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The Tao of Yao

The Story Behind Yao Ming
Written by Oliver Chin


THE HALL OF FAME and former San Diego Clipper center Bill Walton had voyaged across the Pacific Ocean in 2000 and saw the future of basketball: “As we approach the halfway point of the Age of Shaq, the search for a successor has extended to the least likely of places: China. Why? If you watched the Olympics, you know. I was there, and after watching Yao Ming compete against the best players in the world, I left Sydney dizzy with the possibilities.”

Information About the Writer

Oliver Chin is the author of the forthcoming book The Tao of Yao: Insights from Basketball’s Brightest Big Man.

Oliver Chin

Oliver Chin has been a lifelong basketball fan, weekend warrior, and an aficionado of regional sports rivalries as he has lived in Los Angeles, Boston, New York, and San Francisco.

Graduating from Harvard University with a degree in Social Studies, he concentrated in Popular Culture and Mass Media with a magna cum laude senior thesis Just Do It: Sports Advertising and the American Dream.

A media professional and columnist on entertainment and media trends, he recently wrote and illustrated the acclaimed graphic novel Nine of One: A Window to the World ( and the new non-fiction book The Tao of Yao: Insights from Basketball's Brightest Big Man ( To discuss Asian American issues, he has been invited to speak on National Public Radio and at Columbia University and Yale University. Currently he resides in San Francisco, CA.

IN AN ERA OF CONTINUING SCANDALS from all ranks of organized sports, fans are hard pressed to find durable heroes. But this season, millions of eyes will turn again to the surprise role model of last year…Yao Ming. At 7’5”, this Chinese giant was hard to ignore. But even harder to overlook were the wisdom and professionalism he has brought to the game of basketball.

THE FIRST INTERNATIONAL PLAYER to be the NBA’s #1 draft pick, Yao face enormous expectations from both East and West. Therefore he cautioned supporters and skeptics, “Respect is something you earn, not something someone gives to you.” Quickly Yao won over teammates and opponents alike with his down-to-earth personality as much as his dependable performance. In awe, ESPN The Magazine remarked that Yao's refreshing attitude “blows through the NBA like a blast of fresh air into a collapsed mine shaft.” Perhaps this was because Yao's words and deeds are rooted in the eternal wisdom of ancient Chinese philosophy.

SECOND ONLY TO THE BIBLE in the number of translations throughout history, Lao Tzu’s book the Tao Te Ching has been a spiritual pillar of Asian culture for two millenia. Meaning “the Way,” the Tao is symbolized by a circle divided into two complimentary halves, the black Yin and the white Yang. Representing the cycle of life, these “opposites attract” and show how an individual should live a life in balance.

COMING TO AMERICA, Yao embodied these principles as he kept an even keel in the face of an imposing culture clash, “It is hard to pick out the one part that has been the hardest. I've had ups and downs like the waves of the ocean.'' The coach of the Sacramento Kings and former San Diego Rocket player Rick Adelman admired Yao’s equanimity, “I just watch his composure. And he's really very even-keeled. He has up games, but he's not down after he has a tough game. He keeps playing. He's very gracious to the people he plays against, but he's a competitor. You could have a situation that could be very tough, but he could handle it.”

ONE OF THE LAST PLAYERS to become a San Diego Rocket, before the franchise was moved to Houston, Rudy Tomjanovich later became the team’s most winningest coach. Commenting on Yao’s ability to handle the NBA’s rough style of play, Yao, he said: “Yao just accepts it as a part of the game. He may get mad at himself, but I've seen situations where veteran guys get physical, and all of a sudden, they're blowing a gasket. He has a very even temperament.” (Editor's Note: For the 2003-2004 season, Jeff Van Gundy became the coach for the Houston Rockets and he brought in Patrick Ewing to teach Yao the finer aspects of becoming a upper echelon center in the NBA.)

SURVIVING THESE AND OTHER BOUTS, however Yao maintained both his poise and perspective, “I hope I am a good textbook. It seems to me I am here to do more than play basketball.” In so doing he revitalizing the ritual of the media interview, Yao often perplexed the press: “Sometimes the hardest challenges are easier than the more difficult ones.” Reporters snickered. But others recognized the kernels of truth.

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THE LEGENDARY GURU OF BIG MEN, Pete Newell was the San Diego Rockets general manager who drafted Tomjanovich, and later brought Kareem Abdul-Jabbar from the hinterlands of Milwaukee to become the cornerstone of the Los Angeles Lakers’ dynasty. (Editor's Note: This era was commonly known as the time of "Showtime" that featured the talents and charisma of Earvin "Magic" Johnson) Regarding the globalization of the sport, Newell said, “You are going to see the amount of international players continue to increase because they are coming into the NBA more skillful than the players who've been in the league for three or four years. Just look at Yao Ming.”

BACK IN 2000, WALTON CONCLUDED that basketball’s future was Yao: “Simply put, the 20-year-old Yao has a chance to alter the way the game of basketball is played… Over the past 15 years, the NBA has put a higher premium on physical talent than on skill. The international game favors the opposite, skill without the physical prowess. Yao Ming has the chance to be the bridge that spans both worlds.” (Editor's Note: During Yao's rookie season, he was elected to be on the Western Division starting center over the Los Angeles Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal.)

PERHAPS INADVERTENTLY, YAO HAS BECOME an authentic teacher of Taoist values to an awe-struck yet accepting world. This season Yao has both less to prove but more to live up to, because he has emerged as a twenty-first century role model not only for basketball but also for life.

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