The faint whispers of a genetic conspiracy coursed through the corridors of Shanghai No. 6 Hospital on the evening of Sept. 12, 1980. It was shortly after 7 p.m., and a patient in the maternity ward had just endured an excruciating labor to give birth to a baby boy. An abnormally large baby boy. The doctors and nurses on duty should have anticipated something out of the ordinary. The boy's parents, after all, were retired basketball stars whose marriage the year before had made them the tallest couple in China. The mother, Fang Fengdi, an austere beauty with a pinched smile, measured 1.88 m more than half a foot taller than the average man in Shanghai. The father, Yao Zhiyuan, was a 2.08-m giant whose body pitched forward in the kind of deferential stoop that comes from a lifetime of ducking under door frames and leaning down to listen to people of more normal dimensions. So imposing was their size that ever since childhood, the two had been known simply as Da Yao and Da Fang Big Yao and Big Fang.
Still, the medical staff surely had never seen a newborn quite like this: the enormous legs, the broad, squarish cranium, the hands and feet so fully formed that they seemed to belong to a three-year-old. At more than 5 kg, he was nearly double the size of the average Chinese newborn. The name his parents gave him, from a Chinese character that unifies the sun and the moon, was Ming, meaning bright.
News of Yao Ming's birth was quickly relayed across town to the top leaders of the Shanghai Sports Commission. They were not surprised. These men and women had been trying to cultivate a new generation of athletes who would embody the rising power of China. The boy in the maternity ward represented, in many ways, the culmination of their plan.
The experiment had no code name, but in Shanghai basketball circles it might as well have been called Operation Yao Ming. The wheels had been set in motion more than a quarter-century earlier, when Chairman Mao Zedong exhorted his followers to funnel the nation's most genetically gifted youngsters into the emerging communist sports machine. Two generations of Yao Ming's forebears had been singled out by authorities for their hulking physiques, and his mother and father had both been drafted into the sports system. "We had been looking forward to the arrival of Yao Ming for three generations," says Wang Chongguang, a retired Shanghai coach who played with Yao's father in the 1970s and would coach Yao himself in the '90s. "That's why I thought his name should be Yao Panpan." Long-Awaited Yao.
Giddy with the sense of possibility, some officials wanted to start helping the family immediately with food and finances. Others even began pushing for an exception to the country's strictly enforced one-child policy. If China truly wanted to compete internationally, they asked, why shouldn't the nation's tallest couple be allowed to breed an entire team of champions?
One communist leader didn't share in the delight. This man, one of the most powerful sports officials in Shanghai, had bitter memories of the torment inflicted on him by a group of youthful revolutionaries that included Yao Ming's mother. It had taken him nearly a decade to battle his way back to the top. He was in no mood to start bending the rules to help Da Fang.
For him, revenge sounded far sweeter.