September 20, 2013 7:04 am

Yao Ming: China’s basketball king

He was the super-modest, super-tall basketball star from China who took America by storm. Now he wants to make a difference back home
Yao Ming©Noah Sheldon

'We have made great achievements. But we can’t stop'

When Yao Ming lumbers into our interview room at the elegant M on The Bund restaurant in Shanghai, he stoops to enter through a doorway made for lesser men. Even the chairs seem too small for him. China’s greatest basketball player – its ultimate sporting ambassador, possibly its most famous living citizen – is not just tall. At 7ft 6in, he is like Tiananmen Square: built to dwarf the merely mortal. His head, with its distinctive flat-top, seems preternatural.

Only the high-rise city can diminish his stature. When he looks across to the mega-tall skyline of Shanghai’s financial district, Lujiazui, Yao doesn’t feel so big. The tail of a typhoon is whipping Shanghai and the wind has cleared the usual noxious haze, so we have a clear view of the 127-floor Shanghai Tower, soon to be the tallest building in a country obsessed with skyscraper one-upmanship. Yao gazes at the tower, bristling with cranes. It “makes me feel short”, he says.

He has nothing personal against smallness. Asked what car he drives, he says he owns a Range Rover – because most cars are not big enough for him. “I don’t have the luxury to pick my own car,” he says wistfully. “I wish I could drive a Mini.”

It soon becomes clear that being Yao Ming is not always easy. His body has made a lot of his decisions for him, from cars to careers to his role in history. And so has the Communist Party of China.

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It started before Yao, now 33, was even conceived. His parents were both tall. His mother was 6ft 2in, his father 6ft 10in – so the party “encouraged” them to pursue a career in basketball. At a time when communism had a hand in every decision, from what the masses ate (or failed to eat) to whom they married, Yao’s parents were nudged towards becoming the tallest married couple in Shanghai, according to Brook Larmer’s 2005 book, Operation Yao Ming.

Larmer quotes the former basketball coach of Yao’s mother saying: “We were always telling Da Yao and Da Fang (“Big Yao” and “Big Fang”, Yao Ming’s parents), ‘You are both so tall. You should get together. You’ll understand each other. We’d joke with them and say, ‘Just imagine how tall your children would be.’”

Chinese scientists even developed some intriguing methods for figuring out just how tall their loftiest comrades would grow. Yao says that, with him, the doctors got it spot on: “When I was 12 or 13, they measured my hands,” he says, alluding to a technique that predicts a child’s final height from their “bone age” [the age at which the child’s bones are expected to mature, based on monitoring their wrist bones]. Yao says the Shanghai Sharks – a team he once played for and now owns – still use that method.

Yao Ming at a meeting of the Shanghai People’s Congress, 2011©AFP

Yao the politician, at a meeting of the Shanghai People’s Congress, 2011

Then again, the Shanghai sports authorities knew from the beginning that Yao junior was going to be a big boy. At 11.2lb and 23in long, Larmer says he was nearly twice the size of the average Chinese newborn of the era.

And although Deng Xiaoping had just decreed the end of communism as China had previously known it, the state still thought it had a duty to help little Yao fulfil his manifest destiny to play basketball. They encouraged him to enter a state sports school from the age of nine.

Yao does not resent that – nor pretty much any of the firm direction he received when he was young. Of his parents he says: “The older I am, the more I take their way as my guide [in life]. I appreciate that they allowed me to have very flexible teenage years – they didn’t give me pressure about school or basketball, they only insisted that I be patient and persist [with whatever I was doing]. That is the only way they were hard on me.”

During the course of our conversation, it quickly becomes clear that Yao’s philosophy of life – the philosophy that led him to professional basketball, to the US, and even to his role in superpower relations – is to accept what he cannot change. “I believe in acceptance; if you can’t change something, then do better, try to embrace it.”

This extends to his own body, its gifts and various betrayals. In 2002, Yao’s extraordinary frame helped  to make him the first overall draft pick of the 2002 NBA Season – a previously unimaginable achievement for a Chinese athlete. As the most coveted of all the new players joining the league that year, Yao was following in the footsteps of American sporting giants like “Magic” Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal. And in nine years at the Houston Rockets, and a catalogue of appearances in NBA All Star Teams, he became a star in his own right.

Yao Ming playing for the Houston Rockets©NBAE/Getty Images

Playing for the Houston Rockets in 2008

But Yao’s sheer size worked against him too. A series of lower body injuries, particularly in his feet – which proved unable to support the constant, massive movements above – brought a premature end to his NBA career at the age of just 30. Does he fear that his internal organs might also fail him, as he grows older? “I used to worry about that,” he says, “but I can’t change it.” It’s a bit like being unable to stroll out on the streets of Shanghai any more (he is mobbed everywhere he goes) or driving a Mini: beyond his control.

And what about the Chinese state: does he resent its social determinism? “Without the government, I would not be who I am today, I would have lost my runway,” he says.

Then there’s the question of his role in international relations. Softly spoken, clean-living and able to laugh at himself, Yao arrived on the US sporting stage just as China was engineering a parallel rise in its global stature, from international pariah to global superpower. And by succeeding at something that millions of Americans genuinely care about, he achieved more than an army of ping-pong-playing diplomats. Yao made people start to look up to China, not down. But wasn’t it hard, in the words of a former agent, to be “the window of China into America and America into China”?

Yao, who is famously modest, denies that he was all that influential. Was he, I ask, as important as Richard Nixon, who went to China in 1972 to restore relations severed for decades? “I don’t know about that,” he says. But he will admit that being in the NBA, with its high visibility in US culture, “allowed people to get to know how Chinese people live and how we speak”. Previously, Yao says, “Americans knew Chinese people through Chairman Mao and Deng Xiaoping – and Bruce Lee, but he is really a Chinese American.”

Was it hard playing the role of unofficial spokesman for 1.3 billion people? “The hardest part is I have to think if what I say fits in both cultures. When I speak to you as an American journalist, I have to try to strike a balance and say something right in the middle … My job is to figure out what are the common points and avoid the differences.”

Yao believes this made him adept at donning the appropriate cultural camouflage, according to his environment. “I am basically Chinese, but in the US… you have to make yourself American,” he says. “When I go to Houston, I think I’m Houstonian – I don’t think I am a Chinese going to Houston. But now that I’ve finished my career there, I have to act like a local when I come back to Shanghai.”

Yao Ming with his family after announcing his NBA retirement©Bloomberg

With his family after announcing his NBA retirement, July 2011

This chameleon approach sounds exhausting but Yao seems resigned. “Every person has that part of him that wants to be himself, to say something that really represents himself,” he says. “But everybody also has to know the responsibility that they carry. I accept it and try to embrace it. I always try to find the common part between my personal goals and my duty… [so I can] accept it and take it as [my] will.”

I wonder whether this equanimity is inspired by eastern philosophy. Confucianism maybe? But it seems Yao was just born believing that acceptance is the better part of valour. He says he has not studied philosophy. That is hardly surprising, since he sacrificed most of his school years to basketball. Only now, in his thirties, is he studying economics as an undergraduate at Jiaotong University in Shanghai, where he lives with his family. On the day we met, he had just dropped his three-year-old daughter off at her first day of pre-school. Yao tries hard to shield her from publicity, though Chinese media are already speculating on her future height, since her mother, Ye Li, used to play on China’s women’s national basketball team.

As well as economics, Yao is focusing on a sideline in politics and is proud to have taken a seat on the government advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Is he a member of the party, I ask? “What party?” he quips, adding that plenty of people on the CPPCC are not Communist party members.

He’s certainly not afraid to take a stance – campaigning against shark fin soup and speaking out on the need for Beijing to do something about air pollution. “Weather has caught people’s attention, it’s the kind of problem that will force our government to make some changes,” he says. “But it will take some time. You are from Detroit, what was it like when you grew up?” he asks. “We can’t just shut down all the factories.”

With his playing career over, he’s also breaking new ground in the world of Chinese philanthropy. He hopes to move towards transparency in how his own Yao Ming Foundation, established to help victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, spends its money (though it is not yet so transparent that it actually discloses the size of its assets). But when it comes to his plans for a business career to rival the sports one that ended prematurely, he doesn’t have much to say, noting that his ideas are still “immature”. Operation Yao the Businessman has not yet really got off the ground.

Still, one thing is clear: making lots of money is part of the eventual plan. He sets me straight when I ask whether he wants to make money in a way that is good for society. “Making money is already good for society,” he says, adding the Chinese version of the saying that teaching a man to fish is superior to giving him one.

Crowd gathers around Yao Ming©ChinaFotoPress

The price of fame – being mobbed, April 2012

So is he happy with the state of the nation that helped him become so famous? “Since the end of the cultural revolution we have made great achievements, but we can’t stop,” he says. “In Shanghai, Beijing, people are very wealthy, they have good food, nice clothes, good schools. But the spiritual part, that you cannot buy. We have to figure that out.

“We have to cross the river by touching the stones,” he adds, echoing Deng Xiaoping, who said the same about introducing capitalism to China at virtually the moment that Yao was born. Since then, China has got the hang of making money. But has it lost its soul in the process? “It’s a stage that the country has to undergo,” he says. “There will be a turning point, we are almost there.”

Maybe it’s because he’s big – or more likely because he’s so confident, self-effacing and serene – but I am tempted to believe him. Yao Ming has changed the way the world sees Chineseness – and it is so much more than just a height thing.

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Patti Waldmeir is the FT’s Shanghai correspondent. With additional reporting by Zhang Yan.

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