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"It was me who was bothered by it" - Steve Francis on Yao Ming's transition to NBA

As Francis described it, “Yao entered the fishbowl” the moment he was drafted by the Rockets.
Yao Ming & Steve Francis

Yao Ming and Steve Francis

When Yao Ming joined the Houston Rockets in 2002, there was an undeniable hope that the franchise had finally found the player who would bring back the championship to H-Town. Twenty years ago, we could say that it was really a possibility because it’s not every day that a team lands a highly-skilled 7-foot-6 player like Yao.

With a prime Steve Francis in the backcourt, it was promising. Sadly, injuries gradually made it impossible for Yao to take the helm and lead the Rockets to an NBA title. But for “Stevie Franchise,” Yao did not underachieve. If anything, he became much, much more than just a basketball star.

“Yao entered the fishbowl”

As Francis described it, “Yao entered the fishbowl” the moment he was drafted by the Rockets. Without putting any racial undertone into it, Francis admitted that he thought Yao would find it really hard to adjust and “carry the weight of two cultures on his shoulders.” However, the Chinese basketball icon proved him wrong from the get-go.

“And Yao got dropped into a helluva fishbowl, man,” Francis wrote in a piece for “The Players’ Tribune” in 2016. “I’ve never seen anything like it. He was the Beatles. He was the biggest show in every city we visited. Police escorts. Media everywhere. Cameras everywhere. It is a lot for any young person to adjust to life in the NBA. But Yao also had to carry the weight of two cultures on his shoulders. I always respected and appreciated the grace he showed while doing that.”

Admittedly, Francis confessed, “Yao handled the fishbowl really well. It was me who was bothered by it.”

Huge but humble

Despite witnessing how his new teammate swiftly reaches the heights right before his eyes, Francis said he had always been keen on getting to know Yao as “the private person.” And even though they only played together for two full seasons in Houston, Francis said he was “lucky” to have seen the side of Yao that “most people didn’t see.” Ultimately, it was his incredible humility.

“He was a big kid who loved to order chicken tenders from room service,” Francis recalled. “I can still picture him sitting on his bed — he would always have the hotel push together two queen beds to create a giant Yao Bed. He relished those rare times when he got to chill because he always had so many obligations…He was the most humble guy in the room. The word flashy just wasn’t in his vocabulary.”

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Barring his final two seasons, in which he only played five games in total, Yao never completed a season without becoming an All-Star. Unlike others who got very accustomed to the American way of life, Yao, based on how Francis saw it, stayed the same throughout his career.

“[Yao] He adapted to American culture, but never let it change who he was,” Francis reckoned.

The big fella should’ve been in the conversation

Indeed, Yao immediately became a big draw in the league. And though his height predominantly played a huge part in his instant stardom, Yao wasn’t just freakishly tall. His game was mostly finesse, but his work ethic was impeccable, and he was the hardest go-getter in terms of pushing himself to the limit.

“I saw how much he cared about improving as a player,” Francis said of Yao’s mentality. “Did you know that even on game days Yao would work out — really hard — for two hours? I would tell him to take it easy, but I guess that was the only way he knew. I’m lucky to say I got to witness one of the hardest working and most agile big men who’s ever played the game.”

Seven-time NBA champion and former Rocket Robert Horry said if it weren’t for the injuries, Yao would’ve been “considered one of the greatest” of all time. It’s hard not to agree with “Big Shot Rob” as “The Great Wall” was really living up to the hype at the time. After gauging his rivals in his first three seasons in the league, Yao took off in his fourth season with the Rockets, averaging 22.3 points and 10.2 rebounds per outing. He picked up where he left off the following year and logged his career-high in points with 25 per game.

Unfortunately, Yao wasn’t able to play full seasons in those years. However, “The Great Wall” managed to bounce back in 2008. He played 77 games and registered an impressive 20 points and 10 rebounds per game.

But just when the Rockets thought they were ready to be contenders, Yao suffered a career-ending foot injury in 2009. And it marked the beginning of the end for “The Great Wall.”

Will Yao strike us as the once-phenomenal big man touted to change the game the next time we see him? Certainly, yes. But will we ever get to see another player as gifted and as humble as Yao Ming in the NBA? Maybe never.

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