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An interview with Yao Ming

A version of this article appeared in Hong Kong Tatler

Yao Ming isn’t for talking about his basketball career today. Not directly, anyway. That’s the message from his phalanx of PR go-betweens – and the man whom the sport made probably the world’s most famous living Chinese before his retirement a year ago this month is on it.

Okay, so it seems a bit like talking to Steven Spielberg and not asking about films but let’s roll with this. China’s most feted athlete (and until recently its wealthiest celebrity, according to Forbes magazine) has long been exercised by matters other than his own greatness, whether on or off the basketball court. And he has often seemed a more complex individual – private, considered, even at times conflicted – than his very public, billboard-friendly image might suggest.

His reluctance to dwell on the past, then, speaks of what, exactly? “Slightly, I feel like I wish I still played basketball,” is all he offers when Tatler disobeys instructions by venturing to ask whether or not he regrets his career ending – at the relatively tender age of 30 – following a gruelling sequence of injuries to his feet and ankles. So there may be lingering dismay, but what else? In another interview recently Yao spoke of how being a celebrity sportsman created “discrepancies with real life”. Not the kind of insight you’d expect from, say, David Beckham, but a smart reflection, certainly, on the realm of stardom which they both, and few others from the world of sport, inhabit.Those who become, for want of a better phrase, “public property” without necessarily asking for it often find their predicament self-alienating. And there can be little doubt Yao knows the feeling: no extrovert by nature, he is forced to live in a world that offers few hiding places when you’re 7’6″ tall and everybody knows your face.

Be that as it may, there is a very clear sense that in “retirement” he wishes to take fuller ownership of the Yao Ming brand. His request, last August, to have his nomination for induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame put on hold on the grounds that it was “too soon” is one indication of that. His restlessness in terms of applying himself to other endeavours since is another. “Former NBA star Yao Ming” might always be the calling card but there will be no resting on laurels.

Right now, the focus is seemingly on building on the charitable work Yao has involved himself with for a number of years. “It’s taking up a lot of my time after basketball,” he says of his own Yao Foundation and his partnerships with a network of other philanthropic organisations.

His visit to Hong Kong, arranged in collaboration with local businessman and socialite Moses Tsang, finds him participating in a charity basketball event for children and families in order to raise funds for the international conservation charity Rare. According to the literature, the Yao-Rare partnership aims to engage “an army of young, motivated conservation ambassadors” across China.

“We share the same dream of making a difference in the world,” says Yao, stretching out his enormous frame on a suddenly incommodious-looking drawing-room chair on the top floor of Upper House in Admiralty. “I share Rare’s vision of protecting the environment and young people have to be [the guardians] of that.”

The desire to “make a difference”, or, if you like, “give something back”, is hardly new to him. In his first off-season as a Houston Rockets player, in 2003, he responded to the SARS pandemic by hosting a telethon in Shanghai to raise funds for treatment and research. His now longstanding involvement in HIV and Aids advocacy and awareness campaigns began soon after and in 2007 he held an auction that raised ¥6.75million for underprivileged children. Later, after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, he donated US$2million to relief work and established the Yao Foundation to help rebuild schools destroyed in the catastrophe.

Since then the foundation has funded the construction of 14 schools in rural areas and improved facilities at many others, including installing computer rooms and equipment, libraries, sports and exercise areas and kitchens. And this year sees the start of a new initiative: the Yao Foundation Hope Primary School Basketball Season aims to introduce the sport to thousands of youngsters across China. “Hopefully this will run for many, many years,” he says. “Basketball will always be part of what I can offer to young people.”

Can he see himself becoming more involved in the coaching side of the sport? “I
honestly don’t have experience in that aspect,” he answers, his low, deep voice competing for attention with chatter in the hotel bar. “But I try to share something with the kids I work with. What I share is what I have learnt from sport. You have to trust the guy who stands shoulder to shoulder with you, you cant just rely on yourself. You don’t want to let your team-mates down; you have to back them up and trust them to back you up the same way.”

And how do those principles apply to his own life away from basketball? “In sport, there is physical contact and competition, as well as the team work… If I am working in charity, sometimes competition has to be put to one side. You have to work together with other organisations to achieve things.”

Savvy commentators have opined that Yao’s achievements in the NBA – his incredible averages with the Rockets, his inclusion on the All-NBA Team five times – were all the more remarkable for the absence of an instinctively aggressive streak in his make-up. Sure, he learned about the pressure of competing in one of the world’s most demanding sports leagues but he also brought with him from China his own cultural standards and values and they were not found to be limiting. In the man whose proudest moment was carrying the Chinese flag and leading his country’s delegation during the opening ceremony at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a certain Confucian selflessness and humility are widely discerned.

Many, in fact, choose to see Yao – a gentle-seeming giant with his broad, kind features – as a sort of modern-day Chinese wunderkind. But if the Yao Ming success story is intoxicating it’s only half the picture. “Sometimes it can feel like there are a billion people on my shoulders,” he once said, and little wonder.

As the stress fractures and hairline fractures, the complicated surgical procedures and the months of rehabilitation proliferated in the latter part of Yao’s NBA career, there were those who made the link with his hothousing as a youth. It is claimed the government took an interest in Yao’s sporting potential from birth: both his parents were professional basketball players. By the time he was 13 – and already 6’5″ – he was training 10 hours a day at the the Shanghai Sports technical institute.

In his unauthorised biography of Yao, Operation Yao Ming, the former Newsweek journalist Brook Larmer alleges that his parents were induced to marry in order to produce a champion. He also describes in detail the quasi-scientific “special treatment”, harsh training and relentless testing the teenage Yao endured. If it is difficult to prove the ill-effects of his railroading, it is also hard to over-estimate the pressure it exerted on him to succeed – for his family and for the country. “People love Yao Ming, but no one wants to be him,” is one of Larmer’s observations.

And yet, if Yao has cause to resent aspects of the sporting crucible from which he sprang, he does a good job of hiding it. Now based again in his native Shanghai, where he lives with his wife Le Yi – who also played basketball for China at the Olympics, in 2004 – and their two-year-old daughter, Yan Qinlei, he says: “It’s like my crib. Everything feels very comfortable in Shanghai.”

Since 2009 he has even owned his former club, the Shanghai Sharks, who were then on the verge of financial collapse. That they have continued to make losses suggests there is a philanthropic dimension to his involvement to match his charity in other areas. Meanwhile, other vehicles into which he has poured some of his estimated US$105 million personal fortune – including a restaurant in Texas, a Shenzen-listed GPS tech company, a legal music download website and the recently-launched Yao Family Wines, an “artisanal” Napa Valley wine company targetting the Chinese market – seem destined be more lucrative.

Wine is said to be a passion Yao picked up from his Houston team-mate Dikemebe Mutumbo, but like the Rockets themselves, it’s off-bounds today. Perhaps it’s understandable: time is of the essence and Yao has many balls to juggle. But still, let’s throw another pass. Are his various commercial and humanitarian endeavours enough to fill the basketball-shaped void in his life? “I’ve played basketball for the last 20 years and basketball is in my blood; but it’s still part of my life with the Sharks, and that is time-consuming,” he protests. “The Shanghai Sharks is where I came from… But it’s no competition for my charity work.” Message delivered.