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Yao's Outburst Irks His Compatriots

Chinese fans dislike the criticism that their star has directed at his Olympic teammates.

August 21, 2004|Ralph Frammolino | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Is Chinese basketball star Yao Ming acting like an ugly American?

That's what many of Yao's countrymen are wondering after the NBA All-Star demonstrated what was seen here as bad-boy behavior this week when the Chinese national basketball team stumbled during Olympic competition in Athens.

With his team getting routed, 83-58, by Spain on Sunday, the normally even-tempered Houston Rocket center yelled at his Olympic teammates, and even at Coach Del Harris, during a fourth-quarter timeout. In the locker room afterward, he reportedly chided his teammates and then told reporters that he had "lost much of my confidence" in the squad.

"I don't think some of my teammates cherish the honor to play for the country at the Olympic Games," he said, adding that he was thinking about retiring from a "hopeless" Chinese national team.

The outburst stunned fans and sports officials in a society that continues to uphold the Confucian values of respect for elders and working together as a group. Within hours, local newspapers said, the headquarters of the Chinese delegation to Athens issued a statement declaring that such "irresponsible talk and split-the-team behavior" would not be tolerated in the future.

Newspapers also quoted Chinese Basketball Assn. officials as wondering whether Yao had become Americanized during his two NBA seasons. They also worried whether more caution should be exercised before sending young, impressionable players to the trash-talking league.

"This is definitely making people rub their eyes a bit and say, 'Wow, is this our Yao Ming who is so emotional?' " said Terry Rhoads, a former Nike marketing executive who discovered Yao when he was playing for the Shanghai Sharks.

Rhoads, who runs a Shanghai-based sports marketing firm that helps the NBA promote Yao in China, said the star's display of frustration countered the widely held idea of "saving face," one of the cultural pillars of Chinese society.

"It extends into the sports world," he said. "The system says make sure that you don't embarrass your coach, your teammates and yourself.

"But Yao belongs to the world now," he added. "He's a global citizen. When he has these outbursts, I believe the outbursts are coming from his passion for success and excellence."

Yao has since apologized, and Harris, a veteran NBA coach hired by China to lead the national team, has declared the matter over. But that hasn't put the controversy to rest. After China defeated New Zealand, it took another pasting from Argentina on Thursday and Yao was openly glum as he rested on the bench.

At a food court in Beijing's Oriental Plaza, a huge mall in this city's Wangfujing shopping district, 21-year-old Shi Jiuliang said that everyone is talking about what has come over Yao.

A die-hard basketball fan wearing a red Chicago Bull jersey, Shi said Yao's behavior after the game against Spain was a "little bit too radical." But Shi said the 23-year-old player could be forgiven because he is still young, and voiced admiration that Yao vented his feelings when too many Chinese athletes decide to "keep silent" in defeat.

Noting the victory over New Zealand in the next game, Shi concluded: "His anger did provoke the national team, so in a way it was good."

Not far away, palming some basketballs on display over a Kobe Bryant poster in a sports store, Li Yang concluded that Yao simply wasn't himself when he badmouthed fellow players.

"It showed a kind of disharmony between him and his teammates and a lack of communication," said Li, 19. "But it won't happen again. It's not in Yao's character."

Li Fangni, however, branded the behavior "wrong" and "self-centered."

"He has been playing quite a long time in the NBA and must have been influenced a little by the American attitude," she said.

"It is not the right behavior of a Chinese athlete, to get angry and lose your temper after the match," the 19-year-old said.

She suggested Yao take a lesson from China's badminton team, which won two gold medals Thursday. The China Daily, the government's English language newspaper, reported that when singles winner Zhang Ning lost her first set, she "didn't become distressed" but "recollected her resolve and fought back" to win the gold.

Li said she admired how Zhang Jun and Gao Ling, the mixed doubles team, simply smiled at each other when they gave up a point in a match against a British pair to win gold.

To act otherwise, she suggested, is counterproductive.

"Yao Ming is putting too much pressure on his teammates," she said. "He's overreacting."

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