Sunday, February 9, 2003

Yao feeling pressure of NBA fame



By MIKE DOUGHERTY
The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News

ATLANTA - No matter where he goes these days, Yao Ming creates a scene. When this giant in the making stepped into the room Friday, there was a flurry of camera flashes and television lights. The ominous tangle of boom microphones and body parts rolled across the ballroom floor like a dust storm.

There was a special place set up for Yao in the corner. He is, after all, the biggest story at the NBA All-Star Game here.

"More power to him," Spurs forward Tim Duncan said while leaning forward to see the incredible throng across the room. "Ya'll should go interview him, too."

It was amusing to watch.

The largest media contingent from China was four and five rows deep around Yao's table, competing for space. There were speakers to his right and left, pumping out Yao's brief answers in English and Chinese.

"He's doing a decent job," Houston Rockets teammate Steve Francis said. "For a guy like that, it's a lot to bear, but I think he's done a good job."

This act would have played well at the United Nations.

Each member of the group had a separate agenda. Only bits and pieces of Yao's observations translated well, so nothing good was accomplished.

"I would like to leave this place as soon as possible," he said. "The pressure is something you can not explain."

Yao, 22, never anticipated the demands that accompany fame. Time has become a precious commodity.

"He's been great," said Terry Lyons, the NBA's vice president for international public relations. "His personality has really come through. It's helped sports fans understand him. This is just one of those guys who understands what's important."

There's a lot going on behind the scenes. A group that includes his agents, marketing advisors and financial consultants pull the strings. Fang Feng Di, his mother, holds veto power.

And she's not afraid to use it.

Invitations from David Letterman and Jay Leno have been turned down. Sports Illustrated and Time wanted Yao to grace their covers and were told that would not be possible.

He's already been a part of advertising campaigns for Apple and Visa. He recently filmed a Gatorade commercial with Derek Jeter and Peyton Manning, but that's it for the time being.

It's a full-time job.

"All of these things are happening too rapidly," Yao said. "Too fast."

That may be true, but NBA commissioner David Stern is smiling. He sees the earnings potential in this situation. Putting ballots on the internet in Chinese was a controversial and calculated move. It's called tapping into a new market.

And while Yao was probably voted into the starting lineup ahead of his time, nobody was complaining out loud.

"I think he's great for the NBA," Indiana forward Jermaine O'Neal said. "He's a moneymaker for all the players. He deserves to have a big following because he's a tremendous talent."

And he's really big.

Even opposing players gawk at Yao's sturdy 7-foot-5 frame. They marvel at his agility.

"That's a big guy," said Grizzlies rookie Drew Gooden, who stands 6-9. "He is head and shoulders over everybody. I think everybody likes to stand next to him and see how they measure up. There's no question. He's really tall."




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