Yao Ming, who was born in 1980 to the tallest couple in China, did not disappoint. At the age of four, he was already well over 4 feet, soon to surpass then leader Deng Xiaoping's 4 foot 11 build. The child was regularly poked and prodded by a team of scientists in charge of his development, who fed him secret concoctions that they claim have added inches to his height.

And that was just the beginning. In "Operation Yao Ming" (Gotham Books, $26) former Newsweek reporter Brook Larmer describes the thrilling -- and painful -- rise of basketball greats Wang Zhizhi and Yao Ming to the U.S. National Basketball Association.

 The book lays bare how nationalist pressures in communist China take their toll on young athletes. Basketball is not just a game, but a symbol of the country's strength. Basketball players, with military stoicism, rarely complain about the grueling physical regimens out of fear of being criticized for not being patriotic enough. In one extreme example, a key member of the People's Liberation Army basketball team played an entire season with a busted knee. After he led the team to the Chinese Basketball Association championship, doctors found ten pieces of broken bone is his damaged knee and were surprised he was able to walk.

"Operation Yao Ming" simultaneously relates the story of Wang Zhizhi, another abnormally tall son of two retired basketball players. The young Mr. Wang was groomed to play for his parent's Beijing team, until his parents make clandestine arrangements for him to defect to the PLA team.

Mr. Yao and Mr. Wang soon attract the attention of corporate sponsor Nike as well as the NBA, much to the consternation of the Chinese Basketball Association. The league is not keen to lose its top players, and throws all sorts of obstacles in the way of American teams before finally giving in.

Mr. Larmer tells the story of how Mr. Yao's parents, Da Fang and Da Yao, find themselves caught between shady sports agents, NBA recruiters, friends and Chinese officials, 
all determined to make money off their son.

The tough negotiations between NBA teams and local Chinese sports officials drag right up to the day of the NBA draft. An excited Mr. Yao, the No. 1 draft choice, tells his new American fans in a post-draft interview: "Houston, I
am come!"

Mr. Yao soon outshines his former competitor Mr. Wang, who does not live up to NBA expectations. Mr. Wang declines to return home to practice with China's national team, fearing that if he leaves U.S. soil, the People's Liberation Army won't ever let him return. Mr. Wang thus finds himself labeled a traitor at home and an untouchable among many NBA teams, who have no intention of crossing the Chinese authorities by offering a contract to an AWOL lieutenant.

To help Mr. Yao cope with playing under the spotlight of China's 1.3 billion people, Da Fang travels to Houston to live with her son. Despite bringing in $18 million a year, Yao Ming now has to ask for a weekly allowance. When his tattooed teammates ask when they can't party at his house, Mr. Yao remains silent, too embarrassed to tell them that his Mom won't allow any visitors. And while his new American friends head to strip clubs in Houston, Mr. Yao prefers to stay at home, eating his Mom's home-cooked chicken soup and playing video games.

Mr. Larmer is an excellent writer, but "Operation Yao Ming" is slightly marred by clumsy attempts to add bits of Chinese "color." China is repeatedly referred to as the Middle Kingdom, for example, and we read that a young Da Fang "sprouted like bamboo after the spring rains."

There are also too many unattributed private conversations, retellings of inner thoughts, and descriptions of facial expressions that Mr. Larmer could not possibly have seen with his own eyes. While this helps to move the drama along, it also leads one to wonder where the author obtained his information. Another problem is that Mr. Larmer attributes too much of his research to Chinese and Western media sources. You don't need to be a journalist to know that you can't always believe what you read in the news.

But overall, "Operation Yao Ming" is such a page-turner that its easy to forget that the words "Chinese basketball" once conjured up a world of disinterested players shooting hoops in cold, dimly lit gymnasiums. The book skillfully describes how, in a country where sports are an expression of national ambition, athletes can become hostage to politics. But this book isn't just about China. It also tells the cross-cultural drama of Nike and the NBA's tenacious, if not clumsy, fight for a piece of the world's "final frontier."

© 2013 Paul J. Mooney