Siddarth Sharma - sidbreakball

How Yao Ming scaled the Great Wall of Chinese bureaucracy to get to the NBA

Published on
February 12, 2017

Without Dr. James Naismith, we wouldn't have basketball today. Equally true is the fact that without him making his invention at the YMCA, the game probably would not have spread as far and wide as it did. And if it wasn't for Christian missionaries introducing the sport of basketball in the city of Tianjin in 1895/1898, Yao Ming might not have been born at all.

Missionaries, who would travel far and wide to spread Christianity, would carry another tiny booklet with them along with the Bible: "The 13 rules of basketball". That led to the proliferation of the sport across the globe.

When we look at Yao Ming, we imagine a product developed by sparing no expense in some laboratory in China. A Goliath whose path to the NBA was ordained with a red carpet.  This was far from the case. For Yao, competing in the NBA was the easy part. He and his family had numerous obstacles to overcome before he could be allowed to play in the NBA. Here’s how he did it.

The chosen ones: Yao Ming’s parents

In the 1950s, the Chinese government picked out talented youngsters and initiated them in specialized training programs where they'd have access to ample food and nutrition and medicine. They'd also be put through a mechanized, grueling, year-long training schedule.

The idea was to attain supremacy in the 'big ball' games as well like they had in ping pong. On one hand, they sought excellence in the sport, on the other hand sometimes they instructed the basketball teams to lose games so that the opponent would lose face. 

“The intrusion of politics made us angry,” said Zhang Weiping, a high-scoring forward on the men’s national team. “The Chinese embassy talked to our coach and told him that we needed to give the locals some face. So we had to find creative ways to throw the game.”

Regardless, the program was extremely serious about getting tall citizens to be dedicated to the sport. Taking inspiration from Soviet Russia, China had adopted a policy of directing the young, talented sportspersons into the government program to develop sporting talent.

Yao Ming's parents were chosen by the Chinese government to marry and hopefully give birth to a tall child who'll grow up, up, and up even taller. His mother Feng Fengdi stood at 6"2 and his father Yao Zhiyuan was 6"10. They were both basketball players, although neither took it up by choice. 

"I was tall, so I had to learn how to play basketball. I had no choice," said Da Yao with a rueful smile. (Da Yao translates to Big Yao) He was sent to train at a specialized sports school in Shanghai's Xuhui District.

"I always thought I'd be an entertainer, but I didn't like Basketball at all," said Da Fang. She was sent to train at a sports club at No. 651, Nanjing Road.

Although the training locations differed for the yet to-meet-parents-to-be, the training principles revolved around three dictums: eat, sleep and train for six hours a day.

The players in the training programs in China were forbidden to marry before the age of 30 and 28 for the men and women. With both of Yao's parents probably being the tallest people in Shanghai, it was natural for the government to gravitate those two towards each other. 

One man who coached Yao Ming and played with his father back in the day, Wang Chongguang, said, "We had been looking forward to the arrival of Yao Ming for three generations."

Da Fang's former head coach on the Shanghai team would jokingly tell them both, "You both are so tall, you should get together, you'll understand each other. Just imagine how tall your children would be."

Yao's arrival was almost inevitable under the circumstances. At the time of his birth, Yao Ming was 23 inches tall and weighed 11.2 pounds. That's almost double the size of an average Chinese newborn. 

It's true that Yao's parents were chosen to produce the next big thing, but the end game wasn't making it to the NBA in the beginning. The goal was to attain glory for the Chinese national basketball team.

Growing pains

Yao was from from a lab-grown talent. His parents had to hustle hard to get him to a place to be inspired by the Harlem Globetrotters.

If so much effort and planning had gone into getting two tall people to play basketball, then getting them to marry, why stop at one child? China might have had a one-child policy, but anyone ought to exclude this exceptional couple. 

The answer lay in the Yao family not getting sanction/approval/directive to have another child. These directives come from the sports commission, and speculation has it that Yao's mother had offended the man in power at the sports training center, Zhu Yong. 

Former Shanghai forward Lu Bin recalls that the players who had been promoted to the position of Red Guards, and subsequently fell down from the position and were looked down upon by those on whom they had exercised their authority

Lu recalls, “The revenge was fierce. The leaders had long memories, and now that they were in power again, they wanted to ‘clear accounts’."

Yao didn't have the red carpet rolled out for him from birth. His father didn't have a lucrative salary, he worked a job at the Shanghai port, while his wife did clerical work at the sports science library. She barely earned half of what her colleagues made, which was roughly $17. 

Back in the 1980s, household commodities were sparsely available to them, as they were rationed by the government for everybody. Yao's parents often went hungry to feed their young boy whose appetite grew exponentially. When Yao's grandfather moved in with them owing to the death of his grandmother, the family's budget was constrained even further. 

Lu Bin also recalls that the family's friends would approach the Shanghai officials and request them to provide more food to Yao's family, to no avail. Lu Bin recalled, “A lot of us went to the sports commission and told them Da Fang needed help giving proper nourishment to Yao Ming. The officials all knew about Yao’s case, she said, “but they never did anything.”

This wasn't the case in the other cities with other families who had tall children. They were provided with extra rations. But because of some officials who allegedly held a grudge, they didn't get all that they needed.

Little acts of kindnesses helped them. For instance, their milkman offered them an extra ration card for several years so that they could supply Yao Ming with the calcium he'd need to grow.

Even so, some aftereffects lingered. His family thinks that the reason he's almost half deaf in his left ear is because of an allergic reaction to the penicillin he took as a child when he had a kidney disease.

Learning to love the game

Yao's parents were not particularly fond of basketball when they had to take it up. He himself had a huge burden on his shoulders from birth itself to live up to the expectations of being a good basketball player. Basketball has a steep learning curve, shooting a basketball remains one of the more difficult skills to learn in any sport. Initially, Yao had his share of embarrassing moments on the court. The training regime he was under was devoid of room for creative improvisation, and he was insulated from the fun aspect of the sport.

Yao's parents did their part in instilling a love for the game in their son. His father would take him shooting, and promise him small gifts for each basket he made. “My father bribed me into playing!” Yao recalled with good humour. 

One of the important milestones in his life was witnessing a certain team from the USA strut their stuff. At the age of nine, his mother took him to witness the touring Harlem Globetrotters in action. It can be argued that no other team exuded such pure joy for the sport, and watching their flamboyant exhibition was a breath of fresh air for Yao.

"I think that experience had a strong influence on Yao Ming,” Da Fang said. “They turned basketball into a great show, a form of entertainment.”

The courting of Yao Ming for the NBA began with Nike. In the mother of all coincidences, Yao Ming's good friend Frank Sha, who had carried him around as a kid, worked for Nike. 

Nike took him to the Nike Euro Camp in Paris in 1997, and his mother had to fight to obtain permission for that. Nike had been establishing in China for quite some time. The CBA was launched by IMG with help from Nike in 1995. But Nike wasn't on the best of terms with the CBA, who fought against the monopolization of the league.

Nike held a strong influence on Yao, even canceling a meeting scheduled between the Portland Trail Blazers president Bob Whitsitt so as to not give preferential treatment to one of its NBA clients. But they were out of their depths within the Chinese bureaucracy.

An Evergreen contract 

The Shanghai Sharks of the CBA had proclaimed that Yao would be allowed to go to the NBA “at the appropriate time, with the appropriate team, and under the appropriate conditions.” They wanted the most they could in return for Yao.

The then deputy manager of the Shanghai Sharks, Li Yaomin, had claimed that one NBA team had offered the Sharks $1 million to release Yao. He once walked into a meeting with Nike and proclaimed, “It’s amazing the level of interest there is in Yao Ming. I’ve decided that I want to do all I can to help him realize his dream of playing in the NBA. He’s definitely going to need an agent.”

In October 1998, Li was visited by Michael Coyne, who headed Evergreen Sports Management. He explained that his firm was very keen on signing Yao Ming. Both men found common ground, and on 30th April, 1999, Yao's family were visited by Li and Michael Coyne. The meeting would not be pleasant.

Coyne inundated the family with a pedantic presentation on a three-year plan to transform Yao into an NBA star. He weaved in and out of details about salary structures in the NBA; training, nutrition and tutoring programs for Yao; and myriad other details about adjusting him to life in the USA.

Da Fang felt that the presentation was too slick. She said, "I don’t understand why this has to happen so fast. Yao Ming is not good enough to play in the NBA yet."

Coyne countered that precisely because he's not ready, he needs to move fast. Coyne countered, "He’s not physically ready yet, but we have all the approvals we need. Yao is just on the cusp, he’s not on the radar now. When he gets more noticed, more valuable, it will be harder to get released."

It would also allow him more years in the NBA to make more money. All seemed above board until the contract Coyne pushed mentioned that Evergreen Sports Management would garner one-third of Yao's earnings for the three-year duration of the contract. Even after that gigantic cut, Yao's would receive less than a third of his earnings due to some clauses.

Yao's family wanted to mull the contract over, the discussions had continued to 2 AM. Things got heated to the point where Li called Da Fang a "peasant" and gave an ultimatum, “This is your last chance. If you don’t sign this, your son is never going to the NBA!” At 3 AM, the shaken family left the meeting after Yao signed the deal.

Nike swoops in

Nike were shocked to find out about this the next morning from Frank Sha who was filled in by Da Fang. Later, Nike confirmed to the family that the contract signed would not be valid in the NBA.  Later, Li would dispute that saying that the contract called for additional services in player development beyond what the standard NBA contract entailed. Regardless, this contract situation shook Nike into a move to sign Yao officially before any other unforeseen developments occurred.

They wanted to sign him to a four-year deal, which Da Fang felt was way too long. But Frank Sha explained that this was standard procedure for Nike to develop the brand of an athlete. Again, the family had to go along with it. Da Fang told Sha, "I’m only signing this out of respect for your father because he was my coach.”

Nike introduced the family to Bill Duffy, a sports agent who now handles stars like Rajon Rondo and Zach LaVine. Duffy was disliked by Li, who suspected him of scuttling Yao's deal with Evergreen Sports Management. Duffy decided to go over Li to the mayor of Shanghai and the owner of the Sharks at Shanghai Television. 

But Li wasn't done. He had met with several NBA agents, including David Falk, who was Michael Jordan's agent. Falk had conversations with Da Fang, and unofficially it seemed that Yao had signed with him. However, Terry Rhoades, Sports Marketing Director of Nike in China advised Yao to sign with Duffy. 

Yao's mother Da Fang recalled, “Everybody who knew Yao Ming would tell me the same thing: ‘Your son is too pure and honest. People will take advantage of him when he grows up.’” But Yao had begun to assert himself with age.

Da Fang was all for Falk, but Yao shot that idea down. “This was the first time that Yao Ming had ever stood up to his mother,” Rhoads recalled. Yao ended up writing a letter to the NBA Players' Association refuting his intention of not signing with Falk.

In part, the letter read “My family and I will resist any attempt to infringe upon our inalienable rights of exercising free will.” This opened up discussions between NBA executives and Shanghai Sharks, during which the Sharks claimed to hold rights to Yao in perpetuity, thus requiring a substantial buyout. 

The deciding move

“Yao Ming is China’s Michael Jordan,” Li explained. “We cultivated him from childhood, made him what he is today. If we’re being asked to give him up, don’t you think we should get a high price?”

The Sharks wanted a number of benefits besides cold, hard cash in return. Special television rights for NBA matches, NBA clinics, establishing new basketball schools and also financial assistance to build a new stadium.

One bargaining chip with the NBA officials was Yao's draft stock. They explained that if there's ambiguity about whether Yao would be released by the Sharks, teams in the NBA might not be so eager to draft him. This would impact the scale of his rookie contract and as a result, the amount which the Sharks would earn from him.

The deadline for declaring the 2001 NBA was 13th May 2001. Right before that, Da Fang even offered almost $1 million to the Sharks to release Yao, to no avail.

On 11th May, the Sharks announced that Yao would not enter the NBA draft in a press conference. They cited various reasons, the CBA losing a star, him being too young to play in the NBA, the Sharks needing him to help them win their first championship since the 1949 revolution.

Yao recalled the bitter emotions he felt at that time, saying "Once your heart gets broken, once you feel like your dream passed you by, you can really grow up. For that period I was very depressed. When I faced the TV camera I smiled, but that was a cover-up.”

Two other players from China who had come up around Yao, Wang Zhizhi and Mengke Bateer, had both signed with NBA teams by 2002. That season, Yao averaged 29.7 points, 18.5 rebounds and almost five blocks per game for the Sharks in the CBA.

The CBA Finals came up, and Yao delivered a seminal performance to help his release to the NBA. He averaged over 45 points and 22 rebounds per game in the Finals against Beijing in the Finals, and even had a game where he made all 21 of his shot attempts.

In spite of scoring 44 points and getting 21 rebounds in the final game, Yao's team barely won 123-122 on a last minute tip-in.

After the game, the Sharks’ general manager Bai Li announced live on Shanghai TV, “Now I would like to deliver a piece of good news. The club has decided that it will no longer keep Yao Ming from going to the NBA. Yao has opened the door to the NBA with his own hard work 

Ten days after that final, Yao headed to the USA for his NBA tryouts. Around this time, the CBA announced that he'd be liable to send 50 percent of his earnings to the Chinese government. It seemed that there was no end to how much Yao would have to deliver to make it to the NBA.

The noose seemed to tighten again, as the deadline for declaring for the 2002 NBA draft came closer. It was at this point that Yao’s mother, weary of not getting approval for Yao, said less than a week before the NBA Draft, “If we don’t reach an agreement, Yao Ming will never play basketball again. He will go to university, and that will be the end of his career. That’s okay because that’s what we wanted from the start.”

Enter Erik Zhang, a family friend living in the USA. He had introduced himself as a distant cousin of Yao Ming to the Sharks. He was someone Yao’s family trusted, and he was set to negotiate a release for Yao. 

The CBA banned Yao from going to the USA to attend the NBA Draft. In a desperate attempt, Zhang’s response was to announce to the media that a press conference will be held and he informed the Sharks that if he wasn't released then the fact would be made public.

The Sharks ended up releasing him, and the conference ended up being an announcement that Yao Ming was being allowed to go to the NBA by Shanghai.

Yao has given back to save sharks.

Finally, after late night contracts with ultimatums, after numerous parties trying to get their pound of flesh; after being disallowed and discouraged, again and again, the gentle giant from China made it to the NBA.

The rest, is history enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

(source- Operation Yao Ming: “The Chinese Sports Empire, American Big Business, and the Making of an NBA Superstar” by Brook Larmer)

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