BEIJING — At 7-foot-1, roughly 350 pounds, and with a smile that's been featured on everything from cereal boxes to CD album covers, Shaquille O'Neal isn't particularly hard to recognize.
Yet, there I stood at the airport arrival gate in Chongqing, a city of 30 million people in southwestern China, holding a placard that carefully read “Shaquille Rashaun O'Neal” — as if I might mistake this Shaquille O'Neal, the iconic NBA superstar that I grew up idolizing, with some other Shaquille O'Neal.
A Chinese real estate company called MyTown had lured Shaq to Chongqing — along with former NBA point guard Jason “White Chocolate” Williams — for a two-day publicity visit and exhibition game against a local Chinese professional team. The company had hired me to be Shaq's translator.
My first instructions from the Chinese bosses were straightforward: 1) find Shaq when he got off the plane; 2) hand him a bouquet of roses so large that I could barely hold them. When Shaq arrived, his posse walking closely behind, I tried to present him with the portable garden I was carrying. “You got a girlfriend?” were his first words, asked in his famous, woofer-rattling monotone. “No,” I responded.
“Good. Then you'll need these more than I do.”
The main event was a basketball game in Chongqing's largest professional sports arena. I arrived early with Shaq and his crew, including his security chief, Jerome Cohen, and his agent, Perry Rogers. Together, we polished off six medium pizzas from Pizza Hut. I did not see Shaq so much as sample a single Chinese dish during his visit, though he did repeatedly ask me if I could find him a restaurant that served dog. Shaq's other odd requests included going to a hookah bar and finding high-quality, knock-off women's bags. (That said, he has a good poker face and I was never sure whether he was joking.)
Before the game started, I rebounded for Shaq as he heaved dozens of three-point shots. He only hit one three-pointer out of 22 attempts over a 19-year career, but somehow connected on roughly 50 percent of the three-pointers he took in Chongqing. His trick: yelling “Danny Green” — channeling the young, San Antonio Spurs sharp shooter — while releasing the ball.
The game itself was boring: A hodgepodge of American Division I college players and NBA washouts handily defeated the local Chongqing professional team, with Jason Williams dishing his signature behind-the-back, off-the-elbow passes and Shaq sitting on the sidelines in a crisp, quintuple extra-large white t-shirt, doing his best to resemble a coach. Despite not breaking a sweat, Shaq found himself the clear focus of the Chinese crowd. “Ao-ni-er, wo ai ni!” they cried. “O'Neal, I love you!”
As the game wound down, one screaming fan's voice rose above the rest, carrying a pang of desperation. “Ao-ni-er! Look at me! Look at me!” I turned my head to locate the fan, who sat several rows behind the coaches, dressed in full Shaq regalia. Shaq himself also looked back. I was surprised to see a flicker of recognition in his eyes.
That crazed fan's name is Wang “Rashaun” Liang — the middle name is no coincidence. He was born in Anqiu, a small, obscure town in China's Shandong province, the son of a government worker and a nurse. He was passionate about basketball at an early age, but it wasn't until the early 1990s that the NBA made its first footprint in China, when new NBA commissioner David Stern — in an early effort to increase the NBA's global reach — offered to snail-mail one free NBA video segment per week to be broadcast on CCTV, China's state-run television service. “Everyone was obsessed with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, but Ao-ni-er caught my eye — it was love at first sight,” Wang told me at a Beijing café. “Every week, I would wait for that game to be broadcast, crossing my fingers that I could see Shaq, my hero.”
By the time Wang reached college in 2003, CCTV had started airing more games, and Wang sought to improve his English so that he could keep closer tabs on his idol. Despite being nearly broke during his senior year, Wang finagled a nosebleed seat to watch Shaq play in an exhibition game in Beijing, an experience that to this day makes him tremble with excitement. When he got his first job, Wang devoted entire paychecks to buying Shaq-related apparel, mostly jerseys and shoes. Today, he boasts a collection of 34 Shaq jerseys, many of them in the star's actual size, as well as a pair of Reebok sneakers — size 23, U.S. — once worn by Shaq himself. (Wang Liang is 5-foot-10 and weighs 170 pounds, about half of O'Neal's body weight.)
It should not come as a surprise that fans like Wang exist. Basketball has grown exponentially in China — around 300 million Chinese people now play it — and Shaq, an adept marketer, has never been one to pass up the opportunity to sell himself.
With a straight face, he once told reporters: “I'm tired of hearing about money, money, money, money, money. I just want to play the game, drink Pepsi, wear Reebok.”
In 2006, late in his career, Shaq landed a lucrative endorsement deal from Lining, one of the largest Chinese sporting companies; during the 2008 Olympics, the company erected a 50-foot statue of the basketball superstar in a Beijing park.
Watching Shaq in action, it wasn't hard to understand why China has treated him so well. He seemed to have the country down to a science: With his expressive body language and infectious charm, it was as if he barely needed my services as translator. He knew exactly when to sign basketballs, whose hand to shake, and whom to flatter. He even grasped some basic Mandarin, rattling off phrases to his fawning fans.
Chinese fans often invent their own, alternative nicknames for favorite NBA players. For example, former San Antonio Spurs center Tim Duncan, renowned for his stoic game-time demeanor, is called shifou, or “Stone Buddha.” Besides Ao-ni-er, which is simply a phonetic translation of his last name, Shaq has two other popular Chinese monikers: Da-sha-yu, or “Big Shark,” and Ao-pang, which roughly translates as “O'Fatty.”
I told Shaq about his first two nicknames (diplomatically withholding the third), and within minutes he was mouthing his Chinese name to himself, trying to remember it. “Yo, Perry!” he yelled across a room to his sports agent. “You know they call me 'Big Shark' here?”
Despite the chaos of the Chongqing arena, Shaq recognized his super-fan, Wang, immediately and waved him past the security guards. The two exchanged a warm hug, Wang's head squeezing into Shaq's abdomen. With the help of my translation, Wang made a special request of Shaq.
“This is your biggest fan in China, Rashaun Wang, the man you see every time you visit,” he said, staring at me intently as I translated. “I am hoping to marry my girlfriend soon, but I need your help. You and she are the two most important people in my life. Will you help me?” With the grace of a seasoned actor, Shaq picked up Wang's script and took the recording smartphone from Wang's trembling, outstretched hand. “Do you, Liao Binbin, take Wang Liang to be your husband?” he recited into the device.
The wedding is set for early 2014, and Wang already knows who he wants to be best man.