Yao Ming couldn't tell his Rockets teammates they called him the wrong name

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Eric Freeman
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Yao Ming holds back Rockets teammate Steve Francis (Getty Images).
Yao Ming holds back Rockets teammate Steve Francis (Getty Images).

Players who come to the NBA from foreign countries often have difficulty adjusting to the culture of the United States, but few have seemed so comfortable while still remaining themselves as Houston Rockets great and soon-to-be Hall of Famer Yao Ming. The first pick of the 2002 draft came to Houston and immediately became friends with players like Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley, who came from very different backgrounds and easily could have been dismissed via preconceptions. That openness and warmth helped make Yao one of the most widely liked players of his era.

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It turns out that his adjustment wasn’t entirely easy. In fact, he didn’t have the heart to tell his Rockets teammates they were calling him by the wrong name. From Yao’s new article for The Players’ Tribune:

Steve [Francis] was the first person to greet me when I visited the arena. He walked across the locker room and gave me the hardest high five I’d ever felt. He put his entire body into it. You really could feel his muscle. My hand stung.

That was 14 years ago. Everything went so fast my rookie year, but I remember the first few weeks very clearly. You always remember first impressions. On that day, my coaches were showing me my new locker. I was so excited to see my name on my new Rockets jersey. That was a big thing for me because I had never had my name on a jersey before. There were a lot of big things that were different when I came to the NBA, but I remember the little things like that the most. For example, everyone called me “Yao” — they thought it was my first name. In China, our surnames come first and our given names last. To my Chinese friends, I was Ming. Now I was just Yao. Once everyone started saying it that way, I never corrected them. I was too shy.

It’s too bad that Yao was called by an unpreferred name, but it’s also worth noting that the Rockets may have known what they were doing. Most of my friends call me by my last name and have for years, and they probably wouldn’t stop even if I asked them. While Yao’s cultural background obviously changes things, he says elsewhere in the article that his new teammates had studied up on plenty of Chinese customs:

I didn’t know this at the time, but before I arrived, the Rockets had hired a Chinese professor from a local university to teach the team about Chinese customs. Everyone was so friendly and trying very hard to show me that they knew some things about Chinese culture. They showed me that they even knew little things, like how Chinese people hold a business card with two hands when we exchange it. I laugh when I think about it. At the time, all I wanted was for everyone to treat me the same as any other NBA player. But it was those small things that made me feel their warmth toward me.

Whatever the case, it’s pretty clear that Yao (or Ming?) still feels great affection for his teammates. Expect him to give many of them credit when he gives his speech in Springfield later this offseason.