Shaquille O'Neal and Yao Ming are entering the Basketball Hall of Fame together, which feels right. Not only were they arguably the last two traditional centers the league has seen, but they are also unlikely friends who seem to truly enjoy being around one another.
But it wasn't always like that. Their relationship got off to a rocky start when O'Neal, trying to be humorous, mocked the Chinese language during Yao’s rookie year. "Tell Yao Ming, 'Ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-soh,'" he said in an interview. He later apologized and Yao accepted it, but there was a sense that a bitter rivalry between the two best centers in the league was brewing.
That all changed quickly when Shaq embraced Yao later on in his rookie year, following a talk with his stepfather:
“He showed me letters that Yao used to write me when he was a youngster in China,” O’Neal said, according to The Sporting News. “Christmas cards, birthday cards. My father said, ‘The guy looked up to you.’ Most of the guys I was killing, I looked up to them. But he said Yao looked up to me, so show him a little more respect. Our relationship changed after that.”
O'Neal entered the league in 1992, when Yao was just 12 years old. It is technically possible for him to have idolized Shaq and sent him fan mail, even though he lived in China at the time and didn't really know how to speak English. It doesn't seem likely, though, which is why Yao laughed and denied ever writing him letters, according to The Houston Chronicle.
Did Shaq's parents lie to him to get him to respect Yao? Did Shaq mistake correspondence he got from a grown Yao — the Chronicle points out that he sent Christmas cards to everyone in the Houston Rockets organization starting his rookie year — as fan letters? Who knows. All that matters is that after that initially bad start, their relationship evolved into one of mutual respect and, ultimately, friendship.
“I have been going to China for the last seven or eight years," Shaq said. "And we always get together, hang out with the families. He is a great man.”
Shaq typically doles out minimal praise to former rivals, but he really seems to like Yao. Maybe it's all because of some misidentified mail, but who cares. No matter how it started, their friendship seems real.