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Will Yao Continue to Wow?

Philip Burrowes

Anyone who has been anticipating the forthcoming World Basketball Championships has no doubt heard what NBA Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace has promised to do to China’s 7' 5" Yao Ming: “beat him up pretty bad.” Why, exactly, Yao is receiving such enmity from a soon-to-be peer is not so well known. Claiming to provide a “Welcome to the league, welcome to our country,’’ as Wallace did, is not a satisfactory reason. First of all, the Worlds will be played under FIBA (think FIFA, but basketball), not NBA, rules. Secondly, while the games are being played in the United States, this tournament has been historically overlooked by Americans, who choose to believe the NBA Finals are world championships in and of themselves. Nor do any of the other “obvious” explanations of jealousy, jingoism, or merely juvenile jock antics suffice. Incoming students should note that some of the greatest animosity against them can result of their own good intentions.

Let us first get the red herring of racism -- which most people would rather not discuss -- out of the way. One might imagine that because Wallace did not threaten Brazil’s Nene Hilario -- before Hilario withdrew from the Worlds -- he is employing some double standard. Hilario is younger than Yao and perhaps even less “proven” through the American system, but unlike Yao he fits the stereotypical baller image. Ben Wallace, like any other human being, may or may not be a racist, but it is highly unlikely that his words were dictated solely by racial animosity. If that were true, why no comments on Denver’s Mengke Bateer or Dallas’ Wang Zhizhi? Maybe Wallace is one of those sophisticated racists, and distinguishes Bateer’s Mongolian and Wang’s Beijing births, from the more cosmopolitan image of Yao’s Shanghai home. Perhaps they’re not just big enough targets for Wallace, but that at least shows us there is another element.

Neither Bateer nor Wang were especially hyped within the United States, except for the collective attention they received along with Yao as the “Walking Great Wall” at Sydney. Media coverage and internal expectations do not a player make, however (ask Harold Minor). Those with the greatest potential are often the ones who are given the longest “free ride” of development time (ask any high schooler post-Kobe Bryant). Unlike the foreign-born big men of the past, such as Patrick Ewing and Yao’s supposed idol Hakeem Olajuwon, Yao enters the league at a time where it’s almost common place for rookies to post minimal numbers, and if he does have an immediate impact it may be to the detriment of his future with the team (ask any Rookies of the Year since Elton Brand/Steve Francis).

Tim Duncan was born outside of the country (sort of; no offense to anyone else who hails from St. Croix) and became star player upon entrance into the NBA, but he is one of those freaks who actually goes to college, and for four years at that. Wallace too did his time, but was actually not drafted before joining the then-Washington Bullets. He might be accused of rational jealousy; Yao is “unproven” against the rigors of American competition, yet he is eagerly anticipated, while Wallace had to prove his worth. It would be easy to compare Wallace’s cynicism with former Chicago Bull Scottie Pippen’s disdain for highly coveted Croat Toni Kukoc, who was being lured by the Chicago management with the promise of a hefty contract while Pippen was being “underpaid.” Like Wallace, Pippen and teammate Michael Jordan promised to shut down Kukoc during the 1992 Olympics to wake Jerry Krause and company from their dreamland, embarrassing their eventual teammate.

Of course, the reason Wallace had to prove his worth is that he played Division II basketball at Virginia Union, a resume which doesn’t compare that favorably to Yao’s five years of professional basketball and international competition. Money is no real object either, as rookie contracts are now heavily limited (ironically thanks in part to another 7-foot-plus foreigner, Shawn Bradley), and Yao will have to pay a lot of money through taxes to the PRC and his former team. Jay (neÉ Jason) Williams, Wallace’s USA teammate, would seem the more likely candidate for envy, as he was passed up for Yao in the NBA Draft. Nevertheless it was Williams who gushed over Yao after a recent US-China exhibition, saying, “He blew away my expectations with the way he played.”

Well, then what could possibly explain Wallace’s comments? Simple: Yao asked for it. Instead of shying from the speculation, he has promised to try and “conquer” Shaquille O’Neal, claims to enjoy attention because it makes him feel like he’s “still in China,” and after a collision with Wallace in the exhibition, hoped “it didn’t hurt him much.” (Wallace admitted that Yao, “was a whole lot better than I thought he was.”) This is in mark contrast to Wang, who quietly endures all the ribbing he gets from teammates and commentators. As long as Yao’s performance can keep up with his mouth, he should be alright. Let him be a lesson to any new hotshots on campus should he fail.