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Indulge Your Inner Yao

Mayor Lee Brown gets dwarfed during the "Yao Day" festivities.
Photo courtesy of the mayor's office

Two weeks ago the creator of YaoMingMania.com was one frustrated Webmaster. A Fox Radio network in California had aired an audio tape of Laker center Shaquille O'Neal taunting Rockets super-rookie Yao Ming with a derisive mock-Chinese dialect. "Tell Yao Ming," cracked Shaq, "ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-soh."

Although a columnist for AsianWeek blasted O'Neal's pronouncement as racist and alerted mainstream media in early January, the comments by the Laker big man went unreported by TV and the big dailies. Unlike other sports gaffes by the likes of pitcher John Rocker, it seemed that when Shaq Daddy made fun of Chinese folks, it wasn't considered newsworthy.

That's when the half-Asian Houston Webmaster, a lifelong Rockets fan who goes by the nom-de-Internet "John," decided to take things onto his own keyboard.

"It's unusual for me to post an article and make a comment, but in this case I feel it's warranted," wrote John. The thirtysomething asked The Insider not to divulge his real name because it would cause problems with his employer, an Internet company. "As much of a disappointment as it is for the media to not cover this story, it's more deplorable what Shaq said about Yao."

John's Web site proclaims itself "100% dedicated to Yao Ming's life in the NBA." No way was he going to let O'Neal's blather go unchallenged.

He posted a link to the AsianWeek column by Irwin Tang and encouraged site visitors to contact sportswriters at the L.A. Times and the Houston Chronicle to express their outrage. Within three days of the posting on the heavily traveled Web site, the national media finally picked up the story of Shaq's insult. It provoked a less-than-convincing apology by O'Neal, who could not resist a few sarcastic kung fu feints as he walked away from reporters.

Chalk up one more testimonial to the growing power of Web site commentators like Matt Drudge.

"It was just too circumstantial that they picked up on this the same time after I did," says John. "There are a ton of people out there watching Yao, and all it takes is one writer to pick up on it, and it will spread like wildfire."

Some sports media didn't seem to get the racial implications of the incident, or else dismissed them. ESPN actually used the recording of Shaq's taunt as a promo all week preceding last Friday's Houston showdown between the Lakers and the Rockets.

The Houston Chronicle waited until the day of the game to wade into the dispute with a Fran Blinebury column that gently swatted Shaq while declaring that "no one is suggesting that he is a racist." That afternoon, Chinese-American leaders held a press conference to suggest exactly that.

A Rockets fan since shortly after their arrival in Houston in 1975, John is well aware of the slavishness of beat sportswriters to the interests of the teams they follow.

"The L.A. media blew it off because they didn't want to ruffle Shaq's feathers.

"If a beat writer for the L.A. Lakers picked up on it, in the future he probably wouldn't get many quotes and it would be very uncomfortable to interact with Shaq.

"I think they all -- not only in Houston but in L.A. and other major markets -- play it safe if they're going to have to talk critically about a particular athlete's comments," John notes. "The visibility of my site and other efforts to get this story out became so big they had no choice."

As for the popularity of Internet sources on Yao, Google.com puts YaoMingMania as second to only NBA.com. According to John, it is the only top Yao site with daily updates, commentary and discussions. His game coverage is often two or three times the length of Houston Chronicle stories, and frequently keeps him up on his home computer until three in the morning. While John claims his wife is understanding of his unpaid endeavors, he fears his bosses at his day job would not be so sympathetic.

Like its basketball hero, YaoMingMania.com is a work in progress, but already impressive. The Web site launched a few days before the Rockets officially drafted Yao last year. It features a complete media archive of stories on Shanghai's tallest export, with recommendations on the best pieces. The meat of the site is a game-by-game analysis of Yao's efforts that gives a new meaning to the term "in-depth."

Every significant Yao move in a game -- shot, block, pass or foul -- is described in excruciating detail. For example, when Orlando's Shawn Kemp recently tangled with Yao in the first quarter of a road game, readers got this commentary:

"After Yao blocks Kemp's shot and the ball is rebounded by [Steve] Francis, Kemp puts his hand on Yao's shoulder and proceeds to scratch the *#%)! out of him. Why in the hell did he do that? Is it because Yao has been schooling Kemp in this game? You bet!"

After lamenting over the two eight-inch bloody ribbons on Yao's back, John empathizes, "What looked harmless at first looks really painful (It's going to really hurt when he gets in the shower.)"

The Web site also incorporates an innovative idea that newspaper sportswriters might emulate: monitoring game broadcasts of the opposing team's commentators. In last week's narrow Rockets victory over the Boston Celtics, John picked up on Celtics play-by-play man Mike Gorman and Tommy Heinsohn, their color commentator and former head coach. Part of the exchange:

Gorman: Wow, I just watched Yao Ming set a pick on the top of the key, roll to the basket, and was all alone. I mean, how can you be seven foot five and wide open? The Rockets never looked at him.

Heinsohn: There's no bigger target on a pick-and-roll play than Yao Ming, and if you don't utilize him, you're a dumb basketball team.

As John has realized, the other team's commentators are more likely to tell the hard truth about the opponent than the homeboys whose paychecks are coming from the Rockets, or the coaches and players who tend to be diplomatic in their postgame interviews.

The grind of producing YaoMingMania.com is starting to wear down its founder, who is looking for other options.

"The thing that has really kept me going is the visitors to the site and their feedback," says John. "If I were to stop tomorrow, there would be a lot of people out there who would be really bummed out." Some upcoming business trips have him toying with the idea of using a guest commentator to collaborate for a couple of games.

John has yet to meet the man whose Internet shrine he tends so faithfully. But he's sure Yao has made a visit to the site.

"He's very Netcentric," John explains. "I got an e-mail from someone who claims to be a friend of Yao's from China and sounded legit. He was applauding and saying he's sure Yao has seen the site and is very proud."

John hopes his volunteer labors will lead to a full-time job covering the NBA career of the first Chinese basketball superstar.

"I have faith that if you have passion for what you do, then avenues will open up," he declares, sounding just like the stoic Yao himself.

"In the meantime I'm just putting my head down, working hard, and hopefully opportunities will arise."


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