Yao measures up vs. Shaq

Published: Sunday, January 19, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 19, 2003 at 12:36 a.m.

HOUSTON - The greatest centers of two previous generations, Moses Malone and Hakeem Olajuwon, had front row seats to see the NBA's present meet its future.

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Houston Rockets' rookie center Yao Ming will meet the Los Angeles Lakers again on Feb. 18.

(AP Photo)

And when the final buzzer sounded on a night when Yao Ming played his first game against Shaquille O'Neal, the old arena along Highway 59 rocked the way it did back in the Rockets' championship seasons in the early '80s and mid '90s.

``I've seen it on TV enough for 20 years to known that was an atmosphere like the finals,'' Houston's Steve Francis said. ``It was thick. It was intense.''

It was a night to remember for the NBA, a league that for decades was defined by its most dominant big men: George Mikan. Bill Russell. Wilt Chamberlain. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Shaq.

Soon, it could be Yao. The 7-foot-6 rookie center from China did not disappoint any of the hundreds of millions of viewers who tuned in for the beginning or the end of Houston's 108-104 overtime victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday night.

Moments after walking onto the floor smiling and grinning, Yao was rejecting O'Neal's first three shots and making three of his own.

Yao capped his night with the game's most decisive bucket - a dunk off a pass from Francis with 10.2 seconds left that gave Houston a four-point lead.

There were 49 minutes of mediocrity in between Yao's fantastic start and his flourish of a finish, but that will not be the reason why this game is remembered.

Instead, it'll go down as the night the league's Next Big Thing met its Big Everything and proudly held his own.

Some of the snapshot moments between the two giants were priceless.

Yao hunched over in exhaustion a few minutes after his fast start, the enormity of his task and the intensity of the moment so dramatically visible on his face.

O'Neal, in overtime, wearing the same look of determination he usually saves for the finals, dunking so powerfully over Yao that the basket support and the shot clock above it shook violently.

The two centers met after the final buzzer for a respectful handshake and hug, each having done so much to further their mutual admiration.

``Yao Ming is my brother. The Asian people are my brothers,'' said O'Neal, whose presence drew protesters angry over a mock Chinese accent he used when referring to Yao in an interview last summer. ``I grew up an Army kid. I grew up around Asians, around whites, around browns. It was a bad joke. Don't try to make a racial war out of it.

``Because of what I said, 500 million people saw this game. You ought to thank me for my marketing skills,'' O'Neal said.

Yao's final line of 10 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks did not exactly measure up to O'Neal's 31 points, 13 rebounds and four assists.

But no one really expected Yao to outproduce O'Neal.

The curiosity factor centered on whether he could match up against the most dominant and powerful player in the game.

``He got some credibility tonight,'' Lakers coach Phil Jackson said.

To say this game was on Yao's radar for a while would be a vast understatement.

The 22-year-old Yao had grown up in China watching O'Neal's transform from a 7-foot dunking curiosity to a polished, professional champion.

Yao was only 14 when Shaq and then Orlando Magic were swept by Olajuwon and the Rockets during the 1995 finals in this very same building.

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