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Print Edition> Lifestyle
UPDATED: July 25, 2011 NO. 30 JULY 28, 2011
Hanging Up His Sneakers
Chinese basketball superstar retires but his legacy will live on

RIVALS AND FRIENDS: Yao Ming competes against Shaquille O'Neal of the Los Angeles Lakers in 2004 (XINHUA/REUTERS)


Yao's influence extends far beyond the statistics he achieved on court.

Called the "Great Wall of China," he boosted the NBA's popularity in China and Asia by thriving at the highest level of the biggest basketball league in the world.

"He's been one of the greatest ambassadors to ever set foot on an NBA floor," said former Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy. "This guy touched so many people, and really opened doors in China, not only for himself, but for so many others."

"It is Yao who makes the kids in China like basketball and it's also Yao who makes the kids know how a real professional basketball player should be," said Xu Jicheng, a senior Chinese basketball commentator.

China is currently the largest market for the NBA outside the United States, and its games draw an average of 30 million viewers every week. Sports Business Journal has estimated that between $150 million and $170 million of the NBA's annual revenues are generated in China.

It is estimated that before 2002, the number of Chinese following the league was less than 5 percent of the overall population, but that figure has now surged to at least 20 percent.

Several of Yao's teammates, or ex-teammates, at the Rockets have signed endorsement contracts with Chinese basketball clubs. Some of them, including All-Star guard Steve Francis, spent seasons playing in the Chinese domestic league.

Yao was always the centerpiece of the NBA's allurement in China. The Agence France-Presse valued his personal brand at more than $1 billion. Supported by endorsement deals and regular media appearances Yao's influence extends beyond basketball. He is an ambassador for the sport, a cultural figure, and a campaigner for several charities and causes.

Most of all, with his confidence, humor, intelligence and determination, he is a symbol of China's new generation, and his charm has opened the minds of many more Westerners to Chinese culture.

"Yao is a polite, well-educated young person, who is the pride of China. He is China's best gift to the NBA," David Stern, commissioner of the NBA, once said.

"Foreigners learn about China by following Yao. Their focus on Yao reflects their acknowledgement of Chinese values. For Chinese people, they learn more about the Western world through Yao's adventures in the NBA," Xu wrote for Xinhua.

Meanwhile, amidst his busy schedule of matches, he has always been actively engaged in social activities and made a huge contribution to a number of charities.

He established the Yao Fund in June 2008. The foundation helped build seven schools in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces in China. Six more schools will be open by 2012.

Yao has also taken part in campaigns to promote animal rights and environmental protection. In 2006, he was appointed a Goodwill Ambassador for wild life protection.


Although having announced retirement, Yao guaranteed he would not leave basketball and would continue his business as a social image.

"The door of basketball is closed, but another door has just opened which will lead me to a new life waiting for me to experience," he said."I am off the basketball court but I will never be away from the sport. I will continue my basketball life with the Shanghai Sharks."

In 2009, Yao took over the Shanghai Sharks when it was at its lowest point. He is now the sole owner of the CBA club where he grew into a national idol.

"My playing career started with the club. I hope I can do something for it. It is like no one would see their alma mater running down without doing anything," Yao once said.

The role-changing may not be easy for Yao after he carved out a successful career at the NBA. But Yao believes the new management he brought to the Sharks is positive.

"I am learning to manage the club in new ways. I will bring joy to my hometown," he said.

Besides, Yao said he would continue to participate in social welfare in the future.

"In the coming future, I will take my personal Yao Fund as the basis and call on more people to get involved in charity and help more people," he said.

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