’s army superiors were so baffled and incensed by the American intrusion that they refused to meet with the team’s owner at the time, H. Ross Perot Jr. China has always been wary of foreign powers coming in to lay claim to its resources, fearing that any encounter could leave it weakened and humiliated. Today, even as a newly powerful nation opens up to the outside world, the same suspicions remain about American basketball. "Chinese officials look at the NBA as an imperialistic power," says Yao’s Chinese-American agent Erik Zhang. "They see these Americans coming in to take away their best players and offering very little in return."

It would be another two years before the first Chinese player would make the leap to the klieg-lit universe of the NBA. In April 2001, as part of a goodwill gesture to solidify Beijing’s 2008 Olympic bid, China’s sports authorities finally let Wang join the Mavericks. His debut in Dallas came just days after a U.S. spy plane was forced down over Chinese territory, but fans welcomed Wang as a peaceful antidote to Sino-American tension, an innocent soldier whose only long-range missile was a three-point jump shot. Wang’s success soon soured. A year later, fearing that Beijing would not let him continue his NBA career and instead force him to prop up the ailing domestic league, the soldier refused to return home, going AWOL in America. Branded a traitor in China, the erstwhile hero lost his spot on the national team and millions of dollars in potential endorsements.

Yao’s World

If Wang Zhizhi seemed caught in the chasm between China and America, Yao Ming soon came to symbolize the bridge spanning the East-West divide. The Houston Rockets drafted Yao in the top spot, but it took three agonizing months before Beijing was convinced that Yao would not defect and that China would lose more face internationally by holding onto its star. When Yao finally landed in Houston, Rockets’ owner Les Alexander was ecstatic. "This is the biggest individual sports story of all time," he said. "Mark my words: in two or three years, he’ll be bigger than Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan."

Yao seemed overwhelmed at first by the burden of expectations on both sides of the Pacific. "Every step I made, the pressure was bigger," he said later. "The pressure from the United States was in front of me. The pressure from China was behind me. I was squeezed between them." It took the shy center a month of bumbling play to catch up to the pace of the American game, but by the time he began to wow audiences with his turn-around jumpers and sheepish smiles, the NBA was already cashing in on his presence. After treading cautiously in China for nearly a decade, the league quickly opened its first mainland office in Beijing, launched a Chinese-language Web site, and signed new (and, finally, modestly profitable) television contracts with 12 provincial stations to broadcast a total of 168 NBA games, more than double the previous year. The NBA even commissioned a full-length documentary movie about Yao’s rookie year and produced a television spot in which Yao leads a class of referees, mascots, and players in the graceful movements of tai chi. "Wo ai zheige bisai," says Yao at the end of the commercial. "I love this game."

And the game loved Yao. His regular-season NBA games, which draw about 1 million viewers in the United States, regularly attract up to 30 million in China, making the Houston Rockets China’s favorite team — and the world’s most watched. When Internet portal Sohu hosted a 90-minute online chat with Yao in December 2002, nearly 9 million fans logged on, crashing the system in six of China’s largest cities. In the United States, a new demographic of Asian fans has flocked to stadiums to watch the giant stride across court, offering an image of China that has nothing to do with Chairman Mao or massacres at Tiananmen Square. Non-Asian fans, meanwhile, like him for making the alien seem familiar, the freakishly tall endearingly small. "Yao is a dream for David Stern and the NBA," says Rockets’ president George Postolos. "He takes globalization to a new level." The grand convergence that Stern had been anticipating would finally come in October 2004, when Yao returned home to headline the first NBA games ever played on Chinese soil. The preseason contests between the Houston Rockets and the Sacramento Kings did not count in the official standings. But a pair of meaningless games never meant so much. For a basketball-mad nation (China) and a China-obsessed league (the NBA), this was a seminal event — the moment when the world’s fastest-growing sports enterprise finally made landfall in the world’s fastest-growing market. Stern didn’t have to worry about being snubbed this time. With Yao by his side — and a domain that now extends beyond the reach of the United Nations (NBA games air in more than 200 countries and territories) — the commissioner sat contentedly in the stadium’s VIP section, finally receiving the red-carpet treatment.

Looming on the horizon is an even bigger event: the 2008 Olympics. The Games’ long-awaited arrival in Beijing, coming exactly one century after YMCA missionaries first dreamed of the possibility, are meant to mark China’s return as a global superpower. And the star of the coming-out party will, almost inevitably, be Yao Ming. He alone among Chinese athletes is a global icon, famous both at home and abroad, an instantly recognizable embodiment of China’s emergence in the world. But the mandarins in Beijing will not be the only ones counting on Yao to perform well in 2008. So, too, will the moguls of corporate America. The Beijing Olympics will arrive just as Yao, at 27, reaches his prime both as a player and as a pitchman, a moment when his endorsement income alone could rise to more than $100 million. "Beijing is the big day, the pinnacle of Yao’s earning power," says Bill Sanders, who handles marketing for Team Yao. "The world will be watching."

The coalescence of East and West has given Yao more wealth and fame than he ever could have imagined growing up as a poor child in Shanghai. But he is keenly aware of the inherent contradictions, too. The very gentility that has endeared him to fans, advertisers, and Chinese officials, for example, is also limiting his effectiveness in the brutally competitive world of the NBA, provoking some critics to slap him with the league’s most damning epithet: "soft." Yet when Yao displays a flash of toughness and leadership, as he did when he lashed out at teammates during an Olympic game in Athens last summer, Chinese officials fume that their obedient star has been corrupted by the NBA’s selfish individualism. "He has changed," said one Chinese official in Athens. "He’s more like an American. He dares to say anything."

In truth, Yao has shown a keen appreciation for the values he learned in China — skill over strength, passivity over aggression, collective honor over individual achievement. But now he realizes that they are no longer enough to help him reach his full potential. Although he has dutifully reiterated his patriotic commitment to play for the national team, he has also told friends that toughening up his game would require spending more time in the off-season training with his NBA peers in the United States and less time going through the monotonous grind of national-team workouts. "I have to find a way to balance the two sides," he said. It is a balancing act that will continue, just as it will for all who try to negotiate the divide between China and the world.

Brook Larmer, a former Newsweek correspondent, is the author of Operation Yao Ming: The Chinese Sports Empire, American Big Business, and the Making of an NBA Superstar (New York: Gotham Books, 2005).

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