Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Gentle Giant: Yao Ming

I still remember the excitement I had when Yao Ming was drafted into the NBA almost a decade ago. As a Chinese American, there really weren’t many athletes to relate to culturally, and although I had never been to China nor did I even have relatives who lived there, I was still filled with anticipation. When the Houston Rockets took Yao first in the 2001 draft, all my past dislike towards the Rockets seemed to disappear. The nightmares created by the “Dream” when he blocked a possible championship-winning three by John Starks, vividly clear in my young mind, seemed to stop mattering. Or at least those Rockets were not Yao Ming’s Rockets.

Yao was finally an Asian who would have impact in the NBA, not just some experiment or a guy that was 7 feet but shot more 3's than dunks and lay-ups. Being in middle school, I don’t think I had anticipated the start of a career like this ever before and maybe never will again. I remember watching his first few games where he looked out of place and overmatched by the speed of the NBA. Was this really the best player the entire continent of Asia had to offer? Then the most anticipated match-up in Yao's first year in the NBA happened vs. Shaq and the Lakers. Shaq turned the game into a joke, making some playful yet racist comments as he made up Chinese-sounding words and noises in a national interview. Yao didn’t say much. Instead, he let his play do the talking, scoring key baskets and eventually having a game-changing block against the Big Aristotle and defending champ Shaquille O’Neil.

From then on, Yao Ming never really looked back, being voted into every All-Star game with the support of the largest nation in the world. China hit the internet in record numbers voting for Yao Ming every year as the starter of the Western Conference team. Yao Ming towered over players around the league but had a shooting touch of a guard and one of the smoothest turnaround jump shots on the block. Millions of children in China now dream of one day making the NBA. Yao’s career was far from perfect, as images of Nash crossing him over at the top of the key and players blocking him from behind cross my mind. His slower reactions are just as much a part of his legacy. But Yao was consistent and although his body suffered many injuries, he always gave his best for his NBA team and national team. I will never forget the tears he cried when there was a possibility he would not be able to represent China in the Beijing Olympics after he suffered yet another injuries. And I know Houston fans always think of what could have been if T-Mac and Yao were healthy at the same time since Houston’s only trip with Yao to the second round was without T-Mac and eventually without Yao who in 2009 was injured in that series against the Lakers.

Yao meant way more to this game than his stats and wins. He gave Asians around the world something to cheer for. He did everything the right way. Yao Ming was always humble and never felt that he was entitled to anything, unlike the most recent product in Yi. It pains me to say that he seems more interested in his fame and success in the China media than his desire to make an impact on the NBA and world relations. For Yao, I went out of my way to watch him live, which even meant going to a Nets game in a Rockets jersey, and making a day trip from Austin to Houston to watch Game 2 against the Jazz in the 2007 playoffs. Thank you Yao for an amazing decade. I hope you continue to be a great ambassador of the game. Even more, I really hope your hard work has produced future Asian basketball players who one day can continue to try and fill the large shoes you have left behind.

Monday, July 11, 2011

True Heroines: USA Women Soccer

Abby and Megan!
“USA! USA!” chants filled the stadium Sunday night in Germany as ten Americans tried to do the impossible. Just twelve years ago, the American women captured the imagination of millions with their amazing journey to winning the World Cup. On that day's anniversary, once again our nation was in need of a miracle. This was more than just winning a game against a powerhouse like Brazil or keeping our hopes alive in attaining the most important trophy in women’s sports. No, this represented so much more. It represented the dedication for equality in the United States for both men and women. It represented the dedication of our educational system of Title 9, giving men and women sports equal funding. And once more, it showed our nation that women's sports can be exciting, thrilling, and downright amazing, inspiring millions of American girls to take pride in playing sports like soccer.

In Sunday’s game, we saw a team that represented everything the United States hopes to stand for. These ladies grew stronger when things stopped going their way, then believed more when they lost a player to a red card. There was no sense of self pity or blame when a saved penalty kick was called back because someone entered the box early, leading to the loss of their one goal lead. There was no quitting in their eyes when Martha, the best women’s soccer player in the world put in a stunning goal at the start of extra time. Instead, these heroines kept fighting, and never doubted themselves and their ability to come back with fewer legs on the field but clearly more heart. It was amazing how the mood of the stadium changed when a Brazilian player decided to display poor sportsmanship by faking an injury in an attempt to delay the game and waste precious seconds of time to help Brazil escape with a victory. The mostly German audience suddenly became pro-American and joined the scattered American fans in cheering on the US team. That stunt by Brazil led to 3 minutes of additional time, which made all the difference.

Megan Rapinoe ran down the left side knowing it would be one of the final chances of tying this game. She let a beautiful cross soar towards the back post where a flying Abby Wamback came sailing in, heading the ball right into the back of the net. There truly is no moment in sports like a soccer goal, the anticipation, the build up, and finally the ball in net that sparks a burst of joy around the nation. I was sitting at Jonathan Mok’s house with him and his newlywed wife Ophelia, the day after their wedding day right before Peter drove them to the airport for their honeymoon. Abby tied the game at the 122 minute of the game with only seconds left. This is the moment sports fans live for and it led to us all jumping up, screaming, high fiving, and screaming again. By the way, CONGRATS MOK on a beautiful wedding!

How fitting was it for the United States to once again go to penalty kicks on June 10th. It was clear that the Americans were filled with confidence. There is something Hope Solo clearly has, and that is belief in herself. When the Brazilian goalie was called off the line and was forced to redo the penalty kick, there seemed to be small payback for the call against the United States at the 65th minute, or maybe the ref was just calling a tighter game because of the fake injury in extra time. Either way, America never missed after that, and Hope Solo made an amazing save, first shifting the right way before laying out the block on a well struck penalty that was clearly headed for the left inside netting of the goal. Next up came Megan Rapinoe, who many believed should not have been starting at all this World Cup, but after some injuries and line-up changes found herself as the pivotal kicker after a miss, which is key to keeping the momentum. She finished with ease and broke out into a playful celebration of relief and excitement with her tongue out and head wagging side to side. I'm not going to lie, I think I’m in love with Megan Rapinoe. Nothing against the beautiful Alex Morgan or swagger of Hope Solo, but dang Rapinoe, you just keep amazing me.

The final penalty was scored and although no clothing was removed and no cup was rewarded, this game could be one of the most memorable in United States history, the same way the Miracle on Ice was 31 years ago, which was also not the final game of the tournament. To make this truly special, our heroines must win two more games and become the World Cup winners once again. So good luck girls. You have made a believer in me and the rest of the nation. I guess Nike didn't lie. Pressure really makes them. But for our well-being, please win the next two before the clock strikes 90...