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How Yao Ming scaled the Great Wall of Chinese bureaucracy to get to the NBA

Modified 18 Sep 2016, 01:35 IST
Yao was the only player who would make Shaq look small

Learning to love the game

Yao's parents were not particularly fond of basketball when they had to take it up. He himself had a huge burden on his shoulders from birth itself to live up to the expectations of being a good basketball player. Basketball has a steep learning curve, shooting a basketball remains one of the more difficult skills to learn in any sport. Initially, Yao had his share of embarrassing moments on the court. The training regime he was under was devoid of room for creative improvisation, and he was insulated from the fun aspect of the sport.

Yao's parents did their part in instilling a love for the game in their son. His father would take him shooting, and promise him small gifts for each basket he made. “My father bribed me into playing!” Yao recalled with good humour. 

One of the important milestones in his life was witnessing a certain team from the USA strut their stuff. At the age of nine, his mother took him to witness the touring Harlem Globetrotters in action. It can be argued that no other team exuded such pure joy for the sport, and watching their flamboyant exhibition was a breath of fresh air for Yao.

"I think that experience had a strong influence on Yao Ming,” Da Fang said. “They turned basketball into a great show, a form of entertainment.”

The courting of Yao Ming for the NBA began with Nike. In the mother of all coincidences, Yao Ming's good friend Frank Sha, who had carried him around as a kid, worked for Nike. 

Nike took him to the Nike Euro Camp in Paris in 1997, and his mother had to fight to obtain permission for that. Nike had been establishing in China for quite some time. The CBA was launched by IMG with help from Nike in 1995. But Nike wasn't on the best of terms with the CBA, who fought against the monopolization of the league.

Nike held a strong influence on Yao, even canceling a meeting scheduled between the Portland Trail Blazers president Bob Whitsitt so as to not give preferential treatment to one of its NBA clients. But they were out of their depths within the Chinese bureaucracy.

An Evergreen contract 

Numerous parties wanted a piece of Yao before letting him go to the NBA

The Shanghai Sharks of the CBA had proclaimed that Yao would be allowed to go to the NBA “at the appropriate time, with the appropriate team, and under the appropriate conditions.” They wanted the most they could in return for Yao.

The then deputy manager of the Shanghai Sharks, Li Yaomin, had claimed that one NBA team had offered the Sharks $1 million to release Yao. He once walked into a meeting with Nike and proclaimed, “It’s amazing the level of interest there is in Yao Ming. I’ve decided that I want to do all I can to help him realize his dream of playing in the NBA. He’s definitely going to need an agent.”

In October 1998, Li was visited by Michael Coyne, who headed Evergreen Sports Management. He explained that his firm was very keen on signing Yao Ming. Both men found common ground, and on 30th April, 1999, Yao's family were visited by Li and Michael Coyne. The meeting would not be pleasant.


Coyne inundated the family with a pedantic presentation on a three-year plan to transform Yao into an NBA star. He weaved in and out of details about salary structures in the NBA; training, nutrition and tutoring programs for Yao; and myriad other details about adjusting him to life in the USA.

Da Fang felt that the presentation was too slick. She said, "I don’t understand why this has to happen so fast. Yao Ming is not good enough to play in the NBA yet."

Coyne countered that precisely because he's not ready, he needs to move fast. Coyne countered, "He’s not physically ready yet, but we have all the approvals we need. Yao is just on the cusp, he’s not on the radar now. When he gets more noticed, more valuable, it will be harder to get released."

It would also allow him more years in the NBA to make more money. All seemed above board until the contract Coyne pushed mentioned that Evergreen Sports Management would garner one-third of Yao's earnings for the three-year duration of the contract. Even after that gigantic cut, Yao's would receive less than a third of his earnings due to some clauses.

Yao's family wanted to mull the contract over, the discussions had continued to 2 AM. Things got heated to the point where Li called Da Fang a "peasant" and gave an ultimatum, “This is your last chance. If you don’t sign this, your son is never going to the NBA!” At 3 AM, the shaken family left the meeting after Yao signed the deal.

Published 18 Sep 2016, 00:49 IST
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