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China's 'Little Giant' Makes His Mark in the NBA - 2003-03-14

He stands 2.26 meters tall, or seven feet five inches, and his nickname is "The Little Giant." And he is making a giant name for himself in his first season in the National Basketball Association. VOA Sports Editor Parke Brewer takes a look at 22-year-old Chinese sensation Yao Ming.

Yao Ming was born in Shanghai, China, and his size is not that surprising when you consider his parents. His father stands two meters tall and his mother is one meter 91 centimeters, and both played for Chinese national teams. At age four, Yao Ming was as tall as most eight-year-olds and by elementary school he was taller than one of his teachers.

Yao did not play organized basketball until age nine, and at age 14 he was selected to play for the Shanghai Youth Team. He has played against elite international talent since being named to the Chinese National Team at age 18. He played in the 2000 Sydney Olympics at age 20, leading the Chinese team in rebounding, blocked shots and field goal percentage (64 percent).

Yao played five years as a professional in the Chinese Basketball Association for the Shanghai Sharks, winning the league's Most Valuable Player award in 2001 and leading the team to its first CBA title last year.

Following that, Yao was the first player selected in last year's National Basketball Association draft. He was chosen by the Houston Rockets, becoming the first-ever number-one pick to come from a basketball league outside the United States. Since his arrival in America, the tall center has become a huge star.

His teammate, star guard Steve Francis, says Yao has adapted quickly. "Unbelievable, man," he says. "I mean to me, it's like the guy's been here in America for 20 years. He can relate to just about anything."

And Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich says Yao's impact on the league is as big as his size. "He's the golden bridge between two worlds. It just opens up a whole new area, plus the inspiration he will give young Asian players," he says. "Who know [what the future will bring]."

And Yao Ming has fans in whatever NBA city he plays in, like one woman in Washington. "It's nice that you've got a lot of different people rooting for him, and also there's a lot of Chinese-Americans who just feel that it's great to have an athlete who we can also support and be proud of," she says.

Yao Ming has been overwhelmed by all the attention he has gotten since joining the NBA. "My dreams were always very simple. Nothing like this," he says.

The voice you heard in English was Yao Ming's translator, Colin Pine, who used to work for the Chinese branch here at the Voice of America.

Pine, a big basketball fan himself, lives with Yao and says Yao's English is rapidly improving. At a pre-game interview session here with reporters before Yao's Houston Rockets took on superstar Michael Jordan and the Washington Wizards, Yao showed his sense of humor in response to a question about his language skills.

Question: "What words in English can you speak clearly? What words do you know? Give us five words that you know."
Answer: "Last questions. That's why I learned that English word so well."

Steve Francis told VOA Sports that he, Yao and his teammates have been very patient with the media, especially when reporters and photographers crowd the locker room after every Houston game. "It's been like that the whole year, man. I think we're really adjusting to it. You know, we're good with the media," he says. "He's done a good job with the media himself."

Yao Ming is not the first Chinese to play basketball in the NBA. Wang Zhizhi and Mengke Bateer came first. But Yao has had the most impact by far and has already become the most visible and marketable Chinese athlete in professional sports history. He is in humorous and popular television commercials for Apple Computers and VISA check cards.

On the court, Yao Ming has also been performing well. Through 63 of Houston's 82 regular season NBA games, Yao was averaging nearly 14 points and more than eight rebounds per game, and was sixth in the league in field goal percentage at 51.6 percent.

It's not often that an NBA rookie plays in the annual mid-season All-Star game, but Yao was voted by fans to start the game for the Western Conference team ahead of star center Shaquille O'Neal of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich says Yao has erased any doubts that he could make it in the NBA. "He's a different kind of player. He's athletic. He's got an inside game," he says. "He's a great passer. He's got a great feel for the game and he's definitely not a novelty at all."

The Houston Rockets last won the NBA championship in 1995 when they were led by another international star, Nigerian-born Hakeem Olajuwon. The Rockets are hoping China's Yao Ming will help lead them to another title in the near future.