Yao Ming: Tall order
China's basketball giant faces a mountain of hype in Beijing
Perhaps no one in Beijing faces a taller order than the largest athlete in the history of the Olympics.
Chinese basketball star Yao Ming — all 7-feet-6, 310 pounds of him — is being touted as one of the faces of the Aug. 8-24 Games, the first to be held in his home country.
"To some degree, foreigners know China from him," Crystal Chen, a 25-year-old Beijing journalist, told CBC. "Many people have no concept of China, so it's good to have sports figures who go abroad."
There's little doubt the hard-working centre will try his best to do his country proud. But high expectations, a suspect supporting cast, and the after-effects of a crippling injury could add up to a big letdown for the many interests counting on Yao to deliver in Beijing.
The trouble began in late February. Though he'd been named an NBA all-star for the sixth time in as many seasons, Yao was sporting his worst scoring average (22 points per game) since his rookie season with the Houston Rockets. The team drafted him No. 1 overall in 2002 before luring him away from his hometown Shanghai Sharks of the Chinese Basketball Association.
Still, partly on the strength of Yao's career-high 10.8 rebounds and two blocks per game, the Rockets had rattled off 12 consecutive wins before the team issued a stunning announcement on Feb. 26: Yao had suffered a stress fracture in his left foot and would miss the rest of the season.
Rockets soar, then sputter sans Yao
The news added to Yao's reputation as an injury-prone player, a charge that has gained steam in recent years. After missing only three games in his first three NBA seasons combined, he's played fewer than 58 contests in each of the last three.
Yao went under the knife on March 3, with doctors inserting screws to hold the cracked bone together under the weight of his massive frame.
Upon emerging from the operating room, Yao immediately faced questions about whether he'd be able to return for his nation's coming-out party in Beijing. Legitimate inquiries considering such injuries can take up to a year to heal.
"If I cannot play in the Olympics for my country this time, it will be the biggest loss in my career to right now," he said.
News of the injury sent shockwaves through China, with some pointing to Yao's career-high 37.2 minutes per game as evidence that the Rockets had overworked him.
Houston fans were less rattled after watching their squad peel off 10 more victories to run its winning streak to 22 — the second-longest in NBA history — as star guard Tracy McGrady keyed a faster-paced attack.
But the absence of a dominant centre finally caught up to the Rockets in the playoffs as they fell in six games to the Utah Jazz, marking the sixth straight year in which Houston failed to advance past the first round.
Playing time capped
Focused on returning for the Olympics, Yao, who was named a "model worker" by the Chinese government in 2005, toiled diligently to rehab his foot. But it was apparent in his first game action following the surgery that he was nowhere near 100 per cent.
Yao performed unevenly at an Olympic warm-up tournament in Hangzhou in late July, where his playing time was capped at 15 minutes per game. In the final against a Russian junior team he scored only six points — his lowest tally as a starter for China in eight years — and missed the awards ceremony to receive treatment.
Yao later doubled his playing time while significantly improving his producion at a late July tuneup in Nanjing, finally hinting at the great success he's enjoyed in international competition.
At the 2004 Athens Games, Yao carried his county's flag at the opening ceremony then went on to average 20.7 points to lead his team to the quarter-finals. At the world championship in Japan two years later, he scored a tournament-best 25.3 points as China fell in the knockout round to eventual winner Greece.
But in the lead-up to the Olympics, the normally upbeat Yao has downplayed his team's chances.
"We have lots of problems, in rebounding, in defence and in shooting quality, overall," he told Sohu.com. These cannot be solved in one or two days."
Yao knows that the still-developing Chinese national team is not considered a serious contender for an Olympic medal. Apart from its star, the squad features only one other NBA player: forward Yi Jianlian, a 20-year-old (he says) forward who averaged 8.6 points in his rookie season for Milwaukee before the Bucks shipped him to the New Jersey Nets this summer.
The only other NBA experience on the roster comes from 31-year-old Wang Zhizhi, a backup centre. The first Chinese to play in basketball's best league, the seven-footer averaged 4.4 points in 137 NBA games with three teams between 2001-2005.
The lack of top-level pros could spell doom for China in a tough Group B draw that includes the NBA-stocked United States, world champion Spain, tough European foes Greece and Germany, and African champion Angola.
China will need to finish in the top four in its group in order to achieve its best-case-scenario goal of advancing to the quarter-finals of the 12-team tournament.
"This is the worst draw I can ever imagine," Yao Ming told China Daily in late July. "The other teams are very strong, but our goal stays the same."
Though China isn't counting on his team to add to what it hopes will be the highest medal tally at the Beijing Olympics, Yao will face immense pressure to show Chinese basketball is capable of becoming world class.
He'll also be closely watched by his corporate sponsors.
As a potential portal to China's 1.3 billion consumers, Yao is one of the world's most sought-after — and handsomely compensated — athlete endorsers.
Pitching for blue-chip companies like Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Reebok, Apple and Visa, Yao has topped Forbes' list of the highest paid Chinese celebrities for five years running, with the most recent rankings listing his earnings at $54.6 million US last year (Yao was paid about $13.8 million by the Rockets in 2007-08).
Reebok in particular is banking on Yao as it tries to gain traction in the Nike- and Adidas-dominated basketball shoe market. The Massachusetts-headquartered company is unveiling a limited edition Yao sneaker (2,008 pairs will be available in China) and has erected a 40-foot statue of its star spokesman in a popular Beijing shopping district.
As Reebok's vice president of sports and entertainment marketing, Todd Krinsky, told the Boston Globe, the company is counting on Yao for the big break it needs in one of the world's most coveted marketplaces.
"With a huge global event like the Olympics, and with Yao as such a huge figure for the country, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity as we make our charge into China."
With additional reporting by Bernice Chan