Court Favorite

At seven feet six inches tall and about three hundred pounds, Yao Ming, the basketball superstar who plays for the Houston Rockets, is, for many Americans, the most famous living Chinese. In 2002 he was the number-one overall pick in the National Basketball Association (NBA)’s initial selection round—the first foreigner who had never played for an American university to be the first chosen. In April, when he broke his foot in his fourth year playing for Houston, it was global front-page news. His contract with Reebok alone (he is also sponsored by Pepsi-Cola, McDonald’s, and other corporations) is worth tens of millions of dollars. These sponsors were probably pleased by Yao’s superior performance last season: he averaged 22.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game, statistics that put him in the top tier of NBA players today. As Brook Larmer observes in Operation Yao Ming, Yao has been a “conduit for American business and sports coming to the Middle Kingdom.”

Brook Larmer is a veteran reporter for Newsweek, and he currently serves as the magazine’s Shanghai bureau chief. In his lively, intelligent, and well-informed book he surveys the history of Chinese basketball, recalling that American missionaries brought the sport to China at the end of the nineteenth century, and that it developed through the Republican and Communist periods. During the early Communist era, sports were regarded as revolutionary activities—even Mao’s guerrilla soldiers were known to play basketball. But the fate of sports changed in 1966 at the start of the Cultural Revolution when they were suddenly condemned as “a dangerous manifestation of bourgeois self-centeredness,” and once-prestigious athletes were tormented by the Red Guards.

By 1969, sports were again declared worthy of praise. As Larmer points out, sports remain one of the few business activities in China still under state control, so much so that the NBA’s most sophisticated and ruthless entrepreneurs make great efforts to avoid offending Beijing. “Even as tens of millions of Chinese shed the socialist work unit, the sports machine remains one of the last ‘womb to tomb’ social structures, a relic of the past that continues only because it has been so successful,” Larmer writes.

No one is more aware than Yao Ming of the Chinese state’s involvement in every aspect of big-time sports, particularly since the controversy over Wang Zhizhi, China’s second-most-famous basketball player. In 2001 Wang was granted permission to join the Dallas Mavericks for their 2001–2002 season, making him the first Chinese star to play in the NBA. At the end of the season Wang defied the authorities’ orders that he return home and chose to stay in the US. He was unprepared to submit himself, as has Yao, to the state’s demand that national glory take precedence over personal fame. The Chinese Basketball Association’s vice-president, Li Yuanwei, went to the US to meet with Wang in February 2006 to discuss his possible return. “It’s a crucial move for him to return in an answer to the motherland’s call,” Li Yuanwei said to the…

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