Thursday, Jul. 24, 2008

5. Yao Ming

Age: 27

When the NBA's Houston Rockets first sought permission from China's sports authorities to sign Yao Ming to play in the NBA, there was one term that was nonnegotiable: Yao would play for China's Olympic team, no matter what. He would lead the national team in Beijing in 2008. Which was why, in late February, the nation had a collective heart attack when it awoke to the news that Yao had broken his left foot. Few cared that an all-star NBA season had ended. Suddenly, Yao's very presence at the Olympics was in question. How quickly his left foot could heal became a national obsession.

The pressure on 7-ft. 6-in. Yao, 27, was already going to be Olympian. He's China's most famous athlete, the tallest, most visible bearer of the hopes of 1.3 billion. "I have to face two challenges: pressure and possible glory. You can't have one without the other,'' he has said. But once he was injured, Yao's focus suddenly had nothing to do with whether the Chinese team could realistically hope to beat LeBron & Co. The pressure was on to heal. How, exactly, does one deal with that? His rest, treatments and rehab became the stuff of anxious blog posts and sports columns in China. He was emotional at a news conference shortly after the injury, insisting that his foot would get better, that he would play. It was as if he were willing it to be so. And so it is — even though various physicians in the U.S. have been quoted as saying that coming back this quickly from his particular injury is pushing it. On Aug. 10, Yao will lead Team China in its first game — against the U.S.