Shaq vs. Yao

Every generation thinks theirs is special, with athletes, games and entertainers never to be seen again. Truly once-in-a-lifetime experiences and personalities.

I mostly avoid that sentiment.

As a journalist, I know that unique people and moments are rare. It’s far more likely that eerily similar characters lived, and events transpired, many times before and will many times again.

But something happened 10 years ago that I’m confident will not be repeated. It was the perfect storm of athletes, personalities and global superpowers.

Shaq vs. Yao. Jan. 17, 2003.

It could have been like any other game. Except it wasn’t.

Memories of that night endure for the hard-core basketball fan I used to be and the more casual fan I have become.

It was appointment television. Shaquille O’Neal vs. Yao Ming. Shaq’s Lakers against Yao’s Rockets. But honestly, the teams meant little.

Millions around the world tuned in. The 10:30 a.m. broadcast of that Friday night game reached more than 100 million households in China alone, according to a Sports Illustrated story published later that month. And if you watched, you were watching to see Shaq vs. Yao.

More specifically, you were watching to see if Yao could hold his own. And Shaq had raised the stakes by taking every opportunity to make clear through taunts in interviews and other intimidation attempts that the two did not belong in the same conversation or on the same court. Yao quickly proved they did.

What else was happening in the worlds of sports and entertainment on game day? Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” was the No. 1 song in the country. “CSI” was the TV ratings champ. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were on their way to winning their first and only Super Bowl.

I watched Shaq vs. Yao from a crowded two-bedroom condo in Washington, D.C., with a melting pot of guys in their mid-20s. Black, white, Latino all represented. No one had a rooting interest for either team, but everyone was interested enough to delay, or even forgo, a Friday night out partying to watch Shaq vs. Yao.

Most in the room thought Shaq would dominate. From the outset, we were wrong. Yao lived up to the moment and to his 7’6” frame, especially defensively, blocking Shaq’s first three shots.

That is what I remember most: thinking Shaq is going to work Yao over, and Yao quickly making clear that was not happening.

The Rockets won the game in overtime. I know that now only because I looked it up. I did remember Shaq ultimately dominated the box score: he had 31 points and 13 rebounds to Yao’s 10, 10 and six blocks. But again, the stats really didn’t matter.

Shaq was still unstoppable but there was someone else who legitimately deserved to be in the conversation. Someone who would battle him for years for NBA titles and bragging rights as the league’s most dominant big man.  Someone who would not cave when so many others who were physically inferior had crumbled.

That didn’t happen. It was too good to be true.

Yao never really challenged Shaq in a significant way. Shaq won his fourth and final championship ring with the Miami Heat in 2006. He is now an entertainer, endorser of Icy Hot, Buicks and other products, and a basketball analyst on TNT.

Yao never came close to an NBA title and has largely disappeared from public view. Some recent mentions of him online under “news” headings reference current NBA players getting All-Star votes who don’t deserve them, much like Yao did during parts of his injury-plagued career.

Still, that game was something special. It was bigger than basketball, which was growing in global popularity partly because of Yao and Shaq.

I don’t follow basketball nearly as much as I did 10 years ago. My life has changed and my TV viewing habits beyond 10 p.m. are mostly nonexistent. My job, wife and two young sons make sure of that.

I am not complaining.

But I know we will never see a match-up like that again. Two huge men, a brash American larger than life and stronger than all he played, taking on an even bigger Chinese star, not as physically gifted but more universally loved by his country.

It could have been a script out of the WWF. I know it’s been WWE since 2002. Some memories don’t fade.

It wasn’t fake wrestling, though, it was the real NBA and that matchup, that game, cemented its global reach and attraction.

I have a friend who thinks we will see another pair of players square off with that much hype, that many storylines, in our lifetimes. A brash international star, maybe a scoring forward or do-it-all guard who will come over to take on the top American baller in the game at that position.

Maybe something like: LeBron James vs. Insert Foreign Player Name Here.

I just don’t see it.

I’m 35 and this all makes me sound old. But “Lose Yourself” still gets radio play. “CSI” has outlived some of its spin-offs. The Buccaneers have never come close to another Super Bowl, but their coach from that team, Jon Gruden, remains in the spotlight.

Every generation thinks theirs is special, with athletes, games, entertainers never to be seen again. Truly once-in-a-lifetime experiences and personalities.

I mostly avoid that sentiment.

Shaquille O’Neal played Yao Ming for the first time on Jan. 17, 2003.

It was the perfect storm of athletes, personalities and global superpowers.

It won’t happen again.


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