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LAKERS AT HOUSTON 6:30 p.m., Ch. 9 and ESPN

Trying Him On for Size

Shaq vs. Rocket rookie Yao is the most anticipated matchup of big men in years

January 17, 2003|MARK HEISLER

At last, our Shaquille can play with someone his own size.

It has been years since Shaquille O'Neal had anything like a peer, the early '90s to be exact, when he was a fledgling and Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing and David Robinson were in their primes, after which he got smarter and they got older.

In recent years, when he ruled the NBA like a T-Rex in a meadow, O'Neal billed himself as the last real center and, for once, it was no exaggeration.

Nor were any real centers looming on the horizon. A large youngster such as the Bulls' Eddy Curry might be called "Baby Shaq," but that wouldn't last past high school. As soon as Curry turned pro, it was evident he was not only smaller than Full-Grown Shaq, he didn't compare in any other way.

And then, amazingly and suddenly, the 7-foot-5, 296-pound Yao Ming appeared from beneath the horizon (Western perspective), from China, which had put its first player in the NBA only two seasons before and had never produced an NBA starter.

Last spring at 21, he decided to make himself eligible for the NBA draft and, for better and worse, things started happening fast:

May 1, 2002 -- Yao works out for NBA teams in Chicago but is deemed disappointing. General managers come wondering if he's the next O'Neal or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but, says their old general manager, Jerry West, "He's not any of those guys."

The Clippers' Quentin Richardson, who attends, sniffs, "There are a lot of big guys in the league you can dunk over," adding, "We're going to be taking bets on who's going to get him."

Appropriately enough, an NBA news release with a typographical error in it, lists Yao's weight as 236 pounds.

June 26, 2002 -- Houston drafts Yao with the first pick overall, although opinions still vary. Says Dallas owner Mark Cuban, scoffing at rumors he offered Michael Finley for Yao: "I don't think Yao Ming is as good as Shawn Bradley right now."

Oct. 30, 2002 -- Yao, who played all summer for the national team and reported 10 days before the season, makes his NBA debut in the opener at Indiana, going scoreless in 11 minutes.

Nov. 15 -- In his seventh game, Yao reaches double figures for the first time, scoring 10 points at Phoenix.

Nov. 17 -- Yao gets 20 against the Lakers in Staples, but O'Neal doesn't play.

Nov. 19 -- Turner's Charles Barkley, who has been insisting Yao won't score 20 in a game all season, is obliged to kiss a donkey that broadcast partner Kenny Smith brings to the studio.

Dec. 3 -- Yao has 27 points and 18 rebounds against San Antonio.

Of course, that projected first meeting between Yao and Shaq would have been merely ceremonial. Yao wasn't starting and probably would have been coming in about the time O'Neal was going out.

Since, however, Yao has become a starter, averaging 13 points the rest of the month, bumping it up to 17 in December with 10 rebounds and 2.7 blocks. Overall, he's averaging 12.9 points and 7.9 rebounds in 27 minutes, while shooting 53.4%.

Yao might not be quite ready for O'Neal now, either, but on the other hand, they will actually face each other tonight in a full-fledged event, which ESPN has been flogging for two weeks, and it won't be merely ceremonial.

Two seasons from now, it might be a full-fledged rivalry. Tonight should be more like an introduction, with O'Neal out to impress, or dent, Yao, and Houston's Rudy Tomjanovich sending lots of help to protect his rookie.

"We always thought Yao would be just a great player," says Dallas Coach Don Nelson, who, with his son, Donnie, rank as the Lewis and Clark of international scouting

and began following Yao when he was 16.

"We would have taken him No. 1 in the draft and I think only a couple teams would have done that. We were one of them and Houston was the other and that's about it....

"It [the Yao-Shaq rivalry] is going to be a one-sided deal for a while, but I think eventually Yao will catch up.... He's the next dominant center."

Even for a player as huge as Yao, with such obvious gifts, intangibles decide how great, or disappointing, he becomes. This is no problem for Yao, who has shown himself to be a hard worker and a quick learner with a wonderful feel for the game. As a passer, he's already compared to the all-time greats.

Says Bill Walton, now an ESPN commentator: "If you play with Yao Ming, like playing with [Arvydas] Sabonis, like playing with Vlade Divac, you have to learn to move, learn to expect and anticipate that you'll get the ball in perfect position.

"I grew up in an era, my main coach, John Wooden, said, 'If you dribble once, that's enough. If you dribble twice, you're not open. If you shoot after dribbling twice, sit on the bench next to me.'

"Now it's totally common for a player to take 15 dribbles on one possession."

No one, not even admirers such as Nelson, expected Yao to develop this quickly. There were concerns the game he learned in China was too soft, that it would take time to teach him to attack the basket, if he learned at all.

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