Yao was really funny, but the thing about Yao’s humor was that you rarely saw it coming.
You can tell a whole lot about a basketball player by how he practices, and Yao Ming was one of the hardest working guys I ever coached.
And you can tell a lot about a player by how he treats his teammates. If there’s a Mount Rushmore of great teammates, Yao belongs on it.
Over the years, I’ve also learned that you can tell a lot about a person’s character by how he deploys humor — not only which jokes he tells or what he laughs at (though that’s part of it). It’s something harder to describe. It’s just something you pick up on when you’re around a person. It’s a vibe. It’s not always what’s said, but how you feel when you’re in a person’s presence.
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Yao used to play this recurring joke on me.
He had one bad ear, the result of hearing loss he had suffered as a kid, and I could never quite keep track of which ear it was. The thing was, Yao knew that I was confused about it. So whenever I made the team run a drill for pick-and-roll defense in practice — which required Yao to get in a low defensive stance (not his favorite thing to do) — Yao would point to one ear and and wave his hand, as if to say, I can’t hear you, Coach … this is my bad ear.
I would maneuver my way around to his other ear, and continue to harp on his defensive stance. “Get lower! Get in a stance!”
Inevitably, Yao would smile and say, “No, no, Coach. THIS is my bad ear.”
It always made me think of a scene from Brian’s Song, the 1971 movie about the friendship between Chicago Bears running backs Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers. In the scene, Piccolo convinces Sayers, who’s a rookie, that their coach — the legendary George Halas — is deaf in one ear. Armed with this bit of misinformation, Sayers marches into Halas’s office, acting bizarrely and speaking loudly because he thinks the coach cannot hear him.
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People tend to judge an NBA player’s career solely on how many championships he won. Winning championships is a big factor in the end, but I’ve always believed that conducting yourself as a champion is more important. I first saw that trait in Patrick Ewing when I coached him in New York. And I immediately noticed it in Yao.
During Yao’s career, he often battled two other Hall of Fame-caliber centers who were each at different points of their careers: Shaq was in his 30s, and he was still the best center in the league; Dwight Howard was the best young center in the game. And then there was Yao, who in his mid-twenties was younger than Shaq, but older than Dwight. Yao was better than Dwight, and the gap between Yao and Shaq was smaller than the gap between Yao and Dwight.
I’ve got hundreds of stories about how Yao played. Somehow I think we still don’t appreciate how skilled he was. (If you’re, say, under 25 years old, do me a favor right now: YouTube Yao Ming behind the back dribble.) But, to me, what truly defined Yao’s greatness — his basketball “character” — were the moments when he was on the bench or off the court.
I loved the way Tracy McGrady and Yao treated each other as teammates. One thing they showed everyone was that basketball shouldn’t be a selfish endeavor. Yao and Tracy were kindred spirits in this way. They never fought over the silly notion of whose team it was. Instead, they understood what everyone should remember from kindergarten: to share — the credit, the blame and the responsibility.
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Much like Tim Duncan and Steve Nash, Yao was a unifying leader. I believe that if a great player is also a compassionate, caring, unselfish teammate, then his team’s chemistry is going to be exceptional. That’s what Yao did every day, in every way.
If you go back and watch Rockets games from that era, don’t pay attention to what Yao does when he was on the court. Instead, pay attention to the 15 minutes a game when he was on the bench. On every good play, he was standing up and cheering as loud as any fan. Whenever a timeout was called, Yao’s the first man off the bench to greet his teammates. As a coach, you always want people to be happy for the success of others, but in reality, that’s pretty rare in sports. From Day One, Yao was always as happy for his teammate’s successes as he was for his own.
And when we didn’t succeed, Yao took it just as hard as anyone else. What really impressed me was how he responded to those disappointments. Whether it was losing a regular-season game or a blowing a lead in the playoffs, Yao never took defeat easy. But he never made excuses either. He didn’t blame his injuries. He just went back to work. If there’s anything I regret from my time as Houston’s coach, it’s the two playoff series that we didn’t finish off after going up 2–0. We never got out of the first round, and so NBA fans didn’t get to see Yao’s greatness when it mattered most.
I’ve always liked the quote, “Your actions speak so loudly that I can barely hear what you say.” That was how Yao conducted himself. I’ll give you an idea of Yao’s routine before every practice. First, he would work one-on-one in the weight room with Anthony Falsone, the strength and conditioning coach, to make his body as light and lean as possible. Then he’d come upstairs to watch film with Tom Thibodeau, who was my top assistant at the time. Following their film sessions, Yao and Tom would take the court for an individual workout. By the time practice rolled around, Yao had already been at the facility for a couple of hours. The everydayness of his routine is what made his work ethic one of the best I have ever seen.
But as dedicated as he was, Yao always found time to laugh. And he loved giving his teammates the chances to shine whenever possible — and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him laugh harder than when he was around Dikembe Mutombo. He and Dikembe (another Hall of Famer) couldn’t have been more different, yet they had an incredible bond. Both loved being around people. And they often sat near each other on the team bus.
On a bus ride one year, Dikembe was talking about his pet monkey, Kiki. The whole bus was listening. Dikembe, with his deep baritone voice, was on a roll. No one could totally really keep track of the story. But just the way Dikembe talked about this monkey named Kiki was enough to make everyone on the bus convulse with laughter. When I looked around at Yao, he was laughing as hard as anyone, just radiating joy.
Those are the moments I miss. The games and the seasons run together. But those moments of laughter I will always cherish.
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Houston has a history of terrific big men, like Moses Malone and Hakeem Olajuwon. I always thought Yao fit perfectly in the tradition of those icons who had come before him — and that he brought honor to the Rockets organization, and to the game itself. Now his number will hang in the rafters at Toyota Center alongside those legends. I think every teammate who will be there when he gets his number retired will agree what a great and good person he is.
Today, what’s most exciting for me, as his coach and friend, isn’t his jersey retirement. It’s what’s next for Yao. The greatness of Yao Ming will extend well beyond his NBA career — from the causes he’s involved in, to his return to school, to his ownership of a team in the Chinese Basketball Association. I’m certain of this: Yao’s next 36 years are going to be so much more impactful and important than his first 36. Because the virtues that made him great at basketball weren’t just basketball skills.
I could go on and on. (He would’ve told me to stop a long time ago.) But I do want to say, simply, this: It was a great honor to coach Yao Ming. He was the real deal — a great man, a great player, a great teammate and a great humanitarian.
Congratulations, and thank you, Yao, for all that you did for the game, and all that I’m sure you’re going to do going forward.