The Houston Rockets All-Star centre is not your typical National Basketball Association player. Not a tattoo in sight (not even a trendy Chairman Mao visage, a la Mike Tyson). No involvement in night club brawls either.
Plus, of course, he’s Chinese. The centre in question, Yao Ming, is a welcome antidote to the raucous antics of some of the NBA’s bad boys. And for the Chinese, Yao is living proof that China can measure up in a sport traditionally dominated by Westerners.
So imagine the concern at the news that the 7 foot 6 inch star will miss the upcoming NBA season, with a serious injury to his left foot. There are even fears that his professional career could be over.
Chinese discussion boards have been agonising over the severity of Yao’s hairline fracture since news broke on May 8. There was nation-wide sympathy for the injured star.
“The Rockets are dead, and Chinese fans have lost all hope,” was one message on Sina.com. “Yao, you’re not the only one who has been hurt deeply by this news,” said another. “You know how many people’s hopes rest on your shoulders.”
Yao had earlier suffered a stress fracture that kept him out of the NBA playoffs in early 2008.
But in order not to disappoint his millions of fans at home, Yao soldiered on for his country in the Beijing Olympics. He carried China’s flag into the Olympic stadium, to a hero’s welcome.
He went on to lead the Chinese team to the quarterfinals, where they lost to Lithuania. Many critics argue that playing at the Olympics exacerbated Yao’s injury. Sports news website Bleacherreport.com even goes so far as to claim that Beijing “killed his career” by forcing Yao to play at a time when his fitness was fragile. Some of his fans agree. “In hindsight, he should have just focused on the NBA, and not been forced to play for the Chinese national team. I can’t imagine how anyone can deal with such overwhelming pressure and intense schedules,“ says Yan Xin, 27, a Yao fan.
With endorsement income estimated at $36 million last year, Yao will just about cope if he is forced to retire.
But he made more than triple that of the next highest-paid Chinese athlete, hurdler Liu Xiang (see WiC2), so he will be hoping for a few more pay days. Yao has led Forbes’ Chinese celebrities list in both income and popularity for six straight years, reportedly making a total of $51 million in 2008.
If he has to call it a day, China’s fiscal authorities will miss him too. Like many successful Chinese sports stars, Yao has to split his earnings with the country: “I have to give a percentage of my earnings to the Chinese government but it’s not that much,’’ Yao told the New York Times in an interview. “I don’t mind. The government has paid for my schooling and training. I owe the people of China.’’
The government will be hoping the injury doesn’t prove career-ending after all. But if it does Yao has one consolation: he has just signed a deal to buy his former basketball club, the Shanghai Sharks.
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