November 26, 2002

Asian Invasion

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Yao-za! The Ming Dyanasty. The big, tall Chinese freak.

Hey, we heard it all in the months after Yao Ming was drafted this past June. Standing 7-5, the Houston Rockets’ Chinese center was a hot topic of discussion among so-called experts. Pundits said he was too slow and too soft. They said he wouldn’t be able to adjust to the NBA style of play — that it’d be too physical for him. They said that the language barrier would be too much for Yao to handle, that ghetto-licious teammates Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley could never play with the foreigner.

And my friend joined in, constantly telling me that Yao was the Asian Manute Bol or the Asian Shawn Bradley.

Well, after 12 games, one thing is for sure. Those doubters had better stick their heads in the sand, because Yao has shown that given an opportunity, he will develop into a dominant force in the NBA. Granted, he’s still averaging just nine points and five boards a game, but he’s shown flashes of greatness, including a 30-point, 16-rebound performance against Dallas. Oh, and at 7-5 with arms that stretch into the heavens, he doesn’t have to do much to get to the rim, which is why he leads the league in field-goal percentage. The point is, the guy is good.

With talent oozing from Yao’s towering frame, one must then wonder why there were so many critics to begin with. The guy’s tall, he can shoot the three, he’s tall, he’s agile, and did I mention he’s tall? What’s not to like?

As controversial as it may be, I’m going to pull out the dreaded Johnnie Cochran, otherwise known as the race card. People questioned Yao and some still do because he’s Chinese. While most Americans will deny holding prejudices, 99.9 percent of them — including myself — hold stereotypes. And for most people, a Chinese man dominating on the basketball court doesn’t fit into that vision. Hell, any Asian on the basketball court doesn’t seem truly natural. Face it, engineers and computer geeks, right? Yeah, I knew exactly what you were thinking.

It was only half a century ago that African-Americans were deemed unworthy of playing on the same level as Caucasians. With the exception of exclusionary all-White country clubs, these physical barriers have since vanished. While I’m not comparing Yao’s situation with the physical barriers which African-Americans faced, I do see a similarity in terms of public perception.

Don’t believe me? Just take a look at the actions and words of two of the greatest basketball players of our era, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal. Sure, they’ve never been known to be great diplomats, but their ridicule of Yao is still startling.

Shaq hasn’t shied away from criticizing Yao and has purposely butchered the man’s name on several occasions. I’m not sure he has yet to pronounce the name correctly.

Sir Charles? He too has repeatedly ridiculed Yao’s name.

Of course, Chuck got his just desserts when he went on TV last week and bet fellow broadcaster Kenny Smith that the Houston center couldn’t score 19 points in a game this season. Two days later, Yao posted a then-career-high 20 points.

The result: Barkley puckered up and kissed a donkey’s haunches on national TV.

It’s a pity that Yao has to do that much more in order to earn the respect of his peers. With more and more Asians making their way across the Pacific, these attitudes will undoubtedly change in the near future.

However, until then, I’ll be the biggest Yao supporter on the Cornell campus. Basketball fans, get on the bandwagon and give the big man his due. It’s an Asian invasion and rise of the Ming Dynasty.

Archived article by Alex Ip