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|September 7, 2000||
Towering task for ChinaLee Chyen Yee in Beijing
By kindergarten, Yao Ming was already so tall he was paying adult bus fares.
In first grade, he was as big as his teacher and by the age of 13, at nearly two metres tall, he was described as "a crane towering among a flock of chickens".
Now 19 years old and 2.25 metres tall (7 ft 4.6 in), the youngest and tallest member of China's national team hopes to slam-dunk his country into the later rounds of the basketball competition at the Sydney Olympics this month.
Beyond that, the sky is the limit for Yao.
He is a favourite to become the first Chinese player in the U.S. National Basketball Association (NBA) and sports firms like Nike are said to be eager for his signature on an endorsement contract.
Some talent scouts have said Yao's height and agility could put him among the world's top players in a few years.
"We just wanted him to be an ordinary kid," said Yao's mother Fang Fengdi, 52. At 1.88 metres, Fang was also the tallest member of the national women's team in the 1970s.
"But because we were also basketball players, our old colleagues and coaches have had their eye on Yao Ming since he was young," she said, sitting by her son's extra-long bed in the living room.
"It's in his genes that he grew so tall," Fang added. "And because of China's one-child policy, he has had better nutrition than what we had during our times."
The family apartment in Shanghai may appear ordinary at first glance, but a closer look yields evidence of a home of giants. Door frames are taller, beds are longer and the family's clothes and shoes -- Yao wears size 18 -- are mostly made-to-order.
"We removed the air vents above our doors to make them taller so that we won't knock our heads," said Yao Zhiyuan, 50. The 2.08-metre elder Yao played centre as a professional in China.
Yao Ming didn't take to basketball right away.
"His school was a little far away from home and both of us needed to work, so we left him in school to play basketball," Fang said. "But at first, he didn't seem to have much interest."
In time, however, his interest grew and by the time he was 13 Yao had earned a spot on his local youth team -- the Shanghai Oriental Sharks.
He was named most valuable player of an Asia youth basketball competition in 1998 in India and later joined the Chinese national team.
Yao played a key role in helping China become the only Asian country to win a berth in the basketball competition in Sydney. Fans are hoping he will spur China to improve on its record at the 1996 Atlanta Games, where the team finished eighth.
Yao and coach Jiang Xingquan say that will be a tough task, with the United States, Italy and Lithuania fielding strong teams.
"Our chances of advancing to the final eight in Sydney's Olympics are quite dim," the China Daily quoted Jiang as saying.
But Yao's key role on the Olympic team could thwart an early NBA move as Chinese sports officials fear players who move overseas will no longer play for the national team.
Yao's teammate Wang Zhizhi, who with Yao forms China's "Twin Towers", was drafted by the Dallas Mavericks last year but his army team, the August First Rockets, refused to release him, state media reported.
For the moment, Yao says he has no intention of leaving the Sharks, where he follows the family tradition of playing centre.
He draws inspiration from NBA centre Hakeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets -- and his parents.
"We understand that training can be really tiring because we've been through that," Fang said.
"When the going gets tough, we exchange ideas with him, give him some suggestions and some encouragement since we were centres too."
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