Professional basketball player
Born September 12, 1980, in China; son of Yao Zhi Yuan (father, a former basketball player, an engineer) and Fang Feng Di (mother, a former basketball player, a Chinese sports research institute official).
Office —Houston Rockets, 2 Greenway Plaza, Ste. 400, Houston, TX 77046.
Trained as a basketball player in Chinese state athletic schools, 1990s; became a player for the China Basketball Association team the Shanghai Sharks; named league's Most Valuable Player twice, 1990s; played on the Chinese national team in the Olympics, 2000; joined the Houston Rockets, a National Basketball Association (NBA) team, 2002; named to the NBA All–Star team, 2003.
Western Conference Rookie of the Month, December, 2002, February, 2003; NBA All–Rookie First Team, 2003; NBA All–Star team, 2003.
Chinese basketball player Yao Ming became the first foreigner to be the number–one draft pick of the National Basketball Association (NBA) in June of 2002. He was picked by the Houston Rockets, and in his first season became one of the NBA's top players. Already a star in his homeland, 22–year–old Yao received international attention for his
Yao comes from a family of basketball players; both of his parents played for the Chinese national team. His mother, herself six feet two inches (some sources say six feet three inches), was captain of the Chinese national women's basketball team. Yao's father is six feet ten inches (some sources say six feet seven inches), and found work as an engineer after retiring from basketball. Yao, his parents' only child, grew up in Shanghai, China. His family was of limited means while Yao was growing up. Their home was a small apartment whose doorways were not tall enough to accommodate its inhabitants unless they stooped. The government food ration coupons the family had to live on were not enough to feed the Yaos' growing boy, and so Yao's mother had to depend on handouts from food stalls that were about to throw out food at the end of each day. Yao was exceptionally tall from an early age—passing the five–foot–five mark by the time he was nine years old. He was even born tall—nearly two feet long. He reached the seven foot mark by the time he was 17 years old.
Although basketball might have seemed a natural career for a boy who was unusually tall, and whose parents had both been players, Yao was slow to approach the game. He was shy and unaggressive as a boy, and was often tormented by his classmates. His early interests were not athletic. Instead he immersed himself in military history books. But when Yao was nine years old, he was scouted by Chinese sports officials, who declared that Yao was to play basketball. Sent to one of the thousands of state–run sports schools in China, Yao was made to learn the game of basketball, and pushed through endless drills. The courts he played in were unheated, and frequently got so cold that the balls Yao played with could no longer bounce.
In his teens, when Yao's training was deemed complete, he was sent to play for the Shanghai Sharks. This was the China Basketball Association (CBA) team based in Yao's hometown. By the time Yao was 21 years old, he had been named Most Valuable Player (MVP) in the CBA twice. In 2000, Yao played for China in the Summer Olympics in Australia.
In his final year with the Sharks, Yao stunned fans by scoring every shot he took—all 21 one of them. No one could remember when anyone had ever accomplished such a feat. Yao played a total of 122 games with the CBA, averaging 23.4 points and 15.4 rebounds per game. His record in the 2000–01 season was 4.8 blocked shots per game, more than any other player in the league. He held the number–two position in scoring, with 32.4 points per game, and in rebounds, with 19.0 per game. Time International 's Hannah Beech went as far as to call him "China's Incredible Hulk of the hardcourt."
Yao was the number–one draft pick when he joined the NBA in June of 2002, and the Houston Rockets won the lottery to pick him. He was the first player from a foreign league ever to be an NBA number–one draft pick. Yao is the third Chinese player to join the NBA. Two other Chinese basketball players proceeded him by a few months into the NBA. These were Wang Zhizhi, who joined the Dallas Mavericks, and Mengke Bateer, who went to play for the Denver Nuggets.
When Yao was drafted by the Rockets, there was some uncertainty about whether the team could jump through the bureaucratic hoops required by the Chinese government to get him to the United States, or whether the Chinese government would allow him to stay once he was there. But Yao was worth fighting for; he had proven himself to be a top–notch player who, as Carroll Dawson, the general manager of the Rockets, told Brent Zwerneman in the San Antonio Express–News, had "quickness, size and agility." His agility and speed were especially impressive considering his large size. Yao also had the advantage of being an excellent entrée for the NBA into China's market of more than a billion citizens. With Yao on the Rockets, the team's owners saw an opportunity to open the world's biggest market to Yao–themed basketball merchandise, and to greatly expand the number of viewers for NBA advertisers. "It's the largest population base in the world by a fair amount," Russ Granik, the NBA deputy commissioner, told Jere Longman in the New York Times. "On top of that, we know there are a lot of basketball fans there." These factors provided the incentive for the Rockets to work hard to get Yao.
Before releasing their star player, Chinese officials wanted to be sure that Yao would receive the attention they thought he deserved. They also wanted him to play in a city that had a large Asian population. After an extended period of negotiations, during which Chinese officials determined that Yao would be the NBA's number–one draft pick, the officials at last consented to let their star basketball player go. In June of 2002, Yao signed a four–year, $15.6 million contract (some sources say $17.8 million) with the Houston Rockets. The deal included a $350,000 transfer fee the NBA had to pay Yao's old team in China, and it also called for Yao to turn over at least half of his earnings to Chinese government sports authorities. He would also continue to play occasionally on the Chinese national team in international competitions.
Because his commitments with the Shanghai Sharks kept him in China until just nine days before the opening of the NBA's 2002–03 season in October of 2002, Yao did not have a chance to practice with his American teammates much before being thrown into his first NBA games. Consequently, his first six games were less than spectacular: his per–game point average was less than four. But in a November game against the Los Angeles Lakers, Yao finally hit his stride, scoring in all nine of his attempted shots, for a total of 20 points and six rebounds.
The Rockets' hopes for Yao as a major draw among Chinese fans were realized when ratings for NBA games shown on Chinese television hit an all–time high during his first season with the Rockets. This demonstrated beyond a doubt that the NBA, whose ratings were sagging at home, had tapped into a vast new potential market. The Rockets played to that market by hiring Mandarin Chinese–speaking executives, posting billboards in Chinese, and setting in motion a weekly interview series in which Yao would answer questions in Mandarin. In addition, the team began to print ticket information and statistics in Mandarin. Les Alexander, the owner of the Rockets, went as far as to say to Longman in the New York Times that Yao had presented the Rockets with "the best co–branding opportunity in the world."
Yao's success in the United States has provided opportunities for businesses based in China as well. For instance, the Rockets signed an exclusive deal with the Chinese beer maker Yanjing to be the exclusive supplier of imported beer served at Rockets games. American importers of the beer were ecstatic when, propelled by Yao's popularity, the beer became a hot–selling item in all of its normal outlets as well as at the Rockets games.
But Yao's success was by no means limited to his ability to make money for his handlers. In a single season with the Rockets, Yao forced opposing team members to devise new strategies to counter his unusual combination of reach and speed. In his first year as a Rocket, Yao was named to the All–Star team in the position of starting center, and was twice named Rookie of the Month. He ended his first season with an average of 13.5 points per game and 8.2 rebounds. Also during his first season, he scored the highest field goal percentage in six consecutive games in the history of the NBA when he made 31 of 35 attempts—an accuracy of 88.6 percent.
Along with his new status as an international basketball star, Yao has had to adjust to life in the United States. Back in China, he lived his entire life either with his parents, or in the dormitories of the state schools. But although he has said that he is appalled by the traffic jams on the Houston highways, he has adapted to life in Texas quite well, downing the massive steaks for which the state is famous, and enjoying the range of shopping opportunities unavailable to him until arriving in his adopted country. Although he still lived with his parents during his first season with the NBA, home now consisted of a large house in an exclusive Houston housing development—a far cry from the cramped apartment he grew up in. He enjoyed new-found wealth and independence, even though under the deal he made with Chinese officials he has had to send a large part of his income from both his salary as a player and from his product endorsements back home.
Yao has proved just as popular among American sports fans as he has among fans in China. American basketball fans have found in him a refreshing change to the boisterous grandstanding of many American players. American corporations, too, have found in him a wholesome endorser of their products, and he has lent his image to advertisements for everything from Visa credit cards to Apple computers. On October 23, 2003, the shoe company Reebok announced it had signed a multi–year endorsement contract with Yao. Other immigrants from China have expressed the hope that Yao's popularity will help him be a kind of cultural ambassador to the United States, presenting a positive image of Chinese people. As Chinese–American politician Gordon Quan told Longman in the New York Times, "I think people like Yao can build a bridge of better understanding. He will represent what China is to a lot of people—big, powerful, smart, talented." But more important to Yao than endorsement deals or his status as a representative of Chinese culture in the United States is the game of basketball. As he told Josh Tyrangiel in Time, "I think it's all pretty boring. I'd much rather be playing basketball."
New York Times, December 15, 2002; February 26, 2003.
People, December 16, 2002, p. 84.
San Antonio Express–News, June 25, 2002, p. 1C.
Seattle Times, November 29, 2002, p. E1.
Time, February 10, 2003, pp. 68–71.
Time International, April 28, 2003, p. 34.
"Reebok signs Yao Ming," CNNMoney.com , http://money.cnn.com/2003/10/23/news/companies/yao_reebok.reut/index.html (October 23, 2003).
— Michael Belfiore