Boy Interrupted: At 31, Chinese Hoops Star Yao Ming Finally Begins His College Career

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Chinese basketball star Yao Ming attends a class at Shanghai's Jiaotong Univiversity on November 7, 2011. (Photo: AFP / Getty Images)

During its more than 100 years as one of China’s premier academic institutions, Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University has produced some notable alumni, ranging from former Chinese President Jiang Zemin to Qian Xuesen, an architect of China’s missile and space programs. Now, an even more famous student has joined the college’s ranks: Yao Ming, the retired basketball star. The Shanghai native began classes on Monday, two months after his classmates started the academic year. The school has built a special chair for him to sit through lectures.

Yao didn’t have much normal schooling prior to this college turn. The 31-year-old was a history buff as a kid, enjoying the swashbuckling tales of a famous statesman during China’s Three Kingdoms period. But his prodigious height—foreshadowed by the enormous physiques of his basketball-playing parents, who were some of the tallest residents of Shanghai—meant he was plucked out of a regular school at a young age and transferred to one of China’s state-run sports academies. In a Shanghai still suffering from the deprivations of socialist-era rationing, Yao’s migration to the state sports system ensured him plenty of food and nutrition for his growing body. But it also meant that the once studious boy would be part of a structure that far emphasized athletics over academics. By 13, he was playing for the Shanghai Sharks’ junior basketball team, essentially a full-time job.

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Yao, who retired from the NBA in July after an impressive but injury-plagued career as a center with the Houston Rockets, will study at Jiao Tong University’s management school. His course-load will include English, math and modern Chinese history, as well as finance and journalism. Nearly nine years in the States will presumably help him with the language course, although after his first day of school he told a media scrum that adjusting to academic life was tiring. “The teacher showed me some mercy and didn’t assign me any homework,” he joked to reporters.

Because of the constant media attention and frenzied fan interest in his every move, Yao will be taking some of his classes in one-on-one tutorials with the professors, according to what his agent told the state Xinhua News Agency. By Tuesday, pictures of Yao during the first day of class—ranging from him sitting at the back of the class like a true jock to him towering over a whiteboard on which he scribbled some math formulas—had turned up on the Internet. Presumably fellow students had snapped the images with their smartphones, even as they were supposed to be paying attention in class.

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Since retirement, Yao has kept busy in other ways. As one of his many philanthropic and do-gooder pursuits, the sports icon is starring in a public-service announcement urging the Chinese public to stop ingesting shark’s fin. He is also owner of his former Chinese professional basketball team, the Sharks, which he bought two years ago. The Shanghai team, which had suffered for several seasons after Yao’s departure for the NBA and teetered on bankruptcy before Yao’s financial intervention, is now a solid performer in the Chinese basketball league. But the team’s acclaimed American head coach left this year for another Chinese team that offered him a fatter salary. Perhaps the management tips Yao will pick up at college will help him propel his team to a title—even if he’s no longer on court.

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