Even when Yao Ming was little, he was big. At birth he was nearly two feet long. When he was 4, bus drivers tried to charge him full fare. By 17 he topped seven feet. Today the 7'5" center for the Houston Rockets may be the most scrutinized NBA rookie ever. "This is the most pressure I have felt," the Shanghai-born Yao, 22, says through his interpreter. "Sometimes I feel like everyone is staring at me,"
Better get used to it, big guy. The first non-U.S. player to be picked No. 1 in the NBA draft, Yao has Rocket boosters dreaming of ticker tape parades, team officials drooling over his army of Chinese-American fans, and millions in China watching live broadcasts of Rockets games into the morning hours. Says Rockets CEO George Postolos: "One tall kid is doing more for relations with China than decades of other methods."
Yes, but can Yao negotiate the likes of Shaq? "He needs to eat a lot more to get strong," says his mother, Fengdi Fang, who is 6'2" and a former captain of the Chinese national women's basketball team (his father, Yao Zhiyuan, is 6'10" and also a former player). Even so, it's clear he's jot great skills. Despite a rough start, Yao scored 30 points against the rival Dallas Mavericks last month and leads the NBA in field goal shooting percentage.
Living with his parents in a four-bedroom Houston home (he sleeps corner to corner in a king-sized bed), Yao misses China but is making friends fast. "My team-mates are helping me with English phrases," he says with a giant grin, "just not the good phrases."
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