Crafted Sports Report: Going Yao Crazy

By Chris Craft
Updated: May 31, 2006

You Heard It Here First!

See article below:Yao’s Success Speeds N.B.A.’s Plans for China

ATLANTA, GEORGIA—-Chris Craft is officially going Yao crazy. I’m jumping on the bandwagon right now because of some the footage I’ve seen on this phenom. Yao possesses good movement without the ball in the post, good hands, passing skills, a strong defensive presence, and those intangibles that equal to star power. Being a native Houstonian, I honestly believe that Yao is the missing link in the chain for the rebuilding Rockets team. Once Steve Francis plays a few games with Yao and realizes how much assistance he’ll provide both offensively and defensively, he will become a believer.

Let’s look at some statistics. In the 2001-2002 regular season of the China Basketball League, Yao posted career high numbers in scoring at 32.4 points per game while averaging 72% from the field and 76% from the charity stripe. Some might argue that this is against subpar competition; but when my big man at 7’5″ shoots 76% from the free throw line, that’s for sure uncontested points that most big men can’t consistently provide. If Yao can master the art of getting to the line, it’s simply all over. Imagine if Shaquille O’neal could shoot 80% from the free throw line, which Yao did in his 2000-2001 season. The numbers speak for themselves and so does the video footage (reference A fraction of these numbers combined with the Rockets’ guard play and an upcoming Eddie Griffin at the forward position will be something exciting.

Francis and Mobley are in cahoots to push for the trading of the number one pick in order to pick up Lamar Odom from the Clippers. Cuttino mentioned on The Best Damn Sports Show Period that he would like to see Odom bring up the ball while he and Francis hit the wings of the court, which would create a “new and improved” triple-threat scoring situation for the Rockets. This is all fine and dandy, but let’s think about the future success of the team. You get a player that’s proven in Odom, but he might demand more shots in an offense that already has two guys that like to equally “light it up.” Let’s learn from the mistakes of that overloaded Portland Trailblazers team of late; and let’s also remember that we’re in the Western conference, where having a big man is key. Yao might not be the instant solution to Houston’s problems; but in the long run, Yao’s upside will come arollin’ and will carry Houston to the promise land.

I’m not expecting and I don’t want Yao to try to do too much at first. If Yao contributes 10 to 15 points a game, 10+ rebounds, and an unavoidable inside presence, this will be enough to get the Rockets into the playoffs this upcoming year. The image of an 18-year old Mr. Ming sinking a jumper over the 7 foot Kevin Garnett in the last Olympic games is a premonition of what’s to come from Yao. There’s a ton of non-believers including Shaq and Stevie Franchise, but let’s give the guy a chance to prove himself. Yao is obviously a humbled person, being that he’s basically going 3 million dollars in the negative to play in the NBA� what character. Shaq claims how he’s so “worker class,” but he has no clue about the conditions that Yao’s family lives in along with the conditions that Yao has to deal with in order to play in the China Basketball League. I would like to see our current NBA superstars deal with a government similar to the Chinese government, they would all be depressed. All the doubters that are comparing Yao to Shawn Bradley, Manute Bol, George Muresan, and all these other lames have another thing coming. Once Yao adjusts to the more physical play of the NBA, the tricks of successfully defending players of “comparable” size and stature, and the different aspects of American culture, the Rockets will not regret their move to pick up Yao at the number one spot.

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Yao’s Success Speeds N.B.A.’s Plans for China By JERE LONGMAN Courtesy of the New York Times

You Heard it Here First: Read article above that BASN’s columnist Chris Craft wrote earlier this year:Going Yao Crazy

HOUSTON, TEXAS—-When the Houston Rockets won the N.B.A. draft lottery last June, and the right to select Yao Ming, the 7-foot-6 center from China, with the first pick, Les Alexander, the Rockets’ owner, said breathlessly in a phone call to the team president, “This is going to be the biggest individual sports story of all time.”

Hyperbole aside, Alexander understood the potential magnitude of Yao’s presence in the National Basketball Association and in Houston. Now, six weeks into his rookie season, Yao leads the league in shooting at 59 percent, routinely achieves double figures in points and rebounds, and has impressed opponents with his skillful passing and defense. The Rockets are back in the playoff hunt, attendance is slowly rising and the 22-year-old Yao is the early favorite for the league’s rookie of the year.

Just as he has changed the opinion of many who doubted him early, Yao has also altered the N.B.A.’s marketing approach in a fundamental way. Primarily because of him, teams realize they have to court ethnic groups in a more urgent and sophisticated manner, at a time when attendance is static or declining in professional sports. Meanwhile, Houston has become the centerpiece of the league’s China strategy and its long effort to expand its business into the world’s largest consumer market and fastest-growing economy.

“It’s the largest population base in the world by a fair amount; on top of that, we know there are a lot of basketball fans there,” said Russ Granik, the N.B.A.’s deputy commissioner. “On any long-term basis, you’ve got to consider China about as important a market as can be.”

Yao’s potential to influence fan interest and marketing growth is already being seized upon by the Rockets, other teams and the league itself.

The Rockets are hiring four Mandarin-speaking executives and have built billboards that are in Yao’s native language. They are planning a weekly radio show in Mandarin along with a Web site diary and a weekly videotaped interview with Yao in both Chinese and English. The team also hands out ticket and statistical information in Mandarin at its games.

The Golden State Warriors, with an Asian population of 1.5 million in the Bay Area, have offered ticket plans of three and seven games linked to appearances by Yao. Public-address announcements were made in English and Mandarin for a Rockets game there on Nov. 27, and Yao delivered a videotaped message thanking fans for coming to see him.

Of the 120 N.B.A. games that will be broadcast in China this season, 30 will involve the Rockets. Some games have the potential to reach up to 280 million households, roughly equal to the entire population of the United States. This gives corporate sponsors a chance, through advertising placards being shown on television, to gain entry into a consumer market of 1.2 billion people.

For the first time, Chinese fans will be allowed to vote for the 2003 All-Star team, which could lead to electronic ballot box-stuffing for Yao, though he said he hoped to earn a berth on merit.

Not given to understatement on this subject, but recognizing the enormous new opportunities Yao presents, Alexander, the Rockets’ owner, calls his team “the best co-branding opportunity in the world.”

An Open Lane to the East

Yao is the most prominent of three Chinese players in the N.B.A., and he represents for many ordinary Americans � at least American sports fans � the new openness in China as it enters the World Trade Organization and tries to balance a Communist political system with an increasingly market-driven economy.

“It is a bit of a burden, but I realize it’s a responsibility I have to shoulder,” Yao said through a translator before collecting 17 points, 15 rebounds, 4 blocked shots and 3 assists and rescuing a 103-96 victory over Sacramento on Tuesday.

He has become hugely popular here for his pleasant nature, unselfishness, work habits and humility (“You can’t say I’ve succeeded; I’ve just started.”) He smiles, patiently signs autographs and answers reporters’ questions, speaking some English, putting a human face on China in a similar way that the gymnast Olga Korbut offset the stereotype of the stern Soviet visage with her joy and tears at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Of course, any transition to a new culture, with a new language, presents complex problems. Yao’s mother lives with him, providing emotional support and his favorite meals of pork chops and chicken soup, but he admits to being homesick. The constant media attention can be wearing, the personal questions intrusive. He does not like to talk about the wristband that his girlfriend gave him or a special bike being made to fit his long legs. He diplomatically avoids answers to cultural questions that might affront anyone, though he is quick to criticize the notorious Houston traffic, which gives an entirely new meaning to clogging the lane.

Asked about his most difficult or unexpected adjustment to the United States, Yao said, “Having to drive so much in traffic.”

He does not yet have a driver’s license and is chauffeured by his translator, Colin Pine. Yao does practice driving in his suburban neighborhood. During these times, Pine said: “I sit in the car and fear for my life. Just kidding.”

Away from basketball, Yao prefers video games and reading. With one-liners, he has been quick to make light of his cultural adjustment. Yao found the turkey breast somewhat dry during his first Thanksgiving, suggesting that the feet might have been a more prized delicacy, as with poultry back home. An avid Starbucks fan, he joked that he was disappointed on the team’s first trip to the coffee capital of Seattle, having expected his favorite frappuccino to be available on the team bench.

“In six short weeks, he went through the same process that many of us went through when we came to this country,” said Michael Chang, who immigrated from China 17 years ago, owns a computer business here and has organized the Yao Ming Fan Club. “A lot of us come here to work for corporate America, and we are doubted, yet we are the same caliber in our fields that he is in his. His experience resonates with us.”

Houston has growing ties to China with its energy and medical businesses and its port. In 1960, only about 1,000 Asians lived in the Houston area, said Gordon Quan, a Chinese-American who is the city’s mayor pro tem. That figure has grown to an estimated 300,000 in and near the nation’s fourth-largest city, with the largest Asian groups being ethnic Chinese from Vietnam and immigrants from China. Houston has not one Chinatown but two. And while Asian-Americans have made significant economic and political gains, Quan said they still faced slights that perhaps Yao’s presence might help to ameliorate.

“During the spy plane incident, radio D.J.’s were saying don’t go to Chinese restaurants,” Quan said. “It doesn’t take much to stir underlying prejudices. I think people like Yao can build a bridge of better understanding. He will represent what China is to a lot of people � big, powerful, smart, talented. These are traits people like to be associated with.”

A Signature Autograph

The Rockets have put on a full-court press to attract Asian fans locally, nationally and internationally. The team developed an advertising campaign with the slogan “Be Part of Something Big,” a reference to Yao’s height and the team’s expected revival.

Local fans, however, are still growing accustomed to receiving Yao’s autograph in Chinese characters. When he signed dozens of life-size posters, the Rockets received two calls from people saying that someone seemed to have been doodling on their souvenir.

Other teams, particularly those on the West Coast with large Asian fan bases, are also attempting to capitalize on the growing interest in Yao. His presence in Seattle drew a block of Asian-American fans and helped the SuperSonics sell out a game the night after Thanksgiving.

The Golden State Warriors drew their largest attendance of the season for that Nov. 27 game against Houston. The team had fans fill out forms to win a Yao jersey in a raffle, and in doing so identified 6,000 new potential ticket-buyers.

“It’s becoming a significant evolution, especially in cities with large ethnic bases,” Robert Rowell, chief operating officer of the Warriors, said of marketing to ethnic audiences. “I don’t think it’s different for Eastern European players than Chinese players, but if you have a strong market, you’re remiss if you don’t tap into it.”

Translating fan interest into ticket sales will be a gradual process in Houston, team executives acknowledge. The Rockets entered this week trailing every team but the Atlanta Hawks in attendance; the team was hurt by the arrival of the Houston Texans football team, fallout from the collapse of Enron and complacency that developed from years of sold-out houses in the 1990’s.

Still, with Yao’s presence, the future appears promising. Television ratings are up 30 percent, attendance is up 1,000 fans a game, and ticket plans involving a full season or partial season being sold to Asian-American fans are up threefold. For a game to be played on Feb. 2, at the time of the Lunar New Year, the Yao Ming Fan Club has reserved a block of 2,000 tickets. In November, the Rockets trailed only the champion Los Angeles Lakers in traffic at the 29 teams’ individual Web sites.

Alexander predicts that Yao will be “bigger than Michael Jordan in the world; not in the U.S. but in the world.” He added, “There are so many Asians, he’ll be the biggest athlete of all time.”

Yao’s Success Speeds N.B.A.’s Plans for China No one else will make such assertions, but the basketball and marketing possibilities seem vast. Houston has signed a sponsorship agreement worth a minimum of $1 million a year for six years that will make a Chinese beer, Yanjing, the only imported brew served at Rockets games. Exclusive arena advertising for the beer is provided courtside. Sales in Houston have jumped tenfold in a few months, said Rich DeCicco, president of Harbrew, a Long Island-based importer of the beer.

“Since our affiliation with the Rockets, they literally cannot keep beer on the shelf,” DeCicco said. “And we’ve got an interesting bounce back in China. People are seeing the beer they drink every day on television in the United States. They wonder what’s next, air-conditioners, refrigerators?”

Yao’s signing by the Rockets has not gone unnoticed by the upper reaches of China’s political leadership. On a visit here in October, Jiang Zemin, China’s president, said he hoped the Rockets would win the N.B.A. championship. He also met with Yao while delivering an address on bilateral cooperation at Texas A&M. Alexander said he thought that Jiang himself signed off on allowing Yao to play in the United States.

This is hardly a mere cultural exchange. Chinese basketball officials hope that Yao will be groomed to help China win a medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. They are also seeking marketing advice and cash. The Rockets paid $350,000 to Yao’s Chinese club team, the Shanghai Sharks, for his rights. According to reports, he will pay half or more of his $15.6 million, four-year contract to Chinese governmental and sports bodies. Chinese citizens are also closely following Yao for symbolic reasons not directly related to basketball, said Steven Lewis, an Asia expert at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.

“They are wondering: `Where do we stand in the world? Are we going to be a great power?’ ” Lewis said. “Yao is a Chinese person going abroad to live and work among foreigners. The Chinese middle class � 500 million people � they look at how they are opening up to the world and they know that they, too, will have to go into the world and face the hardships of competition.”

Praise Starts to Flow

In the N.B.A. itself, early skepticism has given way to praise and expectation. After Yao delivered 16 points and 13 rebounds against his Philadelphia 76ers last Saturday, Coach Larry Brown said: “It’s hysterical. A kid from China knows how to play and we’ve got kids in America who have no clue that are playing in our league.”

Frank Williams, the coach of the Phoenix Suns, said of Yao: “It is scary. I keep thinking, Shaq might be done in a few years and now we’re going to have to deal with him.”

If the league’s teams do not relish dealing with Yao, the league’s front office is fairly panting at the opportunity. The N.B.A. has been conducting friendship tours with China since the mid-1980’s and has broadcast its championship series live there since 1994; coincidentally, that is when Houston began back-to-back championship seasons and Yao began to follow Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon. This season, N.B.A. games and programming in China will be carried on 12 networks.

The league has just opened an office in Beijing, is planning exhibition games in China in the near future and will soon begin a Chinese version of its Web site, Traffic from China accounts for the second greatest number of international visitors to the league’s Web site.

“What they are starved for is Yao Ming content, and we’re producing it,” said George Postolos, president of the Rockets. “We’re going to find a way to get it to them for promotional purposes, because we know we benefit from people saying this is the most watched team in the world, this is the most popular team in the world, this is China’s team.”