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Yao: China's gift to basketball

This sports bio is also a tale of globalization - and the odd place where two cultures met.

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Let me begin this review by admitting that I am no great fan of professional basketball. I don't even particularly like college basketball - although I am athletic and played the game competitively through high school. Somehow as an adult I just never became a spectator.

So before picking up Operation Yao Ming, I knew little about National Basketball Association superstar Yao Ming, other than that he is from China and stands 7 ft., 5 in. tall. But thanks to author Brook Larmer, an American journalist who lives in Shanghai, I now know a lot - and find myself fascinated.

Larmer (who was a staff writer at the Monitor) more recently reported from Shanghai for Newsweek magazine. This thorough and compelling biography of Yao is the outgrowth of a series of articles he wrote for Newsweek between 2000 and 2003.

What I learned from Larmer's book will not convert me into a professional basketball fan. But I would recommend "Operation Yao Ming" to anybody who cares about globalization and wants to read a strange but true story about the intersection of America's sports business machine and the pride and ambition of the Chinese government.

Larmer has crafted an endlessly fascinating book that stresses Chinese culture in its first third, the meeting of Chinese and American cultures in its second third, and the dominant American culture in its final third.

Throughout the narrative, Larmer touches on US-Chinese diplomatic relations, business dealings (with the Nike shoe manufacturing company of Oregon playing a huge part), the growth of professional sports as a global brand, and much more.

Yao Ming, born in 1980, is definitely the main character. But another Chinese basketball star, Wang Zhizhi, plays a major role as a foil to Yao.

Wang, several years older than Yao and at a "mere" 7 ft., 1 in. quite a bit shorter, played professional basketball in the United States, too.

But he performed less well on the court, and found himself an exile in a strange country off the court. He eventually returned to China a spiritually broken man.

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