The great unknown

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HOUSTON – Jeff Van Gundy has heard so much criticism of Yao Ming that he hardly waits to get asked about his 7-foot-6 Chinese center before jumping to his defense.

"I've dealt with a lot of players and there (are) more misconceptions about Yao Ming than anyone," said the Houston Rockets coach while leaning against a wall outside the team's locker room.

As either the head or assistant coach of the New York Knicks, Van Gundy was around Latrell Sprewell, Charles Oakley, Patrick Ewing, John Starks, Anthony Mason, Charles Smith and Rod Strickland. The New York tabloids were ready to pounce on all of them.

We aren't saying they were all trouble or troubled, but occasionally misconceived? How couldn't they be? So when Van Gundy says the aforementioned about Yao, it means something.

But Yao is a giant in every regard and as a result everything gets played big – from expectations of his potential to questions about his performance. All of which grinds Van Gundy to no end.

"Everyone wants to hate on him for some reason," Van Gundy said.

Well, he is intriguing. There is a fascinating book out ("Operation Yao Ming" by Brook Larmer) that details how Yao was bred by the Chinese government to become the nation's basketball savoir – a Shanghai shot blocker who could beat the United States at two of its favorite games, basketball and business.

So after three full seasons in the NBA, people want to know not just why he isn't the best player in the league but also why he isn't even the best player on his team (Tracy McGrady is).

Yao averaged 18.3 points and 8.4 rebounds a game last season, but he didn't look like a take-charge, championship-caliber player when the Rockets blew a 2-0 series lead to Dallas in the opening round.

He's good. But this is a former No. 1 overall pick.

"Kwame Brown was a No. 1 pick and the expectations on him are not (like this)," defended Van Gundy.

OK, Yao is a No. 1 pick who stands 7-6, comes from a mysterious foreign land and was relentlessly promoted by the league. Not to mention, his birth may have been genetically engineered by the Chinese after pairing up the two of the tallest of their one billion people.

Kwame Brown was a teenager from small-town Georgia.

"Yao is a very, very good player," Van Gundy said. "People think he should already be great and want to talk about what he hasn't done rather than what he has done. I choose not to do that.

"Hopefully he will reach greatness. But the only guy I've heard him compared to is Shaquille O'Neal. Anyone compared to Shaquille O'Neal is going to pale in comparison. He is clearly, clearly, without question, the second best center in the league.

"It is not even close."

The second best center in the league is breaking a sweat just to the right of the free-throw line at the Toyota Center. A Rockets assistant coach is feeding him bounce passes and Yao is grabbing them at his waist, hoisting them all the way up into the thin air near his head and popping jump shots. He makes nearly all of them.

Never in bad shape (Van Gundy points out), Yao is in phenomenal condition entering his fourth season. His body fat is supposed to be down to 7.5 percent. His legs are ripped. He looks like he could run all day, which is a remarkable thought considering how big he is.

Yao promises to be better than ever this season. He notes that, while growing up in China, he rarely played more than once a week, putting him at an experience deficit to American-born players who grew up playing all the time, albeit playground, AAU or high school ball.

"It's not important (how) people look at me," he said. "I like to push myself. (I) feel (I) push myself better than other people push (me)."

Yao said all of that in English and he said it all by himself. In a new twist this season, he is no longer using a translator, even when a small crowd of reporters surrounds his locker. For a guy supposedly shrouded in mystery and intrigue, misunderstood and pressured from the outside, Yao is still a smiling, engaging personality.

"He is a good jokester," Van Gundy notes.

It is McGrady and Juwan Howard who don't talk to the media before games, even meaningless exhibition games. Not Yao. He even makes a joke about the NBA's new dress code.

"No bling bling," he smiles, fully understanding that Yao Ming saying "bling bling" is a universally funny thing.

The criticism started coming last year when people wondered if Yao was as committed to winning as other NBA players (Van Gundy can do a 15-minute defense on this). The playoff collapse stung, especially the Rockets' Game 7 no-show that Dallas won by 40. At Yao's size, it is difficult to duck criticism, so he heard whispers that so many foreign players do.

Yao has a different take on it.

"Game 7 (will) never happen again," he promised. "(I) don't need to watch (the game tape). That is deep in my mind.

"We'll be better than last year. Tracy and me will have one year experience (to) know how to play with each other."

This is perhaps why Van Gundy is so quick to defend the man. He loves his personality. He loves his dedication. He loves his intelligence. He loves that Yao doesn't balk at any request, even if it means getting his big frame into a defensive crouch and guarding smaller, swifter players out on the floor.

"You're 7-6 and you have to get into a stance and move?" Van Gundy said. "It's probably not the most enjoyable part of the job."

Perhaps most of all, Van Gundy loves Yao's sense of properly placed urgency. Teamed with McGrady, Yao is not asked to be the best player on the team, the go-to offensive talent. At this point, maybe no one expects Yao to reinvent the game and become a 30-20 guy or some outrageous thing like that. Maybe he doesn't have to be great. Maybe he just needs to be a part of a great team.

The good news is that, as the NBA season begins this week, the spotlight is hardly on Yao. It is on San Antonio, Miami or Ron Artest. No one is talking Houston.

But the Rockets know they are better than last year's playoff performance, and while they may not be on anyone's NBA championship short list, that doesn't mean the season is being taken lightly. This is a team with extremely high expectations.

"Time is running so quick," Yao said. "We don't have much time for waste. I am only 26 but I don't know how long I can play – 32 or maybe 34. That's not long. (We) don't have a day to waste."

There is nothing to misconceive there. The guy who is always hearing about his future knows it is here for the taking right now.