From Publishers Weekly
The 7'5" Yao Ming didn't get where he is today because of some lucky genes and a good three-point shot. Everything about him, from birth to first endorsement deal, was planned by a confluence of government and business interests intent on creating a superstar. Basketball has been popular in China since the late 19th century, so a government with a Soviet-style, militaristic sports system intent on creating world-class athletes thought little of mating its tallest athletes in an attempt to pass on their genes. Thus in 1980, Yao was born to the tallest couple in China, the result of matchmaking that carried with it the dark shadow of eugenics. From there, a government campaign worked to turn "a boy with an ideal genetic makeup into the best basketball player in Chinese history," writes Larmer, and it wasn't long before Nike and the NBA had their hooks in him. Larmer, Newsweek's former Shanghai bureau chief, crafts his narrative well, explaining the byzantine interests competing for their pound of Yao's flesh with admirable simplicity. Yao's story is so controlled that when he finally overcomes his initial clumsiness and starts rebelling against his government at book's end, it's hard not to feel empathy for the gentle giant.
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Larmer, former Newsweek bureau chief in Shanghai (and Buenos Aires, Miami, and Hong Kong), traces the development and emergence of Yao Ming as China's first bona fide NBA star, from the arranged marriage of his parents--both reluctant but sensational, and tall, basketball players in China--to his care and feeding as a youth by PRC sports officials, to Nike's savvy insinuation into Yao's career and into mainstream Chinese culture in the mid-1990s, to his number-one selection in the 2002 NBA draft. Not coincidentally, Yao's story here reflects the seismic shifts taking place in Chinese sports, post-1949; it starts with a country virtually invisible in the global arena that becomes, by the time of Yao's emergence, an international power not embarrassed to flex its muscle. If Larmer's account succeeds in contextualing Yao in the high-octane world of the NBA, it also succeeds in revealing one aspect of China's more fundamental struggle with its socioeconomic identity in the world today. Alan Moores
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