When Chinese Basketball Association superstar Yao Ming was taken as the first pick in the 2002 NBA player draft by the Houston Rockets, most NBA fans were just learning who he was. Casual fans in Houston and around the country looked at his 7’6” frame and wondered if he would ever have the physical strength to play center opposite the huge men who dominate that position in the NBA. Houston fans worried that Yao might not be allowed to leave China to play in the U.S., or that his commitment to play with the Chinese national team in world events would hurt his performance in the NBA.
As it turns out, there was little need to worry. Yao Ming added both pounds and muscle and, after five seasons in the NBA, his numbers are very similar to the great statistics he posted in Chinese professional basketball. He made becoming one of the most popular and accomplished basketball players in the world look so easy that very few fans appreciate the huge adjustments that faced the 22-year-old when he arrived in Houston in late 2002.
With Yao: A Life in Two Worlds, co-authored with Ric Bucher, Yao Ming changes all of that. The book was written after Yao’s second season with the Rockets, a period of almost two years during which he lived two very different lives playing basketball for roughly half a year in each of his home countries. The introspective young man went from traveling from game to game in a luxurious private jet belonging to the Rockets to traveling coach playing meaningless exhibition games for the Chinese national team as a warm-up for world championship and Olympics games. Along the way, he had plenty of time to contrast the two cultures in which he lived and to adopt the best that each had to offer as he worked to prove that he really belonged in the NBA.
It is that attitude that makes Yao: A Life in Two Worlds so much more than the usual sports book that only focuses on complete seasons or a few big games. Yao’s story is told largely in his own words, in the same straightforward conversational style that one can easily imagine hearing him speak out loud. It is a style well suited to displaying Yao’s sly sense of humor and his genuine humility. First-person accounts from his parents, friends, coaches, and fellow players from both countries are interspersed with Yao’s own accounts of incidents in his life to complete the picture. This sometimes results in amusing differences of opinion or recollection between Yao’s point-of-view and that of others, particularly when comparing his words to those of his mother or father.
Yao Ming’s story is an inspirational one. He shows what hard work and courage can accomplish against the greatest of odds. It is true that he was blessed with size and speed, but that alone would not have been enough to get him where he is today. As a young man, Yao was willing to work harder than everyone around him in order to reach one goal after the other. His keen sense of humor and his belief that it is better to try and fail than to not try at all prepared him perfectly for his crack at America and the NBA. Yao Ming is a man filled with personal pride and loyalty to his country, his family, his friends and his teams. He represents the best of both of his worlds, and we can all be proud of him.