NBA's annual star party summed up in word: Yao

Basketball: The rookie center still has a way to go to reach his potential, but when it comes to charisma, he's already in his own league.

February 09, 2003|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA - You know you've jumped the barrier between run-of-the-mill basketball player and cultural phenomenon when the world's best players filling a room spend all of their time talking about you.

"So many questions about Yao. I feel like I know the guy," Cleveland Cavaliers center Zydrunas Ilgauskas said the other day.

If the "Yao" in question isn't already obvious, it will be by the end of the day as Houston Rockets rookie center Yao Ming threatens to dominate the landscape of tonight's 52nd NBA All-Star Game, towering over Michael Jordan.

As the 7-foot-5 Yao strode into the hotel ballroom to greet the media Friday, he was accompanied by a flood of cameras moving in sync with him toward a table where at least 75 reporters and camera operators were waiting for him.

True, Jordan, as is his All-Star custom, even as he enters his 14th and final game, skipped the media session, and Kobe Bryant couldn't escape the snowstorm that blanketed the Northeast in time to get here. But Yao would have been the center of attention, even if they had arrived.

That's the way it has been this year for the first overall pick in June's draft and the second top selection born on a foreign shore: throngs of reporters and loads of attention.

"Honestly, I couldn't begin to imagine what it's like," said Steve Francis, Yao's teammate with the Rockets. "But I kind of feel what he is going through in terms of the attention. I see it every day. I don't think there's anything that he wanted more than to be an NBA player, because he loves to play basketball.

"And if you want to be an NBA player, there's going to be attention. This is what's happening, and I think he really, really appreciates it."

That day of appreciation for his celebrity may still be coming for Yao, 22, but he at least seems to have reached a wary truce with his fame.

He said that being elected a starter in the All-Star Game, ahead of such luminaries as Shaquille O'Neal and David Robinson, is an example of things happening "too rapidly, too fast," adding that he is "a blue collar, a blue collar amongst the All-Stars."

And when it is suggested that he may also be a role model for more than a billion Chinese as well as the successor to Jordan as the league's ambassador, Yao said: "Either burden is too heavy for me to stand it, so it doesn't matter which one is heavier. I will try my best to make myself a student of basketball."

Still, with two amusing commercials under his belt, Yao is moving comfortably, if not bemusedly, into celebrity status as well as into a recognition of American cultural symbols.

For instance, asked about Francis' suggestion that the two of them would form a basketball version of Batman and Robin, Yao, with a grin, said, through an interpreter, "My muscle is not as well-developed as his."

When asked whether that would make him Robin and Francis Batman, he quipped, "I don't think so, because I believe that Batman and Robin are the same height."

While Yao's scoring average (13.0 points a game) is the second lowest among the All-Stars, he isn't here by virtue of some quirk. His opponents say his game and its promise warranted his selection.

"I think he's an amazing player," Dallas Mavericks center Dirk Nowitzki said. "It's amazing how he gets in in his first year and is able to adjust to everything, adjust to the way of playing and already has an impact on his team.

"It's amazing how big he is and how tall he is and still how great his hands are. He can shoot the ball well, he can block shots, he can pass. In a couple of years, when he gets stronger and knows the game well, he's going to be a force for sure."

Even O'Neal, who touched off a furor a few weeks ago by issuing a message to Yao in a mocking tone using coined Chinese, has been impressed. And he should have been, especially after Yao blocked his first three shots in their first meeting last month.

"He's good for the game, and I'm a connoisseur of what's good for the game," O'Neal said.

Francis said he refers to Yao as "my boy," and there's still an element of youth in the giant man. Yao, who wore a Chinese team jersey to the news conference Friday to show "I really miss my audience and the fans back in China," told a Chinese reporter that he should tell his former Shanghai Sharks teammates that he wanted some "hot pot," a Chinese dish of rolled steak boiled in water.

But if there is still boyishness in his manner, Yao has quickly demonstrated a worldly knowledge of his new land.

For instance, when asked what he planned to do after he leaves the NBA, Yao said he didn't know how long he would play in the United States, but then, with a nod to the man he wants to meet this weekend, Charles Barkley, he said with a twinkle in his eye:

"After I retire from the NBA, I will probably join the mass media, because I have always been bothered by the mass media, and if I cannot beat them, I will join them."

Sounds like he's got the American thing down cold.

Tonight's game

What:NBA All-Star Game

Site:Philips Arena, Atlanta


TV/Radio:TNT/WTNT (570 AM)

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