Sunday, January 22, 2012

Yao We Can Believe In

Dear Yao,

First of all, Happy Chinese New Year. I hope the Year of the Dragon is truly a great one for you. And with that in mind, let me speak to you about less happy subjects. The day after I heard the news about your old teammate Mutombo and his alleged involvement in a Congolese gold-smuggling scandal, I read this AP headline: "Yao Ming goes into politics in China." I'm not gonna lie to you, Yao: this troubled me, especially coming on the heels of the Mutombo story. But I looked into the details, and it wasn't like you were pulling a Prokhorov; you were just joining a committee that makes recommendations to the government but has no actual political power. Yes, this committee has a scary Orwellian name--Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference Shanghai Committee--but your spokesperson noted that "Yao wants to use his influence to do good deeds for society, but not to seek a political position." If there's anyone the public can't trust, it's a spokesperson, but still: this made me feel better. Even more comforting, NBC's Behind the Wall website ran a picture of you attending your first meeting, doggedly paying attention in a turtleneck, while the other committee members in the audience around you, all of them elderly, slept. Two old men in your row appeared to be resting their heads against each other as pillows. Nothing sinister here. But it's still politics, Yao. And you're young; you won't be content making recommendations among sleeping geriatrics forever, will you? And does one even choose to "go into politics" in China, or is one chosen? (I do know people can go into jail for speaking frankly about politics there. I've heard of Liu Xiaobo and Ai Weiwei, at least enough to find them quickly on Wikipedia.) These questions worry me, Yao. So while I'm not in full panic mode about this recent news, I fear it could still mean an eventual change in the Yao Ming we all love and admire.

I've been burned enough (see letter below) to know that it's naive and near-meaningless to make character judgments about public figures, especially positive judgments. But we can't help it. By "we" I either mean humans or just people in my family. My dad once shared an elevator with actor and wrestling star Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and if I remember the story correctly they didn't speak at all, but afterwards my dad was like, "That Rock, he's a good guy." I know I'm basically doing the same thing here, but if there's one pro athlete, retired or active, who I'm near-certain is a genuinely nice person, it's you, Yao. My reasons may be secondhand and anecdotal--I listed some of them in my letter to Roger Goodell--but I don't care if they're not empirical. You're a good dude. And it has very little to do with your public works (freeing pandas into the wild, campaigning against the practice of shark-finning, etc.) because every pro athlete does charity, even the assholes. It's part of the job. But in the nine years you were in Houston, you always came across as thoroughly decent and funny. You were the rare star who actually had perspective. Maybe it's cultural; maybe you never lost your way or took your hat off to yourself because Chinese culture is less permissive than American culture about that kind of thing. Last fall, LSU's quarterback Jordan Jefferson--I'm talking about college football, Yao--missed four games because he committed battery at a bar. After his suspension, he said the following: "This was a tough experience for me. Sitting there watching the guys play all these tough games was the hardest thing I've done in my life...I can't imagine anybody in the country going through more than I did." He really said that! This American athlete, coddled as all big-time American athletes are, couldn't imagine anyone in the country going through more than he did because he missed four games after fighting at a bar. Then there's you, Yao. In December 2010, when the Rockets announced that your season, and most likely your career, were both over because of the stress fracture in your ankle, everyone in the city was saying stuff like, "Did you hear about Yao? So sad..." We were actually mourning. Then you gave your first statement to a reporter following the announcement, and here's what you said: "I haven't died. Right now I'm drinking beer and eating fried chicken. What were you expecting, a funeral?" This is the essence of Yao, to me. This is why you're one of the most likable athletes of all-time. And all I'm saying now is the same thing I wrote in my classmates' yearbooks in middle school: never change.

The other day my wife and I were talking about Michael Jordan's fashion sense and after a while she said, "Do you think it's possible to be a superstar and not be a sleazebag?" And I said, "Well, what about Lance [Berkman, not Armstrong]?" Because we both love Lance. (You probably met him a few times, actually. Good guy? Don't tell me if he isn't.) And she said, "I mean a superstar." And I said, "I don't know," but I was thinking maybe not. But you, Yao, are definitely a superstar, at least in certain extremely populated parts of the world, and I'd be willing to bet my next paycheck that no one's ever considered you a sleazebag, nor its Mandarin equivalent. But here's the thing: no one considered Michael Corleone to be a sleazebag at the beginning of The Godfather, either. Have you seen The Godfather? He was an honorable, decent, baby-faced returning hero, just like you are. But then he got caught up in the mafia, and look how much he changed. It's disturbing. And how different is the mafia from the Chinese government, or any government for that matter? (That's not a rhetorical question. I'm asking, Yao. I have no idea.) So the purpose of this letter is to ask you, to beg you, to watch the first two Godfather movies, even though they're long, and then be on the alert, Yao. One second you're sitting in a harmless auditorium with a bunch of old people, and the next second, if you're not careful, you're shark-finning and oppressing pandas. That’s the worst case scenario, yes, but I thought someone needed to warn you. And I'm not saying you shouldn't continue to explore politics. Knowing your intelligence and decency, I truly can't think of anyone more equipped to do well in politics. I'm sure you'd make level-headed decisions and maybe you could even change your country for the better. But the world is crazy, Yao. Look at your friend Mutombo. Politics/money/power makes people do strange things, rearranges their moral perspective. So be careful. You're one day younger than I am and I just don't wanna see you get hurt. No matter what you do in this next stage of your life, no matter how far you go in wine-making or your university studies or in politics, always hang on to the essence of Yao. Someday the citizens of two world powers may thank you for it.



P.S. I'm glad you're one of those rare athletes who has the ability to thrive in retirement. This comforts me whenever I think of our team--coming together as of late, actually--and I think about what might've been if we also had your 20+/10+ every night, not to mention your good-natured, gigantic presence in the locker room. Next time I think of this, I need to remember to get some fried chicken and beer.

P.P.S. I'm also glad you didn't have to endure this year's compressed schedule. It's been exhausting, for players and fans. And coaches have stopped wearing ties.