Former NBA center Yao Ming has a case for being one of the greatest big men in league history. And he arrived in the NBA at the perfect time. What better test of a player archetype than matching up with the most famous player in your category? Shaquille O’Neal and Ming’s fates immediately intertwined when the latter entered the NBA.
The trash talk — mostly from one side — got heated. Their shared time on the floor was appointment TV in the early 2000s. Now, both Shaq and Ming are in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Let’s break down their first meeting, Shaq’s wild response in the media, and the unsuspecting friendship that later developed between these two enormous superstars.
Yao Ming’s hyped arrival in the NBA
Initial expectations around Ming in the NBA were fairly low-key. At 7-feet-6, he was seen as likely to suffer from the usual issues that enormous players face: slow movement, mediocre shooting, and generally relying on pure physicality over the nuances of the game.
But as a Chinese pro baller, Ming showed rapid development in a different direction. He was picked first overall by Houston in the 2002 NBA draft. The Rockets saw the strength of his enormous built-in audience of Chinese fans as much as his potential talent. Ming’s initial start, however, set off some alarms.
Ming’s slow start contrasted by growing praise
The big man looked nervous and slow to react. With two rebounds and no points, Ming caused the team to worry. His first two weeks largely followed suit. “In the CBA, my height scared people. When they saw how tall I was, they gave me space to work,” Ming wrote in The Players’ Tribune. “In the NBA, every possession was a fight. I learned that big men have to play faster.”
And he did. ESPN pins his NBA rookie year average at 13.5 points, a notable accomplishment for a new center of his size. His breakout game was against the Lakers, where he dominated Rick Fox. But a key player missed that game due to injury, and he immediately developed a feeling of unfinished business against this massive upstart.
How Shaq took a swing and a miss at Ming
O’Neal set the bar for enormous centers capable of bringing more than size and muscle to the game. He was also noted for his prickly demeanor toward his competition. Sitting on the bench, watching a hyped-up new center take down his Lakers? This wasn’t going to go without a response.
Unfortunately, Shaq took it further than he should have. He publicly challenged Ming by laying out racially-charged bait. “Tell Yao Ming, ‘Ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-soh,'” O’Neal told an LA cable news audience. “Wang Zhu, you want some of Shaq-fu [he makes a karate move], come get it. I’ll be waiting for you.”
Ming didn’t take the bait. He stayed quiet despite the press constantly asking about the upcoming clash. Clearly, he reserved his energy for the court, because Ming matched against Shaq far better than even the best estimations, as AP News reports.
The epic first meeting between Shaq and Yao Ming
Shaq’s brutal offense needed adjustments against Ming, who easily blocked O’Neal’s first three shot attempts. O’Neal improved as the game went on, getting craftier about opening up space against Ming’s immense agility. Ming’s offense was muted — just 10 points compared to Shaq’s 31 — but he notched six total blocks. This included shutting down a potential game-winner from none other than Kobe Bryant.
Keep in mind, however, this was a different version of Ming. He hadn’t quite become the accomplished shooter he evolved into. Yet he still made the basket that sealed the game with a powerful overtime dunk. The Rockets won 104-100.
Shaq developed a newfound respect for Ming, a rare honor from the big man when he was an active trash-talking center. Today, the two are close friends. When both were inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016, it was Shaq — likely the only guy tall enough — who honored Ming by putting on his ceremonial jacket.