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Monday, Aug. 18, 2008


In the shadow of Mao, Yao stands tall

BEIJING — A brisk 20-minute walk from where Yao Ming stood taller than any Olympian inside National Stadium for Aug. 8's Opening Ceremony there stands a giant statue of Mao Zedong, the revolutionary communist leader of China.

A few meters away approximately 100 people are playing basketball. It's 6:30 p.m. on Saturday and 10 baskets are being used for 4-on-4 half-court games.

One boy, who appears to be 12 or 13, catches me eye as I sit down on a park bench to check out the heated competition. It's crystal clear he has a quick first step and solid basketball IQ after about five minutes.

The kid wears gray shorts, a sleeveless gray T-shirt and high-top basketball shoes. He's the only player in the 4-on-4 game with a jersey number on his back. He wears No. 23, the one Michael Jordan made famous. There are no words on the back of his jersey.

The more and more I talk to Chinese people about their admiration for Yao Ming, the nation's first basketball superstar, the more I come to think about the large-scale influence he has had on the sport in China.

On any given Saturday, there are thousands of Chinese playing hoops in Shanghai, Yao's hometown, and thousands more in Beijing. Across the country there are millions more who have developed a passion for the game, and Yao deserves more credit than anyone for making this happen.

Call it the Yao Effect.

I return my eyes to the court. The kid displays tenacity on defense and hustles inside the lane to compete for a rebound against an older, taller player, boxing out like the best of the best in the NBA.

Seconds later, the kid dribbles the ball near the right baseline, stops and releases a short jumper. Swish! The ball sails through the net.

It's a pretty shot, a reminder of the improvisational beauty of basketball.

It puts me in a good mood.

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