Yao Ming: Limited edition

THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco - The Philippine Star

There is a reason why many Filipino fans were disillusioned with the behavior of recent Philippine visitor and former NBA All-Star Yao Ming. Portrayed as meek, shy and accommodating, the 7’6”, 2002 top draft pick instead proved cold, distant, rude and unfriendly. But there is a deeper reason for it. The young Yao had his childhood stolen from him, was denied any siblings, and was purposely made to suffer poverty through his formative years, all while ironically being molded into a prime commodity for China’s greater glory.

When Mao Xedong banned all sports in his great societal purging, Yao’s mother Fang Feng Di joined the Red Guard. One of her duties was to daily interrogate (some would say persecute or even torture) former higher officials of the Communist Party’s hierarchy, including her boss Zhu Yong. Denied an opportunity to play or even coach, this was the mission she accepted, and poured her frustrations into. She was merely doing her duty, albeit quite intensely and thoroughly. She was considered somewhat ruthless. It was a way to serve her country and have a steady income for her family.

When the Cultural Revolution of Mao’s reign ended and the long-persecuted Deng Xiaoping inevitably rose to power, the tables were turned. Zhu Yong, the Communist Party secretary in charge of parceling out jobs in the sports system, transferred the 6’3” former national hero to the most undignified, menial tasks available. At one point, Fang was made to stock bathrooms with soap for what amounted to a handful of dollars per week. Eventually, she was given a slightly more honorable clerical position. Her coaching days were over, she did not complete her education, and didn’t have any connections to give her a way out.

It got worse. Fang became the subject of an investigation herself, having so passionately implemented the tenets of Mao. Her bosses at the Shanghai Sports Science Research Institute deployed investigators to interview all the former leaders she had supposedly persecuted during the Mao years. Most of them testified against her. All that data went into her dang’an, the secret file that their government supposedly still keeps on Chinese citizens from birth to death.

Her 6’8” husband, the elder Yao, did not fare much better. He couldn’t get a job as a coach, and became resigned to working his whole career at the Shanghai Port. Together, they earned what was the equivalent of $50 a month, half of what a regular urban household made. And with a gargantuan child growing fast, they would have trouble surviving.

Zhu, her former boss turned victim turned boss again, bore a very deep grudge against Fang which would hurt her family financially for almost 20 years. Despite their size (easily the tallest family in Shanghai) they were kept in a tiny apartment with no kitchen or bathroom. Zhu refused to approve any requests to assist the Yaos in honor of their contribution to Chinese sports. Worst of all, he refused to sign any requests to allow the Yao family to have more children, despite many protestations by their concerned sports officials. Zhu’s hurt was too deep to overcome.

Imagine how things would have been if Yao had been allowed the simple things requested for him: more milk and better food, a big bed instead of a cot he had to curl up in, even a longer blanket he wouldn’t have to scrunch up in. If he had a couple of siblings and relative comfort, there would have been less pressure on him when he was adopted by the city of Shanghai, for which he would eventually be ambassador. He would have had a happier semblance of a childhood, and would not be looking sideways at people, wondering what they want from him.

Ironically, the restriction on Yao’s family happened on the brink of China’s sports rebirth. Though sports was initially condemned as a “decadent Western practice” during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, it was now a way for the extremely dominative Deng to gain himself and his country stature in the eyes of the world. In fact, the desire to win medals prompted the government to shift players from their sports to Olympic disciplines that offered more medals. For instance, many lower-level basketball players were transformed into lab rats for team handball. Imagine if Yao Ming’s potential had not been considered so great, he would have become the world’s tallest handball player, much to his basketball-playing parents’ chagrin.

At any rate, the government threw $500 million at a sports development program in the 1980’s, including creating training programs in new sports from scratch. Though many gymnasts gravitate towards diving when they retire, in the China of those times, they were made to shift even at the peak of their careers.

For Yao, government intervention started early. Doctors knew about him even before his birth. Intrusive, embarrassing physical exams were commonplace even before his 10th birthday. Grueling training started at a young age, at the Xuhui District Sports School, with almost no days off. Then one day, government doctors descended upon their dingy gymnasium and required them all to undergo physical exams. At that point, 12-year-old Yao Ming was already 6’2”. Like all young boys, he was probably told to stand in the middle of a drafty Talent Selection Office room with his shorts and underwear around his ankles, waiting for doctors to finish looking him over, poking and prodding, and examining his genitals. Though commonplace then, for a young boy reaching puberty, that is an indelibly bitter experience.

That explains Yao’s self-protective attitude, and why he is the only Yao of his generation. Especially now that he has experienced the other extreme, that of American freedom of choice and commerce, he no longer needs to do anyone’s bidding. He is not obligated to be patient with anyone, or grant anyone favor. He is merely reacting to the system he has known most of his life.












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