It isn’t just because he’s 2.26 m tall. Yao Ming, the towering center who played for the Houston Rockets basketball team, is the world’s most famous living Chinese. And while he may not have reached the lofty heights of other great NBA centers because of the chronic injuries that ultimately ended his career on July 20—the Shanghai native shattered the stereotypes Americans held about China. Here was a Chinese who triumphed not as a math geek or computer hacker. Instead, the now 30-year-old earned his street cred in the rough-and-tumble world of the NBA.
Throughout his nine years in Texas, Yao displayed a winning sense of humor, confounding those who expected a grim-faced communist automaton. If China was rising in the world—rapidly, inexorably—then he was the living embodiment of this burgeoning superpower. Yao even managed to temper his confidence with a note of humility, a welcome antidote to the showboating excesses of the NBA. (The Americans profited, too, with the NBA using Yao’s star power to develop what is now its largest market outside the U.S.)
The only son of a pair of oversized basketball players in Shanghai, Yao was expected to reach a certain altitude. Nevertheless who could have imagined a nine-year-old boy measuring 1.7 m high? Eking out a living in a city still untouched by China’s economic boom, his parents were forced to scrounge for extra scraps of meat to fuel their growing son. But height means nothing without talent and tenacity. Funneled into China’s state-run sports system before the age of 10, Yao has lived and breathed basketball ever since. By age 21, the gangly youth once teased for his clumsiness had morphed into the leading scorer for the Shanghai Sharks professional club, averaging 38.9 points in his final season and making every one of his 21 shots in the 2002 championship final.
That same year, Yao was picked No. 1 in the NBA draft, after having negotiated an expensive escape from the Chinese sports system, which expected a chunk of his future earnings for having developed him. In Yao’s rookie season with the Rockets, he made the NBA All Star team as a starting center. But while Yao proved an impressive force, averaging 19 points and 9.2 rebounds over his career, injuries to his feet overwhelmed him. Toward the end of his Houston sojourn, he warmed the bench, his every metatarsal dissected in newspapers back home.
While most big men suffer from the stress of hardcourt action, Yao’s health problems were exacerbated by the relentless training and schedule his nation required of him. Shaquille O’Neal, the era’s dominant center, also retired this year—but at age 40, a full decade older than Yao. Even China’s state-run press has acknowledged the problem. “Yao’s early retirement reflects a long-existing problem in China’s training system of young athletes,” went a story in Xinhua, the national news agency. “The result of a match sometimes transcends the health of an athlete…China may lose more sports stars to injury-forced early retirement.”
Yao remained devoted to his homeland, reveling in the chance to carry the Olympic flag when Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympics. He has donated millions of dollars to the Sichuan earthquake recovery effort and to various Chinese charities. But his patriotism came at a cost. A decision to represent his nation in the world basketball championships in the summer of 2006 hampered his rehab from a broken foot. Other commitments to Team China left him equally exhausted. Yao’s repeated appearances in international competitions may have helped his country upstage the likes of Slovenia, but the feet that had to bear his massive frame never recovered.
Yet America changed him, too—and Yao has spoken out against the system that made him. Even China’s sports czars chided him for showing up late to national-team practice in 2007, he opined that Chinese basketball would not improve unless more of its players were given the freedom to play ball overseas. In 2010, his wife Ye Li, a Chinese former basketball player, gave birth to their daughter. Born in the U.S., Amy Yao is an American citizen. Even if she sprouts, Yao insists that his daughter will be free to choose her destiny.
Still, it was from Shanghai that Yao announced his retirement from the NBA—and it is from China’s biggest city that he will craft his future. In 2009, Yao bought his former Chinese team, the Sharks, who almost went bankrupt after he left the squad for America. Will he be able to remake a domestic league that single-mindedly recruits youngsters based on their height as opposed to their passion for hoops? In other words, can he help China find the next Derrick Rose, not the next Yao Ming?
For as China’s basketball legend retires, another question remains. Why has China, even after all the millions of dollars it has spent on its hoops program, not produced more stars? Despite Yao’s best efforts, Team China failed to capture a medal at the Beijing Olympics. Yao’s Chinese successors in the NBA, Yi Jianlian and Sun Yue, have made little impact. The pipeline promises little. China’s basketball world needs a shake-up. But fomenting such revolutionary change may be too much even for Yao, China’s giant among men.