Yao Ming, more than a basketball legend

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When Yao Ming joined the NBA, he would never have imagined that he could someday be mentioned in the same breath as Mencius, by an American president.

In a 2009 Washington meeting, President Barack Obama quoted Yao Ming and ancient Chinese philosopher Mencius at the same speech.

"Of course as a new president and also as a basketball fan, I have learned from the words of Yao Ming who said, 'No matter whether you are new, or an old team member, you need time to adjust to one another,'" Obama said.

"Through the constructive meetings that we have already had, and through this dialogue, I am confident that we will meet Yao's standard."

The 2.26-meter Shanghai native, who announced his retirement on Wednesday, has impressed the world with a formidable set of basketball skills, an engaging personality and the commitment to social responsibility.

"We are going to miss you, bro. You're one of the greatest players to ever come out of China," said Basketball Hall of Famer Shaquille O'Neal in an online video post.


Yao, who will turn 31 this September, is God's gift to Chinese basketball. Apart from his overwhelming dominance and physical presence, Yao possesses many talents most giant centers do not have.

His mobility and dazzling footwork often earn him easy points, while his fade-away shot, hook shot and good shooting touch are the sharp weapons around the low-post. And his brilliant passing often provides open shot chances to his teammates off the three-point line.

However, his nine years in the NBA were never plain sailing. The Rockets' top pick in the 2002 draft, who experienced a scoreless maiden NBA show, tried his best to find chemistry with the team and managed to prove his worth in his rookie season, in which Yao averaged 13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.74 blocks in 82 games and was selected to the All-Rookie, All-Star team.

"Keep working hard", the words Yao typed on his laptop screen saver, are his motto. Throughout his first three seasons in NBA, Yao never took it easy in training and he had only missed two matches.

However, starting from 2005, Yao had five major surgeries to his left foot, missing 250 NBA games. The fragile left foot finally forced Yao to retire early.

Even though the Houston Rockets has never managed to measure up to the high expectation, Yao, who averaged 19.0 points and 9.2 rebounds in his NBA career, received numerous honors, including being voted as the All-Star starter in eight of his nine seasons.

During a promotional tour in China this month, Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant said Yao deserved a place in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

"He does so much for the game, and he does deserve to be in the Hall of Fame," said Durant. "He's so dominant in the game, and he changed the game by his just running up and down the floor."


In the 1990s, a consummate player wearing 23 helped the NBA become more of an art than a game, while in the new century, the Chinese big guy wearing 11 single-handedly raised the NBA profile among one fifth of mankind.

Although his success on the court can not be compared with that of legendary Michael Jordan, Yao's achievements off the court helped to promote cooperation and exchange between the Chinese and American basketball cultures.

"I don't think anybody was more of global icon in the NBA than Michael Jordan. But Yao is different. He's Chinese, and he is an icon for the globalization of our game. He is a symbol of this Chinese renaissance and their determination to compete on a world stage," said NBA Commissioner David Stern.

Stern sent a message to Yao's farewell conference, held in a five-star hotel in Shanghai on Wednesday afternoon, hailing the celebrity player as a "bridge between basketball fans" in the two countries.

"Yao Ming has been a transformational player and a testament to the globalization of our game," he said.

"His dominant play and endearing demeanor along with his extensive humanitarian efforts have made him an international fan favorite and provided an extraordinary bridge between basketball fans in the United States and China."

Thanks to Yao, the NBA saw its popularity soar in China and throughout Asia. A number of NBA stars, including his Rockets teammates and his arch rival O'Neal, earned hefty commercial contracts in China. Former NBA players like Stephon Marbury and Smush Parker joined Chinese CBA clubs. More and more Chinese enterprises choose to throw big money in the NBA to have their slogans and logos seen on broadcasts during NBA games, which usually earn high ratings in Chinese TV channels and on-line broadcasts.

Yao is not the first Chinese to play in the NBA, but he is the most important for sure. He proved that Chinese can well adapt to the high-pressured playing style. He also conquered various difficulties and accumulated plenty of experience for his followers who want to live and play basketball in the United States.

Most overseas-based Chinese athletes consider local language as a major barrier when they move abroad, and so did Yao. Back in 2002, Yao could hardly tell the difference between "What day is today?" and "What's the date today?". Two years later Yao could poke fun in English.

Once queried by media about his English skill, Yao quipped: "I have learned how to say 'Next question'."

Yao's influence went far beyond sports.

The video in which he taught Rockets teammate Tracy Mcgrady how to handle chopsticks was widely watched on the Internet. He served Dikembe Mutombo and Patrick Ewing with traditional Chinese food in his Yao Restaurant where the doorway is nine feet high, the table and chairs are super-sized, and large plush recliners are specially designed for him and his craft brothers.

Yao, labeled as China's biggest export to the United States, built a bridge that introduced millions in the two countries to cultures they didn't really know.

"America is learning things about the People's Republic of China," the NBA Commissioner once said. "And a lot of people in China are learning about America through him."


Yao Ming has a big heart.

When a deadly earthquake hit China's Sichuan Province, Yao donated two million yuan to victims and helped to raise money for quake relief efforts.

"When I was an elementary student, I was taught to help people when they are in need," said Yao, who launched the Yao Foundation in 2008 that helps Chinese children in poor areas.

Yao also dedicated himself to awakening the public's awareness of social welfare and green issues.

"As one of the most high-profile athletes in these Games and with a fan base of millions across the world, I am sure he can help us raise public awareness on the environment and Climate Change issues," said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner when Yao became the first-ever Environment Champion of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in 2008.

"In my role as Environmental Champion, I will work with governments, private sectors and the public to promote good and effective management of our environment so we can preserve the planet for future generations," said Yao.

As Goodwill Ambassador of the international wildlife conservation organization "WildAid", Yao calls for the protection of endangered animal species and says no to eating shark fins.

When Yao and his wife Ye Li, also a basketball player from Shanghai, got married in 2007, they publicly announced that they would not allow shark fin soup to be served at their wedding banquets.

Yao's sturdy attitude against shark fin soup, an expensive delicacy that has a long history in China, even aroused panic among seafood providers as they signed joint statement to protest against Yao.

Yao also represents China's AIDS Prevention Campaign and the NBA's "Basketball Without Borders" and "Read to Achieve" programs. He promotes bone marrow donation and has offered to donate his own marrow if his sample is in need.

Luo Yang, a leukaemia patient who idolized Yao, had received a surprise phone call from the super star player who encouraged him to fight against the disease and sent him 20,000 U.S. dollars, before the teenage boy died in peace.


On July 20, 2011, Yao Ming announced his retirement from professional basketball. "As towering star retires, China is unprepared to replace him," lamented a New York Times headline.

Randy Williams, an American scholar on the Sino-U.S. relations, saw Yao as "an icon of China".

"Has there been anyone like him? The embodiment of the cultural aspirations of the Chinese society, Yao became an iconic symbol of his native country's growth and global status," Williams said.

As Yao decided to hang up boots, speculation is rife about what he will do next.

Yao once said he could work as a journalist because he was clever enough.

Back to Shanghai Sharks? Likely. Yao took over his former club as the sole owner when the club was deep in financial difficulties in 2009.

Just be a family man? Maybe. Yao had expressed his regrets on many occasions for not having enough time to be with his family.

He may even indulge himself in digital games. It is not a secret that Yao loves World of Warcraft and other role-playing computer games. He says that, in the virtual world, he can enjoy the luxury of being an ordinary man.

In the real world, he wasn't, and will never be ordinary.

Yao's career as an NBA star is over, but his impact as a culture ambassador, a philanthropist and a symbol of the country will continue.

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