Made in China
Brook Larmer, Newsweek’s Shanghai bureau chief and the author of Operation Yao Ming, on basketball sensation Yao Ming, sports in China, and writing his first book.
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texasmonthly.com: When did you first become interested in writing about Yao Ming and why?
Brook Larmer: I first went to see Yao Ming play in late 1999 for a story I was writing for Newsweek. (I was the magazine’s Hong Kong bureau chief at the time, but then moved to mainland China in 2001 to become the Shanghai bureau chief.) Yao was far less graceful than his main rival, army soldier Wang Zhizhi. But Yao was seven feet four inches and Wang was seven one—who knew that China had such giants?—and the East-West tug-of-war over their fates had just begun. Sitting next to me that night was an NBA agent, a Nike rep, an Internet tycoon, and a Chinese sports official—all hungrily watching the big men, all with different motives.
Even at that early stage, it was clear that the race to get the first Chinese player to the NBA was a rollicking good story—not just a thrilling sports drama, but a tale of intrigue that revealed China’s ambition to stand tall in the world and Western multinationals’ equally powerful desire to crack the biggest untapped market on earth. I wrote several stories for Newsweek about the two players and their twisting roads to the NBA. But it wasn’t until Yao made it to the NBA in late 2002 that the idea for my book started taking shape. The idea wasn’t to write Yao’s biography. I felt the twin narratives of their lives was the most intriguing aspect, to see how their different experiences in China and the West led one to become a superstar hero to millions—and the other to become a virtual defector and a pariah in his homeland.
texasmonthly.com: How has Yao changed since you first began writing about him?
BL: Yao has matured immensely over the past six years. When I first met him, he was just a nineteen-year-old kid with a sheepish smile and an awkward knuckle-ball shot. I remember riding home on the team bus with him after one game. He was just as polite as he is now, turning off his Backstreet Boys CD to chat with a foreign reporter. But he didn’t have much self-confidence, and the personality you see today—the affable giant always ready with a quip or a thoughtful observation—hadn’t really developed yet. Yao’s three seasons in the NBA seem to have toughened him up a bit and given him more confidence to stand up and speak for himself. Even if many American fans still think he’s too “soft,” Chinese fans can see that he is much more assertive than before. When he comes back to China in the summers, he talks and acts like a true leader.
texasmonthly.com: Having lived in Hong Kong and now Shanghai, you have experienced the cultural differences between China and the United States firsthand. What do you think is the main difference between the Chinese and Americans?
BL: That question is very difficult to answer without sliding into stereotypes. During my years living here (in China), I’ve found that there are as many similarities between Chinese and Americans as differences. Both societies share a natural optimism, an appreciation for hard work, and a sense of pride in their countries’ heritage. The differences, I would say, are rooted in wildly different histories that have produced vastly different social and political systems. China, as its leaders like to remind us, is an ancient civilization that is only just emerging from 150 years of humiliation at the hands of foreigners; so the country still feels a great need to prove that it can compete against the very best in the world. That feeling is not so palpable in the United States, and the difference is especially noticeable in the realm of sports. In the U.S., sports are an individual choice (except in the case of extraordinarily pushy parents). In China, the government still presses the most genetically gifted youngsters into the sports system, and the leaders and public alike view their state-groomed athletes as soldiers. Their main mission is to bring glory to motherland.
texasmonthly.com: You have written extensively about the cultural differences between China and the United States. Do you think Nike’s promotion of Westernized basketball in China is a good thing? Why or why not?
BL: I don’t think it’s a bad thing. Sure, the introduction of the NBA’s style of me-first, hip-hop basketball rankled some sports leaders in China. But many others realized that Chinese basketball teams were only going to be competitive in the all-important Olympic Games if they moved away from what Yao Ming himself called the “greenhouse” environment of the old sports system and gained exposure to the best basketball in the world, which happened to be played in the West. The process of opening up China’s sports system, however, has been much slower than the rest of society; the massive sports machine remains one of the few socialist bastions in China, and few people think it will change much until after the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
One fascinating byproduct of the incursion of Nike and the NBA into China are the youngsters around the country playing pick-up games with all the style and swagger of a young Allen Iverson. For these kids, playing basketball is not an obligation as it was for Yao Ming; it is a lifestyle choice that defines them as individuals. And in China, where sports were never about choice or individuality, that alone is almost revolutionary.
texasmonthly.com: Why do you think sports have become “the center of the world”?
BL: I wouldn’t say sports are the center of the world, but the universal language of sports gives them a unique ability to cross the barriers of race, culture, dialect, and nation. Today, that process is being accelerated by the forces of globalization. Satellite television, the Internet, transnational capitalism: these have helped turn sports into a phenomenally lucrative global enterprise. The historian Walter LaFeber has even estimated that, aside from illegal drug trafficking, sports are the number one global industry. The secret, I think, is that sports carry with them an element of cool, hip youth culture that needs no translation. I can’t recount all the times I’ve traveled to remote villages in places like Madagascar, Brazil, or China only to find a kid wearing an NBA jersey with the name of his hero emblazoned on the back.
By the way, I think your question refers to a play on words that is sometimes used not for sports but for Yao Ming himself, who as the NBA’s most cherished international big man in considered “the center of the world.” The pun’s extra punch comes from the fact that the Mandarin word for China is “zhongguo,” meaning “Middle Kingdom”—or “the country at the center of the world.”
texasmonthly.com: What is your favorite thing about Yao Ming, the person? Why?
BL: It’s gotta be his equanimity. I will never cease to be amazed at how lightly Yao Ming has borne the burdens of a nation of 1.3 billion people—and a league that desperately wants to ride him into the China market. Few people on either side of the Pacific let Yao forget that he is more than a basketball player. But Yao himself never seems to let the praise or the pressure get to him. He is somehow able to block out the noise and focus on the things that are important to him: his game, his girlfriend, his family, and, of course, his cars.
texasmonthly.com: What is your favorite thing about Yao Ming, the basketball star? Why?
BL: Some fans around the NBA complain that Yao’s game is boring. He doesn’t fly above the rim like LeBron James or knife to the hoop like Kevin Garnett. But I love the fact that Yao is a throwback to another era. He’s a clean-cut, lunch-bucket player who wears a macramé love bracelet, lives with his parents, and sends Christmas cards to his teammates and rivals. In today’s world of preening athletes, Yao is, in essence, the anti-superstar.
texasmonthly.com: How was writing your first book different from writing your first magazine article?
BL: A former colleague of mine—a veteran magazine writer and author—says he tricks himself into writing books by pretending that it’s just like writing a series of long magazine articles. For me, at least, it’s much harder than that—and much more gratifying. Writing the book required digging much more deeply into the research and painstakingly teasing out the texture of history, place, and character. The greatest challenge was weaving together the many strands of the story into a single textured narrative over 330 pages. Perhaps because of the difficulty, that process also gave me the greatest thrill.
texasmonthly.com: Who will be the next superstar basketball player in the U.S.?
BL: If you’re asking about Chinese players, I don’t see any more Yao Mings coming down the pipeline. There is a very athletic seven foot center named Yi Jianlian who might have a shot at the NBA—if the Chinese authorities give him a chance to enter the draft. Another young player, Sun Yue, may be China’s first guard to enter the NBA—if he’s allowed to have more exposure to Western-style guards. (The Chinese have put so much emphasis on cultivating tall players that they’ve virtually neglected the one position—point guard—in which their quick, agile athletes might have a natural advantage.) The Chinese authorities are proud that Yao has done so well in the NBA. But they are wary of releasing lesser players who may end up riding the bench—or, as in the case of Yao’s old rival, Wang Zhizhi, refusing to come home.
texasmonthly.com: With players getting taller and taller, do you think the height of the basket will ever be raised?
BL: I doubt that will happen any time soon. Such a decision would change the dimensions of the game and deprive fans and players of their favorite shot: spectacular dunks. If there is any pressure for such a move, it is not coming from the tallest players in the league; Yao may be seven six, but his vertical leap is so limited he is among the most earthbound of NBA players. The real revolution in basketball has been the emergence of players over six feet ten inches who also have great hops. They play the game high above the rim, far higher than Yao himself.
texasmonthly.com: Any plans for another book?
BL: I would love to write another book, though my plans are only tentative at this point.
A graduate of Williams College, I began my journalism career as a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. I then spent more than a decade working for Newsweek, serving as bureau chief in Buenos Aires, Miami, Hong Kong, and, most recently, Shanghai, where I now live. Operation Yao Ming is my first book.