In "Operation Yao Ming," Brook Larmer characterizes the center of the Houston Rockets as "part of the first Chinese generation in forty years that could entertain visions of personal ambition and success."
Yao Ming has said of his own childhood that he wanted to be an archaeologist who "went looking for adventure everywhere."
According to Larmer, "visions of personal ambition" notwithstanding, Yao had virtually no chance to become anything but a basketball player, and no opportunity to "find adventure" anywhere but in the cities where the N.B.A. plays. Yao and Wang Zhizhi, the other Chinese player who found his way to the pros in this country just before Yao arrived, were both products of arranged marriages between very tall Chinese basketball players. The arranging agent was the government, and as soon as it became evident to the Chinese authorities that the boys were going to be as tall as their parents' genes suggested they might be, Yao Ming and Wang Zhizhi
began the training that would develop them into natural resources for the China's national team. The stories of how the two men moved beyond the system that paired up their parents and measured their feet before they could walk are more about politics and business than they are about sports, which is what makes Operation Yao Ming such an ambitious and
Wang Zhizhi's story is the sadder of the two. He was a soldier in the Chinese army, and though his duties consisted pretty much entirely of playing basketball, when he failed to return on schedule to China from Dallas, where he was sitting on the bench for the Mavericks, he was called a deserter and worse. He has been unable to reconcile with authorities, and
his disappointing career in the N.B.A. offered little solace beyond the money he made.
Yao Ming has been a greater success on the court, and because he has been more willing and able to learn English than Wang Zhizhi has been, he has become more comfortable in this country. He makes tens of millions of dollars each season as a player, even after he sends the Chinese government its cut, and tens of millions more endorsing products. Still, "Operation Yao Ming" is full of sad images representing what the 7'6" center's success has cost. At the ceremony celebrating his signing by the Rockets, Yao's mother was so exhausted that she could barely manage a smile. When his parents moved to a gated community in the suburbs of Houston, they lived in a palatial home where they knew nobody and didn't speak the language. China, N.B.A. Commissioner David Stern, the management of the Rockets, and all the companies selling the products Yao Ming endorsed worldwide were happy, but Yao's parents were lost and alone.
To a considerable extent, "Operation Yao Ming" is about the ways in which politics and business have complicated the lives of two basketball players. The book has a great deal to say about clashing cultures and the pressure people in the U.S. and China feel to collaborate on such projects as the mutually beneficial production and marketing of basketball stars. Because Yao Ming has succeeded as a player and as a pitchman, it's tempting to hope that the next generation of giants from China or elsewhere will have an easier time making the transition from one culture to another. But toward the end of his book, Brook Larmer, whose hopes for the achievement of international peace and understanding through monstrous basketball deals seem limited, writes "Operation Yao Ming, the sequel, promises to be no less tortured and tumultuous than the original."
This program aired on November 11, 2005. The audio for this program is not available.