Court Favorite

At seven feet six inches tall and about three hundred pounds, Yao Ming, the basketball superstar who plays for the Houston Rockets, is, for many Americans, the most famous living Chinese. In 2002 he was the number-one overall pick in the National Basketball Association (NBA)’s initial selection round—the first foreigner who had never played for an American university to be the first chosen. In April, when he broke his foot in his fourth year playing for Houston, it was global front-page news. His contract with Reebok alone (he is also sponsored by Pepsi-Cola, McDonald’s, and other corporations) is worth tens of millions of dollars. These sponsors were probably pleased by Yao’s superior performance last season: he averaged 22.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game, statistics that put him in the top tier of NBA players today. As Brook Larmer observes in Operation Yao Ming, Yao has been a “conduit for American business and sports coming to the Middle Kingdom.”

Brook Larmer is a veteran reporter for Newsweek, and he currently serves as the magazine’s Shanghai bureau chief. In his lively, intelligent, and well-informed book he surveys the history of Chinese basketball, recalling that American missionaries brought the sport to China at the end of the nineteenth century, and that it developed through the Republican and Communist periods. During the early Communist era, sports were regarded as revolutionary activities—even Mao’s guerrilla soldiers were known to play basketball. But the fate of sports changed in 1966 at the start of the Cultural Revolution when they were suddenly condemned as “a dangerous manifestation of bourgeois self-centeredness,” and once-prestigious athletes were tormented by the Red Guards.

By 1969, sports were again declared worthy of praise. As Larmer points out, sports remain one of the few business activities in China still under state control, so much so that the NBA’s most sophisticated and ruthless entrepreneurs make great efforts to avoid offending Beijing. “Even as tens of millions of Chinese shed the socialist work unit, the sports machine remains one of the last ‘womb to tomb’ social structures, a relic of the past that continues only because it has been so successful,” Larmer writes.

No one is more aware than Yao Ming of the Chinese state’s involvement in every aspect of big-time sports, particularly since the controversy over Wang Zhizhi, China’s second-most-famous basketball player. In 2001 Wang was granted permission to join the Dallas Mavericks for their 2001–2002 season, making him the first Chinese star to play in the NBA. At the end of the season Wang defied the authorities’ orders that he return home and chose to stay in the US. He was unprepared to submit himself, as has Yao, to the state’s demand that national glory take precedence over personal fame. The Chinese Basketball Association’s vice-president, Li Yuanwei, went to the US to meet with Wang in February 2006 to discuss his possible return. “It’s a crucial move for him to return in an answer to the motherland’s call,” Li Yuanwei said to the press. Last April, Wang went back to China to rejoin the national team and has been included in the Chinese team for the 2008 Olympics. He was greeted with stern words by the authorities, and delivered a public apology. “I was too young to make the right decision,” he told the Chinese press. “I hope I could make up my fault this time and win back my place in the national team.”

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Both Yao and Wang had tall parents, and they all played big-league basketball in China. During their careers they became familiar with both the rewards and horrors of the sport. Yao’s mother, Fang Fengdi, “Da Fang” or “Big Fang,” had a particularly troubled experience with Chinese politics. In her youth, she was a fervently obedient apparatchik, but in later years she was made to suffer for her unflagging loyalty to Mao. In 1965, aged fifteen, she was over six feet tall. She was drafted into Shanghai’s leading sports institute, whose headquarters at No. 651 Nanjing Road once housed a social club for British elites in the period after China’s defeat in the Opium Wars. Under Mao the building was transformed in 1953 into the state’s leading athletic training facility; the lush grounds of the former club were destroyed to make way for tracks and ball fields. There she was inducted at once in the san jinzhong, “the three togethers”: living, eating, and training with the others all year and almost every day. In her danwei, or “work unit” (the social unit that regulated rules and behavior in urban Chinese labor sectors), others decided what she would eat, wear, and think. In addition to repetitive muscle-numbing drills, the players were indoctrinated, during a daily study session called “The Democratic Life Meeting,” in the particulars of Maoist thought. They engaged, Larmer writes, in “a self-flagellating round of confession and repentance,” a process that is still used in athletic training today.

But in mid-1966 came the upheavals and reversals of the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s previous insistence on “big-ball” excellence gave way to the notion that sports were a decadent Western import that must be banished from society.* Most of the best basketball players were sent off to work at the Shanghai Fireproof Materials Factory or at the Dragon Machine Factory. Da Fang became caught up in the exhilaration and violence of the moment and joined the Red Guards. Only seventeen years old, she terrified her former bosses and coaches. She and the other Red Guards especially enjoyed tormenting Zhu Yong, the sports institute’s former Party secretary who in his day had presided sanctimoniously over the institute’s rallies and study sessions. Now he was an enemy of the state, locked up in solitary confinement for six months, beaten, and tortured. Although Da Fang did not personally engage in torture, her former teammates remember “her voice rising above the rest of the frenzied Red Guards.”

By 1969 the tide turned again, as was typical in the Maoist period, and Da Fang again showed her flexibility and opportunism. Basketball came back into political vogue and a new slogan was decreed: “Friendship first, competition second.” This was intended, as Larmer comments, to impress upon the world that the Maoists were genuine sportsmen, and to indicate to the Chinese that the period of huge disorder was coming to an end. Da Fang was installed as the captain of the national basketball team as a reward, her teammates say, for her revolutionary zeal. Between 1971 and 1978 she was a national hero—extolled as both an exceptional person and a model team member. Favored by Deng Xiaoping and Zhou Enlai, two leading Party members, Da Feng was chosen to meet with important foreign guests and dignitaries. In a country where sex was officially reserved for procreation, basketball, as Larmer writes, was sexy. At their first international appearance, in Tehran in 1974, the women athletes wore short high heels and dresses that revealed the legs instead of the baggy blue unisex suits that were customarily worn throughout the rest of the country.

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By 1978, Da Fang had suffered injuries and was exhausted. The time had come to get married, and a perfect match was engineered: Da Fang was paired with another basketball giant, Yao Zhiyuan, the six-foot-ten center on the Shanghai men’s team and the father-to-be of Yao Ming. In 1980 Yao was born, weighing over eleven pounds and showing signs that he would grow to be an enormous adult.

Da Fang’s continued success was thwarted soon thereafter by the mercurial shifts in Party politics. Zhu Yong, the Party secretary whom Da Fang had harried and humiliated, was restored to power as the deputy director of the Shanghai sports commission. When she encountered him sometime later and he snubbed her, she told him: “It was not my decision to denounce you back then. It was an order from above!” Zhu Yong, now in charge of assigning work to athletes, exiled Da Fang to what a former teammate described as “the worst job in the sports system,” a menial job stocking bathrooms at a residence for retired athletes. Later she became a clerk in the Shanghai Sports Science Research Institute. She and her husband, both unqualified for anything except Chinese-style basketball, now made about half the average salary of an urban household. They “languished in relative poverty for most of the next two decades,” Larmer writes, condemned because of Da Fang’s “bad political past.” Most of the family income went to feeding their increasingly enormous son, who at eight years old was five feet seven inches tall.

As boys in the 1980s, Wang Zhizhi and Yao Ming (who is three years younger than Wang) were measured carefully. The officials who examined them predicted they would both grow to over seven feet. Their lives, as Larmer writes, “would trace the arc of China’s inexorable rise and its fitful emergence into the world…. They would be pushed and pulled by forces far beyond their families’ control.” Bred for athletic stardom, these two ballplayers were projections of China’s ambitions for a more powerful international presence. An army of Party officials, doctors, coaches, minders, and ideological tutors surrounded them. Their parents understood very well what was going on. They themselves, after all, had been paired off by the state and its eugenicists “in the expectation that they would produce a new generation of giants.”

In the eyes of the Party, it is size that demonstrates Chinese power. As Larmer explains, while many Chinese athletes have achieved world-class status in non-contact sports—badminton, weight lifting, shooting, diving, and ping-pong, to name a few—not one of them has ever carried the national flag at the Olympics’ opening ceremonies. This honor has been assigned exclusively to basketball players, who have carried the flag in all six summer Olympics in which China participated since 1984. Only players of what Mao called the “big ball sports” “can literally make the five-star flag fly just a little higher than every other nation’s.”

Sports doctors continued to monitor Yao Ming throughout his childhood. In 1992, when he was twelve years old and six feet two inches tall, they examined his pubic hair and fingered his testicles. In their view, delayed puberty argued strong growth later on, and this, they concluded, would be the case with Yao. They predicted he would grow to seven feet four inches. Clumsy and slow as a child, Yao showed little aptitude for basketball. He says “he hated basketball with a passion.” But the state had marked him as a player, and that was that. China chose its promising athletes carefully from among its vast population and placed them under the direction of coaches who served, Larmer writes, as mentors and guardians. They insisted that a young sportsman’s job was to serve the motherland, a lesson Yao Ming’s parents had absorbed and passed on to their son. He and his fellow child athletes were trained according to a system designed by the Russians, and they played in a “joyless silence that shrouded them…completely.” As part of his conditioning, and this was true of all big Chinese sports, Yao was fed a pharmacopoeia of traditional plants and insects, combined with muscle-building drugs that many believe were brought to China by East Germans.

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But whereas Yao’s parents had been motivated by revolutionary passion, Larmer suggests, the communism of Yao’s post-Mao generation had lost much of its spirit; nationalism and, much later, success in the market for athletic talent became the motivating forces for young basketball players. This dimming of Maoist ideology began after the “ping-pong diplomacy” of 1972 that brought Richard Nixon to China, and continued after the Tiananmen killings of 1998. When China became an international pariah, its leaders tried to revive national pride, which, ironically, Larmer points out, “ran counter to the nation’s growing infatuation with all things American, from KFC to the NBA.” The dream of making money resulted in a trickle, then a flood, of foreign investments.

At age thirteen, nearly six-foot-six Yao was transferred to the Shanghai Sports Technology Institute. His coaches feared that he might be injured because he was growing so fast. They treated him, Larmer says, like a Ming vase and excused him from many of the intense drills endured by his fellow students. He was given a room with a custom-made seven-foot-ten-inch bed. At fourteen he was six foot nine, nearly as tall as his father. By 1997, at seven foot four, he had become the tallest basketball player in China.

Nike and the NBA were already searching for Chinese basketball stars who could market their products. A Chinese player—a novelty for the American audience—wearing the shoes of the world’s biggest sports-shoe company would attract millions of young buyers in China and abroad. “What Nike truly craved,” Larmer writes, “was a hero, a local icon who could do for the swoosh [Nike’s logo] in China what Michael Jordan had done in the rest of the world.” The goal was to pry potential superstars from behind “the walls of the old socialist sports system, toiling away in a rigid regimen that seemed to stifle their ambitions and stunt their development.” Beijing’s oppositions to such overseas stardom could be overcome by the proper guanxi (or connections). Mastery of this knotty system of business relationships could enable a breach of even the stoutest ideological walls. Agents for Nike and the NBA courted officials and army commanders and began convincing them that American money would be distributed widely to teams, training camps, other institutions, and, inevitably in China, bribed officials.

The dream of the vast China market, harking back to the East India Company in the late eighteenth century, has fired much Western ambition and avarice and rarely yielded great profits. But the multitrillion-dollar sports industry, which according to the historian Walter LaFeber may be the world’s most globalized business apart from drug trafficking, steadily penetrated China, with Nike Inc. and the NBA in the vanguard. Larmer describes how by the mid-1980s, Chinese national basketball stars were being invited to tour America and scrimmage with such global celebrities as Michael Jordan, who was already a hero to many young people in China. But so deeply ingrained was the official Chinese view that sports should ennoble rather than entertain that the NBA ran into obstacles even when it offered to pay handsomely for Chinese participation in its programs. For many years, Larmer observes, the CBA disliked revealing the statistics of individual players “lest it disrupt the harmonious team emphasis.” The dealings of the sports establishment with the NBA exposed deeply held Chinese convictions and fears. Resentment over past humiliations and intrusions into national sovereignty were expressed by officials who sought to block Chinese athletes from playing abroad. Such resentments soured relations with foreign entrepreneurs who were offering the athletes and their Chinese employers stupefying sums to wear their products, especially their shoes, and play before international fans, who numbered in the hundreds of millions.

The authorities feared embarrassment and loss if an athlete defected (hardly any have) or if a team played badly. The sums that Nike, Reebok, and the NBA offered to athletes—at first tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands, then millions of dollars—made the Chinese leaders anxious; the best Chinese players were paid more than most citizens, but their salaries in China were still meager by American standards. Chinese officials feared that their stars would be tempted to abandon China. Their objections were also based on racial fears; Chinese sports bosses, like many ordinary Chinese, were convinced that black Americans, the core of American sports, were too strong and boisterous for what the Chinese leaders saw as relatively puny and self-effacing Chinese.

* * *

American entrepreneurs were looking for heroes to use their sports shoes. The sixteen-year-old, seven-foot-two Yao Ming seemed a good candidate. Even nearer the ideal was Wang Zhizhi, three years older, almost as tall, and a player for the national team, who received a Nike contract that immensely increased his salary. At around the same time, Nike began its steady courtship of Yao Ming’s parents. Yao Ming was invited to attend a basketball camp in Paris, and by 1998 he was added to Nike’s High Five American team, “an odd assortment of wealthy white suburban kids, inner-city toughs, and some of the best athletes in California.” Yao was almost a foot taller than anyone else. But while he had some good shots, he was unable and unwilling to perform the “highest-percentage shot in basketball, especially for players over seven feet tall”: the slam dunk. Dunking was intolerable to the gentle Yao, who had a “deeply inculcated aversion to showing off and hurting other players’ feelings.” Yao’s American coach eventually got him to dunk by making the rest of the team run penalty laps whenever Yao avoided the shot. His teammates begged him to dunk, and eventually he agreed—and began to enjoy it.

Larmer tells the story of Yao Ming and Wang Zhizhi’s ascendance to the NBA with so much detail that readers may flag. But his exhaustive account sheds light on China’s steely methods of negotiation in the post-Maoist period. Once they decided to let stars like Wang Zhizhi and Yao Ming go to the United States, the Chinese authorities proved to be the hardest hagglers the NBA moguls had ever encountered. They first demanded half of the many millions paid to Yao Ming, but settled for much less. For giving up Yao, the Shanghai Sharks, Yao’s home team, stand to get close to $15 million during Yao’s career. Recalling his dealings with Chinese negotiators, one NBA official said, “It was all about measuring the value of their investment. It could have been a Boeing 727 they were talking about. They treated Yao Ming strictly as an asset.”

But he was an asset in America, too. In 2000 and 2001 several major basketball stars like Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, and Hakeem Olajuwon were preparing to retire. Yao Ming was a terrific prospect, a possible number-one draft choice. As the Chinese wavered about letting Yao travel abroad—they were still terrified by Wang Zhizhi’s apparent defection—the NBA officials emphasized that a number-one draft pick could earn almost $10 million over three years, plus tens of millions more in endorsements. Apart from his salary, he might earn as much as $1 billion in endorsements over his entire career. The NBA and sponsors like Nike and Pepsi knew, and tried to make the Chinese realize, that millions of fans in America wanted something exotic: very tall, very gifted, and from the mysterious East.

* * *

Larmer excels in describing the difference between Chinese and American basketball. The Chinese model of repetitive, almost militaristic training is best suited to disciplines that require fierce attention to detail, such as gymnastics, diving, and shooting. In a “big-ball” sport like basketball, Chinese outside shooters are highly skilled because they take a thousand practice shots every day, but they lack spontaneity and creativity. Nike and the NBA sought to brighten China’s dreary basketball scene with “baggy shorts and gyrating dancers.” They introduced shouting emcees to enliven the crowd with rousing cheers, like jiayou! “let’s go!” (a variation on the customary cheers of xiongqi, “erection,” to encourage the home team and yangwei, “impotent,” to disparage the opposition).

One major distinction between Chinese and American basketball cultures is China’s “fifty-year obsession,” in Larmer’s words, “with cultivating big men.” A small but notable number of Chinese players have made it into the NBA, but never as point guards, a position traditionally held by “small” men, six feet tall or slightly shorter, who are valued for their spontaneity and their ability to think for themselves. These qualities are discouraged and suppressed in Chinese athletes, although they are increasingly prized in commerce, science, and some of the arts. In China “small” men are coached to bring the ball forward so that taller players can shoot. As Peter Hessler, a Beijing-based American journalist who has also written about Yao Ming, notes, “It’s significant that China has yet to produce a great male guard—the position requires skill and intensity rather than height.”

Because they have watched American basketball on television, Chinese young people have started to admire small players. Some now find Yao Ming “too tall, too square, too establishment.” Not far from Tiananmen, Larmer has seen courts crowded with youngsters practicing NBA-style moves, “a sharp, almost subversive contrast with the robotic players going through the motions at the sports schools.” China’s basketball establishment fears the “individualistic, hip-hop culture” of the NBA, but Chinese fans love it. The Shanghai Sharks, for whom Yao used to play, can barely attract crowds anymore; people would rather stay home and watch NBA games.

In America, by contrast, Yao is popular not just because he is very good and extraordinarily tall, but because of his “retro appeal.” He is known as a “modest and methodical” player of what Yao himself calls a “blue-collar game.” Racial prejudice, Larmer claims, also partly accounts for Yao’s great popularity, which may exceed even Shaquille O’Neal’s. As Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan, among other superstars of the 1980s and 1990s, began to retire, a number of players with long rap sheets were admitted to the league. And as the great black basketball veteran Charles Barkley remarked, “The white audience doesn’t like to see a bunch of guys with tattoos and cornrows who get in trouble all the time.” As an “honorary white” in America, Yao has given globalization a new twist; nonetheless, he is said to be well-liked by black players.

Yao is very careful. He is still, Larmer says, “the dutiful Chinese son, eager to please his elders….” He lives in an expensive Houston suburb with his mother. Da Fang chose and furnished the house, cooks his meals, washes his clothes. True to type, his girlfriend is a tall basketball player. Yao is becoming more Americanized every year. He has an apartment to himself in the Houston house and though famously good-natured, he has begun arguing with referees. But he fears the ostracism and obloquy that Wang Zhizhi suffered when he tried to stay in the US. “In China,” Yao told Peter Hessler, “the goal has always been to glorify the country. I’m not opposed to that. But…I want people in China to know that part of why I play basketball is simply personal.”

Brook Larmer’s book, comprehensively researched, tells us much about China from an unusual angle. “In the end,” he concludes, “it was Yao, not Wang, who was the loyal soldier, the obedient son, the towering icon who made Chinese feel good about themselves and their nation’s place in the world.” True enough, but Xu Jicheng, a Chinese sports journalist who once played basketball for the army, told Larmer:

Sports were the first area in which China could compete with the world, but they will be the last area to reform…. Winning the 2008 Olympics was the best news China could ever have received. But it was the worst news for the sports system, because it keeps it from reforming.

This seems true. For all Yao’s success in the US and his popularity in China, Chinese sports remain under the control of state officials who want to maintain their power over a closed and tightly disciplined world.

  1. For new light on this period see The Chinese Cultural Revolution as History, edited by Joseph W. Esherick, Paul G. Pickowicz, and Andrew G. Walder (Stanford University Press, 2006).