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BEIJING (SNG) -- Houston Rockets star Yao Ming comes across as clean-cut as a preppie from a New England boarding school. No earrings. Nice haircut. No tattoos, which is something of a novelty in the NBA.
But make no mistake. Yao is making plenty of statements with his appearance. After wearing No. 15 in Shanghai and 13 on the Chinese national team, Yao's jersey for the Rockets sports the No. 11 on his back, which happens to be same number as Ye Li's on the Chinese national women's team.
It's no coincidence.
Then there's the red string bracelet he wears. It's one of a pair, with the other half being worn by, well, you guessed it. The bracelet apparently was handmade by Ye.
As with any other celebrity, ever since "Little Giant," as he is affectionately called by the Chinese media, took the NBA by storm and became an instant star, fans and the media have started expressing an interest in the private side of Yao. But so far, he has managed to keep it out of the spotlight. Both Yao and Ye have remained tight-lipped about their relationship. "It's a personal question, and I have the right to not answer," Ye told a reporter. Yao has a similar answer whenever asked about his life off the court. Ye's friends and coaches also don't reveal much about her private life.
What once was courting between two local youngsters in Shanghai has now turned into a extra-long-distance relationship that spreads over half the globe (it's 7,222 miles between Shanghai and Houston as the crow flies), involves a media frenzy previously unknown to the two and sudden wealth that was beyond their imagination only a few years ago.
But for now, they say, love is secondary.
"Basketball is the most important thing in my life now," Ye says.
Hoops is what brought them together in the first place, and it was what almost reunited them in Houston, at least for a short while.
The Chinese national team was scheduled to play the Comets in a preseason matchup on May 6. Then came SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, the pneumonialike illness that has killed more than 100 people and infected thousands worldwide, leading to a global health scare (the disease spread from China, and the government there is accused of underreporting the new epidemic). The Chinese team canceled the trip to Texas because of SARS and the war in Iraq, and with it went the long-awaited reunion.
The Rugby Sevens tournament as well as the women's ice hockey world championship in Beijing in April also fell victim to SARS, but that's certainly no consolation for Ye and Yao, who stay in touch by phone and e-mail.
That Yao had an interest in someone on the national team became apparent when Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich traveled to China for a workout with Yao prior to his signing with the team.
"I saw him work out one day, and I was talking to Yao about things we'd want to do, and I realized after a minute or two that he wasn't looking at me," Tomjanovich told reporters. "His mind was somewhere else, and I thought, 'Whoa, maybe I've got a problem.' Then I turned around and looked where he was looking, and I saw the Chinese women's team had come in to start their practice at the other end of the floor. He was looking at the girls. I guess some things are the same all over."
While Ye is in many ways your typical girl from next door, she stands out wherever she goes. Her six-foot-three frame pretty much takes care of that. The 21-year-old was born in Shanghai and plays center for the Shanghai Octopus. The team is owned by the Orient Club, which also owns the Shanghai Sharks, Yao's former team. The Octopus and Sharks share the same gym, and it was just a matter of time until the two, towering over their teammates -- and everyone else, for that matter -- would make eye contact.
Exactly when that happened is anyone's guess. They met in their teenage years and soon learned that their height, as well as Yao quickly emerging as the country's best basketball player, didn't make it any easier to date. So they sneaked out to midnight movies to avoid the crowds.
In many ways, the two have faced a dilemma all too familiar to young couples. One of them got a job offer that was too good to pass up and had to move.
Whether Ye will follow one day remains unknown.
She's into fashion and music and talking to her friends. One point on which the two agree to disagree is their basketball idols. She calls Michael Jordan the god of basketball, while he seems to favor Hakeem Olajuwon, maybe not surprisingly so, considering the similarities (Olajuwon was the first foreign-born player to be picked as the No. 1 draft; whether Yao can also help the Rockets win back-to-back titles remains to be seen, of course).
"There are so many people who love Michael Jordan and I decided to make a unusual selection, so I have to choose Hakeem Olajuwon as my idol," Yao said.
Ye made the Chinese national youth team for the first time in 1998. A year later, she was named rookie of the year on China's national team. Many consider her to be a potential star, if she can keep injuries at bay.
She has been out for the better part of the last 15 months, nursing a bad right knee. Many advised her to hang up her shoes and call it quits, but the strong-willed Ye refused to listen. She was relegated to the bench this past season, while recovering. When Ye finally hit the court again last month, she was quickly added to the national team roster by coach Gong Luming.
"This is Ye Li's spirit," Gong said, referring to her determination to come back to basketball at all costs. "Her spirit means hard work, persistence and eyeing to be the No. 1 at all times."
He felt he had let down his team as the only superstar on the roster. In fact, he was so ticked off that he turned down a birthday gift from Ye that was meant to cheer him up.
"He is unhappy," Ye said last year. "He is angry with the team's performance in the tournament."
But as seriously as they take basketball, Yao and Ye can shake it off, too. Soon enough, Yao bought two plush toys for Ye. One is a rabbit, the other a huge elephant, which she uses as a pillow.
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