Saturday, August 09, 2008

A Counter-Analogy for Yao Ming

Watching Yao lead China's greatest athletes around the "Bird's Nest" Olympic stadium last night just gave me this deep sense of pride--as much as seeing the U.S.--as a man of Chinese descent, as a Rockets fan and as someone who can appreciate damn good pageantry.

And it suddenly reminded me of a post I read earlier today on ESPN's True Hoop titled, "
Yao Ming is No Kobe Bryant." It was submitted by a reader, Mac Lotze, an American living in Shanghai. I had decided earlier to let it slide until just then. Here's the general idea of Lotze's post:
Style and scoring ability.

This is why Kobe Bryant is the greatest sports icon in China; not Yao Ming, not Yi Jianlian, not even groundbreaking hurdle-champion Liu Xiang.

This was the prevailing sentiment amongst those polled in the sold-out Qizhong Arena in Shanghai that was painted with 24s and 8s.

I came to Shanghai with the erroneous perception that basketball has become popular in China because of Yao Ming, but it appears that he is a small piece of the puzzle. The main reasons I see that Yao Ming is not as much of a national hero as he used to be and that common sense would dictate are:
  • He has yet to win a playoff series.
  • His size makes him very hard to relate to for 99% of the population. Chinese fans want to idolize a player that they can imitate or relate to from a size standpoint. This is one of the main reasons hurdler Liu Xiang is much hotter and more popular than Yao Ming these days. The Chinese respect and admire people that were not given as many god-given talents, but work their tails off to become great. They can relate to that, even dream about that. That's tougher in the case of Yao Ming.
  • Yao Ming is boring compared to a lot of players. I have played quite a few pickup games in China and from the 5'4 point guards to the 7-footers are all they are all showcasing their And One skills. (Yes, there are quite a few tall Chinese players all around Shanghai. With the economic prosperity that China is enjoying currently, they are privy to the type of diet that was impossible before. Not to mention the one child policy allows parents to feed their children with food that was previously divided between many kids.) They are all about the flash, excitement, dribbling through the legs, behind the back passes. Yao Ming, while being one of the best centers in the NBA, just doesn't have that. That's why even if Houston were to win a title (and I think they can now with Artest) I suspect that in the U.S. and China alike you will find it boosting T-Mac's popularity more than Yao's.
There is no doubt in my mind that the Chinese crowd will be divided on Sunday, the question is simply by how much. It is clear that if China had a better chance (maybe if Yao Ming was 100%) that the vast majority would be cheering unequivocally for China.
While none of this is wholly untrue--except for the part about Kobe surpassing Yao and Liu Xiang as the greatest sports icon in China which is utterly ridiculous--seeing Yao in the opening ceremony and the huge reception he and his fellow Chinese athletes received, it seems to me that Lotze (and Abbott, if he happens to agree) is missing the point. The assessment fairly superficial. For China, Kobe is just a fad. Another day, another hero, they'll come and go. Yao is a national icon. He'll be on money someday, bet. He's the most famous Chinese athlete in the world.

is popular in China because of Yao Ming. Kobe is popular because of Yao Ming. Iverson, T-Mac, Lebron, all because of Yao Ming. He opened the door. Without Yao's entry into the NBA, and with such fanfare, how many more years do you think it would have taken for Nike to come knocking? Or China to answer?

To use an analogy as Lotze aptly did, Yao is to China what dad is to you and me. There are other dads who might seem nicer, smarter or funnier. Kobe is cool dad. He drives the fancy cars, gets the hot girlfriends and buys us all kinds of stuff when we all go to Six Flags. Every kid looks at cool dad and wants to be son for a day. But we don't have to live with him.

We don't know the realness of cool dad and we don't want to know. Yao is just dad and he's a good dad. He's not flashy, he's not hip, but he's been there for you. Damn it, he's loyal and never taken you for granted. That's what Yao is to the Chinese, dad. There might be hundreds of other athletes that get their jerseys bought in China in the near future but Yao is still home. You don't need to buy dad's jersey, you don't even need to say you love him. He knows. It's understood.

Originally posted at Yao Central on August 9 01:02 AM.

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