By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

FREE YAO MING!! FREE YAO MING!!

Yao Must Be Unleashed.

He is a pretty decent NBA player right now. He goes for 16.8 points and about nine boards a night. Not bad, but not great, either.

Yao Ming
That's what we're talking about!

And the thing is, we all think maybe he can be great. He's 7-foot-6 with skills, vision, and touch. He's a b-ball revolution waiting to happen. Not so long ago, on this very site, Bill Simmons called him "the most compelling NBA player since MJ in his prime." Ralph Wiley said he was destined to rule the league for years, Charley Rosen said he was a player with "extraordinary court sense" and "unlimited" upside. And I, myself, gushed that his was the beautiful game on "the other side of Shaq Mountain."

So where is that Yao right now? Where is the Yao that is a force, a spirit, a phenomenon bigger than all of us? Is he gone? Was he never there?

I don't know, but I don't think so. I think he's caged up. Boxed in. Trapped.

The Rockets and head coach Jeff Van Gundy have been working this year to be more Yao-centric, but their thinking's been too conventional, too restrictive. I say, for the good of the team, for the good of the man, for the good of the game and for the good of fans everywhere, Yao should be set truly free.

If you want to join the Yao Revolution, and find out just how Yao can wow us, then print, clip and sign one or more of the letters below.

Yao is too big to be cut down to size by the little people in his life. Act now, before it's too late!


Dear Yao,

It begins with you.

In the words of our brothers from the Mothership, "Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow." Let it go, Big Fella. Show us all the Yaoness inside of Yao.

You've been polite long enough. Get Yao on us, now. We can take it. We want it.

Block out the advisors. Zone out the press. Grab your teammates by the scruffs of their necks and lead on.

You want to be tough? Go for it. Be indomitable. You want to be creative? Bring it. Be a wizard. You want to live inside? That's you. You want to live outside? Get busy.

You want to flow and glide and shift and spin from out to in and in to out in such a way that the distinction between the two fades away under the bright, bold light of your genius? Do it. We will shout hallelujah and sing your name from the rooftops like the joyful noise it is.

Yours,

____________________
Charter Member
Free Yao International


Dear Jeff Van Gundy,

Please don't look at Yao Ming and see Patrick Ewing. Please, please, please don't make us look at Yao Ming and see Patrick Ewing.

Once upon a time in New York, you had a team and a post man suited to grinding and bulldogging; and you guys were tough, deliberate, and effective. But this is not that time or that place.

Here and now, you have ... hell, we don't even know what you have. You have a combination of size and grace no one's ever seen before. You have passing ability, footwork, and creativity to burn.

You don't fit and mold a guy like this to a system. You sit up nights scheming and dreaming some wild, beautiful new thing.

You don't just toughen him up because big men must be tough. You show your appreciation for the gift the basketball gods have given you by re-imagining the whole idea of a big man's game, is what you do.

Mr. Van Gundy, I implore you: Experiment, open up the floor, let him run, let him pass. Don't just bury him on the blocks. Think outside the blocks. Let go of 70-point games and 50-win seasons. Imagine 70-win seasons and 120-point games.

Sincerely,

____________________
Charter Member
Free Yao International


Dear Steve Francis,

Share the love.

What's your assist number these days? 5.9? Am I reading that right? You play with a 7-6 go-to guy and you're dropping 5.9?

Shouldn't that number be double digits? Shouldn't you be making a run at Tiny Archibald's assist-points double crown right about now?

The man gets 11.8 shots a night. How can that be, Steve? That's six fewer than Duncan, five-and-a-half fewer than Shawn Marion, almost five fewer than Larry-freakin-Hughes, and almost two fewer than Juwan I-bet-you-forgot-I-was-still-playing Howard. That ain't right, Steve. You know that ain't right.

Dish it to him, would you please?

And don't just do it because it's the right thing to do. Don't do it because passing is the true heart of the game. Don't do it because it would make you the well-rounded buzz of the NBA. Don't even do it because it might make your team a whole lot harder to handle ... do it because you'll get it back.

Remember the alley-oop at the All-Star game a couple weeks back. Yao-to-Francis ... oomph! There's plenty more where that came from, Franchise -- plenty more highlight reels, plenty more oohs and aahs, plenty more fun.

I see 10 dimes for Francis and 3 or 4 for Yao coming right back to his favorite teammate. I see a win-win.

Can you see it?

Best,

____________________
Charter Member
Free Yao International


Dear Chinese Basketball Association,

Let Yao go.

Quit skimming his earnings, commanding his performances, compelling him to play for the national team, and generally exerting your will and wishes over his.

You're suffocating him.

Take the pressure off. Let him be a baller whose mind isn't stretched across oceans and whose heart isn't divided between loyalties.

Do it, and you become the gracious government agency unafraid to share your gifts with the world, and confident in the way he represents your nation, your people, and your culture.

Do it; and maybe, just maybe, he plays better, stronger, and faster than any of us have dared to imagine he could. Maybe, like the icons (like Tiger, Ali, and MJ), he plays a game with which we are not familiar.

If you free him up, if you give him that chance, the glory of such a thing will reflect on you.

But if you continue to jam him up, the absence of such a thing will be your b-ball and real-world legacy; and whatever he achieves will be in spite of you.

It's your call.

Respectfully,

____________________
Charter Member
Free Yao International


Dear Bill Walton,

First, let me just say that I'm with you, Big Redhead. Like you, I love the creative game, the thinking game, the subtle game. I loved everything about your game and I love that you love everything about Yao's.

You get revved up watching him and I get revved up, too. He flips a touch pass to a cutting Cuttino and my heart races. He works that sweet fadeaway and I want to write poems and sing songs.

But if we really want to see what he's got in store for us, I think we need to cool it a bit.

I need to keep my Walt Whitman act under wraps and you need to dial down the "Yao Walks on Water" routine.

Much as we dig what he does, the truth is, he's not The Future. Not yet, anyway. He shows signs of brilliance and promises great things but he's not yet a destroyer, a master, or a genius. And he's not yet Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, or Bobby Fischer, either.

As you've said many times, what he is is a super-talented cat carrying the weight of being a trailblazer, and an ox of a man bearing up under the billion-fold burden of China's hopes and expectations.

Hard as it is to resist, let's not heap too much hype on top of all that.

Your friend in hoops,

____________________
Charter Member
Free Yao International

After the letters come bumper stickers and t-shirts, a Quincy Jones-organized benefit album, and, if necessary, a secret midnight airlift out of Houston.

Stay tuned for details.

And in the meantime, stay true to the cause.

Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.




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Neel
FREE YAO NOW!