Yao Ming, the former basketball star, is one of the celebrities set to feature in the latest adventure series with British survival expert Bear Grylls, which has just started airing on Chinese television.
But bivouacking and bug eating aside, the 7-foot-6 man-mountain made more of a stir this month back on familiar terrain – a basketball court.
Millions of Chinese watched as Yao’s No.11 jersey for the Houston Rockets was “retired” during the halftime break of his former NBA team’s game against the Chicago Bulls at the start of February.
The sixth Rocket to be afforded the honour, Yao is the first Chinese player to be recognised by an NBA team in this way (the process means no future Rockets player will wear the No. 11 jersey).
Yao was selected as the first pick by the Rockets in the 2002 draft and spent nine years – all of his NBA career – with the franchise (when Yao faced off against fellow Chinese big man Yi Jianlian of the Milwaukee Bucks in 2007, an estimated 200 million tuned in on TV, making it the most watched NBA game in history, says author John Pomfret in his latest book The Beautiful Country and The Middle Kingdom). Today he remains easily the most famous of China’s basketball stars, despite retiring from the sport because of injury five years ago (see WiC115).
Yao was typically modest in response to the NBA honour. “I hope people see the jersey there and remember the story,” he said. “Not just myself, but my teammates, and my opponents. We put a story together.”
There was plenty of gratitude for Yao’s contribution from the Texan city. He put Houston on the map for most Chinese – something the city recognised by declaring February 2 as “Yao Ming Day” and employing him as its goodwill ambassador. There was a similar halo effect for the Rockets. “The number of Houston Rockets fans in China surged after Yao began playing for the team. The biggest thing many Chinese looked forward to was watching Yao play. It didn’t even matter whether he played badly or well,” recalled news portal Sohu. “The Rockets income also rocketed, jumping up from second last in the league to second best,” Southern Weekend remarked.
Many of those supporters watched the jersey retirement ceremony back in China, where it was shown live by state broadcaster CCTV and on a Tencent stream.
The other big winner was the NBA itself, says the Global Times. “They began broadcasting NBA games in the 1990s and it was Michael Jordan who created the first group of basketball fans in China,” one fan told the newspaper. “But as the first overall pick for the 2002 draft, Yao brought enthusiasm for the NBA to a climax back at home.”
“My motivation for following the NBA should be accredited to Big Yao,” another fan claimed.
Since retiring from the game Yao has given his name to the Yao Foundation, an organisation that helps to fund the construction of primary schools in China and the United States. His other focus is his business ventures, some of which have struggled (see WiC212). One of his bigger successes has been his vineyard in Napa Valley – in 2012 Robert Parker scored Yao’s Family Reserve wine at 96 out of 100, with the wine expert noting: “Wines made by celebrities are disappointing, Chinese basketball star Yao Ming’s clearly are not.”
New opportunities still come up, obviously, and the Rockets continue to cash in on the connection, with the China Daily reporting this month that home decor brand Scisky from Lanzhou in Gansu province was the seventh firm from China to commit to a sponsorship deal with the Houston team. Yao also signed up as a spokesman for the company, which wants to grow its business in the North American market.
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