Keeping Up with Yao Ming

Published in Nihao Magazine

 

There are times when all Yao Ming wants to do on his time off is sleep. Slumber is a luxury that the 24-year-old Shanghai native has little time for. From October to June, he leads a busy life in America, playing centre for the NBA’s Houston Rockets and spending some 80 nights a year on the road with his team-mates.

When the NBA season ends, Yao heads back to his homeland, where he plays for the Chinese National Team. Playing for Team China in the 2004 Athens Olympics was a great honour, Yao says, and the emotional 67-66 win over Serbia-Montenegro was a game he’ll never forget.

“Even though I was disappointed that our team did not get on the medal stand, it was such an amazing event for me to be a part of,” says Yao. “I think our basketball team is going to be much better in four years. The new developing stars will be pointing toward the games and I intend to be much better too!”

The energetic sportsman rarely stops working. Endorsement offers come at Yao constantly. He carefully analyses each product, only willing to support those he likes. Such endorsements have introduced Yao Ming to non-basketball fans. His humorous TV commercial for Visa was a favourite among American viewers, making the soft-spoken player a well-known celebrity there.

Yet there is more to Yao than his athletic skill and business savvy. He has used his fame to help others. Last year he hosted a telethon to raise funds to fight SARS, and was recently named the global Spokesperson of the Special Olympics. Yao is pleased that Shanghai will host the Special Olympics World Summer Games in 2007.

He is also looking forward to introducing the Houston Rockets to his hometown. The Rockets play a preseason game against the Sacramento Kings in Shanghai on October 14, the first-ever NBA game in China. The two teams meet again in Beijing on October 17.

This mixing of cultures is typical for Yao. Sport is a universal language and the Chinese basketball star has often been the translator, bringing two very different countries together.

“Yao tries to bridge the gap between the two cultures,” says Tim McDougal, vice president of marketing of the Houston Rockets. “He’s found a way to be a stand-out person in both societies.”

The October visit to China will be a first for many of Yao’s American team-mates. Yao is eager to introduce his friends to Chinese culture, traditions and food, something he misses when he is in Texas.

It was in Shanghai that Yao, whose parents both played for Chinese national teams, began his rise to basketball stardom, playing on the Shanghai Youth Team at age 14 and then the Chinese National Team at 18.

As a child, Yao dreamed of being an explorer and pioneer – and his skills have allowed that dream to come true. The 7′ 6″ star is now entering his third season with the Rockets, having been an All-Star Game starter both seasons. He has obviously adapted to the fast-pace of the NBA. He has also adapted well to life in Houston, which is home to some 120,000 Chinese-Americans. He’s gotten used to driving in the city’s crazy traffic, developed a love for huge steaks and made good friends.

“I spend a lot of time at home, listening to music and reading new books,” says Yao. “My team-mates really help me out, not just by teaching me the game, but also some American slang!”

Although Yao often uses the help of his translator, Colin Pine, his English has greatly improved. “He speaks English all the time with his team-mates,” says McDougal. “And when he speaks English during interviews, fans are just blown away by his fun personality.”

It’s obvious that Yao has earned the respect of those he works with. “Yao Ming is one of the most remarkable young men I’ve ever met,” says Barry Warner, president of Asian Southwest Media in Texas. “He’s very atypical of today’s athletes. He’s humble and has a good perspective on life. I’m sure he would make an impact on society whatever he did. His parents have great reason to be proud of him.” Yao is known for his great sense of humour. “He’s quick with a joke,” says Warner. “I’ve seen him laugh so hard that he has doubled over and fallen into his locker. The only time I’ve seen him down was when the Rockets traded Steve Francis, Cuttino Mobley and Kelvin Cato (former Rockets players), his good friends, to Orlando.”

There is something inside of Yao that makes him work harder and want to do even better, says Rockets’ strength and conditioning coach Anthony Falsone, who travelled to China this past summer to prepare Yao for the Olympics.

“Yao understands what he represents,” Falsone says. “How he handles himself and everything he does is really a representation of a whole country, and he understands that. There is more to it than just him playing basketball and doing well for himself. “

Yao Ming is one of the few NBA players who has fans all over the world, and the Houston Rockets gained a whole new fan base when Yao joined their team. At first, they weren’t sure how to reach that audience. In the end, the Rockets hired Chinese web developers to design a stand-alone website in traditional and simplified Chinese, says Audrey Cheng Trevino, the Rockets’ director of strategic planning.

The website also offers a weekly radio interview with Yao – in Mandarin. Houston resident Andy Yao hosts an online interview show, “The Big Hour”, for the city’s Chinese-American community. Such technology allows fans to keep up with Yao Ming.

In fact, communicating with his fans is so important to Yao that he recently launched two of his own websites – www.yaoming.net and www.yaomingfanclub.com. The first is his official site and the second is a fan club.

“I felt it was really important for me to have the websites because it is a way for me to reach out to my fans,” Yao explains. “My goal was to allow fans to interact with me. Even though I have a busy schedule, I want my loyal fans to feel that they can still reach out to me when they want to during the season and the off-season. Fans can read the journals that I post on the websites, ask me questions and look at my stats.”

It’s obvious that Yao Ming cares about his fans, but that fame has come at a price. These days, it’s almost impossible for him to go out to eat or even go shopping. And when he does venture out with friends, Yao is almost always mobbed.

“Everybody recognises Yao,” says Falsone. “In a way, it’s a double-edged sword. Because of his great ability, he’s created this character that can’t really go out and enjoy life, especially in China. I’d say he was like the Beatles, only the Beatles didn’t speak Chinese and Yao doesn’t sing, but other than that, it’s exactly the same.”

So when the world becomes too demanding, Yao simply retreats to the peaceful solitude of his home, where he enjoys his mother’s home-cooked meals and playing games on his computer. He likes to surf the net, and sometimes he even goes online to chat with his fans.

Who knows? Next time you venture online, you may just find yourself chatting with China’s humble superstar himself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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