Yao Ming was born on September 12, 1980, in Shanghai, China. As a result of China's one child policy, he was the only child born to Fengdi Fang and Yao Zhiyuan, both of whom are well over 6 feet tall (they're 6'3" and 6'7" respectively). His mother Fang, worked with a sports institute, and previously had been the captain and starting centre of China's national women's basketball team, while his father Zhiyuan, an engineer, had played ball with a local professional basketball club.
Ming was raised in a custom-built apartment, which featured extra large doorframes, in keeping with their massive beds, clothes, and shoes, all made to order. Shanghai, with its population of 11 million, is a hub for Chinese technology and research, and the young Ming initially wanted to be part of it. Despite his parents' encouragement, Ming didn't show much of an interest in basketball until age 9. When he finally decided to give the sport a chance, he found it difficult to manouevre his tall but skinny frame around the court (his friends at the time jokingly compared his arms to chopsticks), and was often hindered by his lack of fitness.
At age 10, Ming entered his first basketball league, where his eager parents bribed him with presents for every shot he made. Both of his parents, having played the centre position, offered Ming plenty of advice on the finer points of the game, which soon led his becoming more serious about the sport around age 12. His parents then responded by sending Ming to Shanghai's provincial sports academy, where he spent hours working on his game, emulating his favorite player, Portland's Lithuanian sensation Arvydas Sabonis. Also, Ming took to improving his fitness by cycling, and could often be seen pedalling around the campus on a bicycle that was far too small for him.
Ming's progress (of course the fact that he was nearly 7" didn't hurt) earned him a spot with the Chinese Basketball Association's Shanghai Sharks. When corporate sponsor Nike saw the team's 17 year-old acquisition, they sought and received the team's permission to have him attend a Nike camp in Paris, and later brought him to the United States to play in an elite junior team. Competing against hundreds of America's best young prospects, Ming nonetheless impressed all the scouts in attendance, which resulted in an invitation to be a counselor at Michael Jordan's flight camp. The only dark spot in an otherwise perfect summer were the FIBA 22-and under world championships in which China finished dead last.
Nonetheless, Ming returned to the CBA a stronger and better-developed player-- only to find himself being dominated under the basket by larger players. He finally began filling out around him 18th birthday, developing a distinctive Tyrannosaurus Rex-like frame, with his short arms and long, muscular legs. Around this time, he also began to exhibit a slew of new offensive talents, which he used to lead Team China to the Asian Basketball Confederation title that summer in Calcutta, India.
By 1999 Ming was added to the Chinese men's national team, where he led them to a repeat victory at the ABC Championship in Fukuoka, Japan. Meanwhile, his Shanghai Sharks had jumped from eighth place the previous year to fourth place overall out of the CBA's twelve teams, as a result of Ming's improved play (he averaged 25 points and 15 rebounds that season).
The next year Ming led his team to the CBA final, where the second place Sharks faced off against Wang Zhizhi and his Bayi Rockets. Following a three game sweep by the Rockets (who claimed their sixth consecutive CBA title), Ming headed of to Sydney, Australia, for the 2000 Summer Olympic Games. While their ninth place Olympic finish may seem unremarkable, their victories over Italy and New Zealand sparked a new interest in Chinese basketball, which saw Ming, Zhizhi, and the rest of the team return to their country as heroes.
Ming enjoyed another stellar season in 2000-2001, averaging 27 ppg, 19.4 rpg, and 5.5 bpg. He also lead the league in dunks, which seemed to indicate that he was developing a more American style of play. Aagain, the Sharks advanced to the CBA final, only to be obliterated by the Bayi Rockets. Yao, however, received some hefty consolation hardware, when he was named to the All-Playoff team and awarded the trophy for league MVP.
He spent the following summer touring the world with Team China, posting an impressive victory over the Americans at the World University Games, defeating a squad that included Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter to win the silver medal. Ming kept the momentum going in the 2001-2002 CBA season, leading the Sharks to a regular season record of 23-1, while averaging 29.7 ppg, 18.5 rpg, and 4.8 bpg. The Sharks met up with the Rockets in the finals for the third consecutive year, this time defeating them to win their first league championship. Ming, who was named league MVP for the second time in a row, averaged 41 points and 21 rebounds a game in that series.
With the CBA championship title at last under his belt, Yao then turned his attention to the NBA Draft. After a series of workouts, he returned to China having thoroughly impressed Houston Rockets head coach Rudy Tomjanovich enough to become the only foreigner selected first overall in the NBA Draft. While the Rockets owned his rights, Yao did not sign with them until October, due to government red tape. Prior to the NBA season, Yao played on the Chinese team at the World Basketball Championships in Indianapolis. As one might expect, the Chinese were slaughtered by the competition, despite Ming's contributions of 21 ppg, 9.3 rpg, and 2.25 bpg. While the world looked on, Ming was named to the all-tournament team, vindicating Tomjanovich's faith in him.
Despite facing tremendous scrutiny in North America, Ming has lived up to his high expectations surprisingly well, and is a leading candidate for the Rookie of the Year award. Having played the first year of a 4-year, 17.8 million dollar NBA contract (half of which allegedly goes to the Chinese government), he averaged 13.5 ppg, 8.2 rpg, and 1.79 bpg, while proving that his acquisition was undoubtedly a great move for Houston, a move which may someday win them another championship title.