After a news conference on a preseason trip to his hometown of Shanghai, Yao Ming asked me a question on our drive back to the hotel: Would I like to see where he grew up?
“Absolutely,” I told him.
This was October of 2003. As the new head coach of the Houston Rockets, I had only been on the job for a few months. Along with Tracy McGrady, Yao was our franchise cornerstone, a No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 NBA draft who, at 7-foot-6, had the skill and drive and temperament to be an MVP candidate every season.
At this time, we were still in the early stages to building a relationship. For starters, this preseason trip to China educated me quickly about the responsibility and pressure that he carried from the Far East. People rocked our bus outside the arenas. Everywhere we went in the country, they flooded us. What I noticed immediately, though: Yao was never flustered. He never lost his poise or his patience. The public Yao was the private Yao: To his core, there was an unmistakable peace to him.
So the driver of the van steered us to Yao’s elementary school, and he and I walked onto the playground. “Right there,” he told me, pointing to the ground. “That’s the dot where I stood for attendance every day.”
We drove to his childhood home, a modest walk-up of seven or eight floors. His old neighbors rushed toward him, young and old. To watch Yao, especially with the elderly folks there, the way he engaged them, is an image that never left me. There was such a warm, mutual caring between them. He wasn’t Yao Ming, the superstar basketball player. He was Yao Ming, the young kid that they had helped raise together.
As great of a player as Yao was, he was kind and patient with everybody. He wasn’t trying to feed an image, or cultivate a brand, or manipulate a public persona. There is a goodness about Yao that is unique, that never left him through all the pain and injuries and disappointments that accompanied his unprecedented accomplishments and successes.
I have heard some people disparaging Yao’s credentials for enshrinement into the Hall of Fame, and it bothers me. Yes, I know there are important factors beyond his shortened playing career – the bridge he built to the Far East for the NBA, the massive impact he’s had on growing the game’s popularity and finances. That’s all part of the induction, yes, but no one should lose sight of this fact: Outside of Shaq, Yao Ming was the best center in the world.
The difference between Shaq and Yao was much smaller than the gap that Yao created between himself and the next best center, Dwight Howard. Go back and watch those games, study the stats: It was complete and utter domination.
This isn’t to knock Howard, who has had a tremendous career. But Yao was clearly better. Yao’s size, his post game, his free-throw shooting made him nearly impossible to guard – and Howard was a three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
Yao was getting a bad whistle on a nightly basis too, which was often overlooked. When Yao had a major knee injury in the 2006-07 season, I believe he was on his way to becoming the regular-season MVP. He was averaging 26.8 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks. Truth be told, Yao Ming was toying with the league.
Sometimes, people forget how difficult walking into the NBA had been for Yao. All around the NBA, there was resentment toward him. Maybe it was the hype. Maybe it was something else. But plenty of people openly mocked and ridiculed him and it could’ve broken a lesser spirit. Even within his own Rockets locker room, Yao’s arrival wasn’t met with completely open arms. Some of the best players on the team had openly lobbied for the Rockets to draft [someone else].
Before long, though, Yao won over the locker room with his personality, his talent and his work ethic.
In his relentless approach to work and preparation, Yao was unlike anyone I had ever coached. It didn’t matter whether he had played great or poorly, whether we had won or lost: His preparation never changed. Not one day. I can still see him in the film room with my former assistant, Tom Thibodeau, in the early mornings on a practice day. Then onto the court for individual work; then team practice. And after everyone else had left, there was Yao back in the darkened film room, studying more tape. You could set your watch to his routine. We asked him to keep his weight down to reduce the pounding on his frame and prevent injury, to try and stay in the 298-to-305-pound range – with 5 or 6 percent body fat. His habits and commitment to doing that were unparalleled.
Among the hardest-working players I’ve ever been associated, Yao stands at the very top of the list. Beyond that, though, here’s what truly separated him from everyone else: His ability to enjoy other people’s successes.
A lot players – and people – can say “I only care about winning,” but what many are leaving out is this: “As long as I get my own way.”
Early in Yao’s career in Houston, there were times when we would close out games with Dikembe Mutombo on the floor. Deke was still a good player, and some nights, we wouldn’t go back to Yao late in the fourth quarter. It wasn’t just that Yao was a professional and handled the situation, it was much more than that: He was genuinely happy for Dikembe.
It wasn’t long until no one – including the head coach – could keep Yao off the court. At his size, people were used to seeing limited talents – players like Manute Bol and Gheorghe Muresan and Shawn Bradley. Yao earned respect everywhere in the league. People would try to rattle him, trash talk him and he never responded. And sometimes, well, you wanted to do it for him.
Once, we had lost T-Mac from the lineup and had a tough road back-to-back against the Lakers and Warriors. Yao was torching Kwame Brown, but fatigue was setting in. It was never easy moving that big frame up and down the floor. Yao had 35 points late in the third quarter and was bent over, breathing hard, next to Brown on the free-throw line.
Brown turned to our bench, and yelled to our assistant coach, Patrick Ewing: “Your boy is tired!”
Yao heard the opposing center and said nothing. No reaction. Well, I couldn’t help myself. “Of course he’s tired,” I yelled to Brown. “He’s tired because he’s been busting your ass all game.”
You could see the grin on Yao’s face. He had such a fantastic sense of humor. In his first season in the NBA, in 2002-03, Yao still had his interpreter, Colin Pine, doing the United Nations thing besides him. Well, we had furnished Colin with a microphone and moved him into a different room. Yao busted my chops every day, saying how I had banished Colin, shipped him into exile. Yao was deaf in one ear, and to this day, I still do not know which one. He would always make me switch sides, ask me to talk into the opposite ear. Of course, when I told him to get into a lower stance in the pick-and-roll defensive coverage, he became deaf in both ears.
It always reminded me of the scene in the movie “Brian’s Song,” when his Chicago Bears teammates played the prank on Gale Sayers and sent him into his first meeting with George Halas.
And for me, that’s how it will always be with Yao Ming: When I think of him, I’ll smile. He’s a joyful, wonderful spirit, one of the best men I’ve ever known. I’ll be in Springfield to watch his induction speech, and I truly believe this: I still think his most important contributions to society, his greatest legacies, still await him in life. The great causes that he’s championed, the changes he can impact in so many people’s lives, drive him like his passions to become a great player did in the NBA.
Welcome into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Yao. You earned it.
Jeff Van Gundy coached Yao Ming for four seasons – 2003-07 – with the Houston Rockets.
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