Growing up, my friends called me Yao Ming.
To them, I was a splendid freak of nature—a 6'4" Chinese kid who somehow got misplaced in the country-music paradise called Alabama. None of my comrades had seen the likes of me, so they wisely took one look at my rhythmically-appealing name, and without hesitation, decided to call me "Yao"—or as they explained it, my cousin's name.
At first, I suppose I was flattered by the association. After all, Yao had been drafted No. 1 by the Houston Rockets; so how could I not be honored? I rightly took it as a compliment.
However, I hadn’t even seen Yao in action, so I wasn’t completely certain.
My own NBA aspirations had ended when I’d realized professional basketball rims weren’t actually placed at a dunk-friendly height of seven feet, leaving me desperately looking for a player I could watch and live through vicariously.
Enter Yao Ming.
Yet, after watching Yao play that first year, I wasn't so sure I’d found the right NBA player to be named after.
It certainly doesn't say volumes about me if my favorite player, a 7'6" beast, has trouble finishing around the rim, gets out-rebounded and blocked by shorter players, and runs like a three-legged giraffe.
Even after watching Yao for eight years, I still can't deny he possesses a knack for embarrassing moments. Being posterized by Andre Iguodala is semi-acceptable, but having the 5'9" Nate Robinson block your dunk attempt for the third time in his career is nothing short of pitiful.
Moments like those are what give critics the ammunition needed to label Yao Overrated.
They acknowledge his career 19.1 PPG, 9.2 RPG, .524 FG percentage, and .832 FT percentage, but argue that for a man of his physical gifts, Yao should be much more of a dominating force—especially when trying to dunk on a guy nearly two feet shorter.
Even as a Houston Rockets fan, I agreed—that is, until I stopped obsessing over numbers and remembered to appreciate the intricacies of one of the best team sports ever.
For beyond all the numbers and hoopla that surrounds the nasty dunks and shameful blocks, Yao is as much an under-appreciated center as he is an ambassador of humility, selflessness, and heart; not only for the sport of basketball, but the world.
In a league where flashy dunks and boisterous mouths are lionized, Yao continues to be a model student of the game. He's never been a player who puts himself above the team. He’s never agonized over his personal statistics. Instead, he does whatever he can to help the team win. He's more than willing to make that extra pass and to set an unnoticed pick for a slashing teammate.
You'll never find Yao trash-talking after a glamorous dunk. Nor will you find him complaining over a lack of playing time. Instead, you'll see Yao be the first to jump off the bench to applaud a seldom-used teammate—even when the game is all but over. He's one of the most respectful guys in the game—leading to even Shaq calling him a "classy guy."
Off the court, it's much the same. Despite undeniable fame, he's never allowed it to go to his head. He's not that guy who'll pull a "drunken Sir Charles," fraternize with drugs or exotic women, or define his athletic success by his income.
No, he's the type to lift and plant sod during a rainy All-Star weekend in New Orleans, to be recognized by the United Nations for his contributions to the fight against AIDS, and to not only donate $2 million after the tragic 2008 Sichuan earthquake, but to also approach the NBA about doing a public service announcement during NBA games.
I realize that Yao's kindness and selflessness are often used as ammunition against him. Indeed, critics love to point to Yao's lack of toughness and fire as key reasons why he'll never be as great or as dominating as Shaq.
They're absolutely right. Yao will never be as extraordinary as Shaq’s been during his career. But then again, nobody in the near future will be.
Yet, we must understand that comparing Yao to Shaq is, for a lack of a better analogy, like comparing apples and oranges.
Whereas Shaq is, in the purest sense, an entertainer and dominator of the game, Yao is the game's ambassador—a hard-working, thoughtful, and courageous pioneer who has taken greater responsibilities than any one man should ever be required to take.
Bigger, more important forces are at work here, for Yao's significance as a player and individual goes far beyond the limits of two baskets and a court; it's global in every sense of the word.
Imagine living the first 20 or so years of your life in a country and culture that, from the bottom up, is built upon a lack of individuality, self-achievement, and exploration of the unknown. You've immersed yourself in that culture, slowly growing into a polite, caring, and congenial young man.
Yet, you're different, very different. With an unbelievable natural gift and talent, you're the one who stands out, the one who seemingly holds the honor, pride, and opportunity of over a billion people in the palm of his hands. By and large, your success is the success of an entire nation.
Do you take the challenge?
Yao did, and there are no words I can string together that would do justice to how much respect his actions deserve.
Perhaps Yao's words will help. From his memoir, YAO: A Life in Two Worlds:
"I don’t know how American fans think, but in China if you score 30, the fans want you to score 40. If you score 40, they want 50. After my first NBA season, the Chinese newspapers were talking about how many years it will be before I win a championship, how many years before I am the league MVP.
This is what makes me think about failing. These are very big goals, but I will be looked on as a failure if I don’t reach them. I could tell you that what other people think is not important to me, but that’s not true. I have this chance to play in the NBA because of a lot of people. I don’t want to disappoint them. It would be easier if I didn’t care about them, but that’s not how I am.
I think differently about failure than a lot of Chinese. In China, many people won’t try to do something if there’s not a high chance of success. Whether I win or lose, I think I can get a lot from the process of doing something. I can be afraid to fail or lose, but I can’t let my fear stop me from trying."
Failure, to Yao, is not about losing money on a potential long-term deal next season, nor is it about losing "street-cred" during the next trash-talk session.
It's about letting down an entire nation of people.
And yet, Yao has never whined—not when he's gone back to China during the summer to train with the national team, when everyone else gets time to relax and recuperate. And Yao has never passed blame—not when Houston has consistently lost in the first round of the playoffs.
He's carried himself with class, worked relentlessly to improve his game, and gone about it all with passion, honor, and joy.
And it showed during the US-China 2008 Olympic match, which was perhaps the most epitomic moment of Yao's career up to this point.
A short time after recovering from a foot injury, Yao, with hands on his hips and gasping for breath as he heroically limped from courtside to courtside, played with all his heart to represent the people and the nation that had poured their trust into him. He only shot 3-for-10, but the passion and toughness he displayed were awe-inspiring.
The best moment? A Yao Ming three-pointer that opened the game—delivering chills and roars down every admirer's spine.
"I felt honored to be there watching that," Chris Paul said.
Personally, I have no doubt that Yao's contributions to the game are still under-appreciated. How could they not be when the NBA is all about flash, power, and dominance?
Don't get me wrong, I'm not clamoring for Yao to be MVP. However, if there were a Most Valuable Human award, I'd give it to Yao in a second.
Regardless of whether you're a Yao Ming fan, I hope you come to appreciate what he's done for the sport of basketball. He's brilliantly taken two cultures that couldn't be more different and brought them together in love for the same sport.
In the process, he's showed us why he's nothing short of a stand-up guy full of decency and courage unmatched by many in this world.
As Kobe Bryant would say, "Yao's built the bridge for all of us."
What a wonderful bridge that is, not only for the sport of basketball, but for the different cultures of this world.
Thank you, Yao.
What an honor it is to share your name.