Ciao, Yao!

Chinese basketball icon leaves the game and a huge legacy after a landmark career with the Houston Rockets in the NBA. Sun Xiaochen reports on his impact from his hometown.

For Chinese all over the world, it was a proud moment when Yao Ming carried the national flag at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics three years ago. The Houston Rockets’ all-star center almost provided a different bridge between modern China and the rest of the world with his stunning performances in the NBA – along with his open mind, witty sense of humor and eastern humility – since debuting in the popular league in 2002 as the overall No 1 draft pick. With his unparalleled influence, Yao used his star power to the benefit of communities, charity campaigns and even, in part, Sino-US ties. When the 2.26-meter giant announced his retirement from the basketball court on Wednesday, a huge burden was lifted from his shoulders. China now has to face the tough reality: that there is no one who can step into the shoes of Yao in the foreseeable future.

Li Yuanwei, China’s former basketball chief, who witnessed Yao grow from a tentative rookie to one of the nation’s iconic sportsmen, felt sad for the giant’s departure and said the next Chinese basketball superstar could be years away.

“Just for the basketball skills, there might be someone who could reach his level or even surpass him,” said Li.

“But in terms of a comprehensive influence, combining physical condition, engaging personality and international image, I don’t see anyone who has the potential to achieve that peak.”

Li also said Yao played too much for the national team, which probably played a part in the injuries that cut short his career.

Li, who worked hard to implement professional reforms in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) during his 2003-08 tenure, stressed the half-professional system that exists is a barrier to generating another Yao.

“The CBA is far from a fully developed professional league compared to the NBA. In this system, we can’t produce stars with the same international influence as Yao. He is just a unique case,” Li said.

Ma Guoli, CEO and managing director of Infront China, which operates the CBA and the national teams’ marketing programs, echoed Li.

“Nobody can emulate Yao’s impact in 10 years,” Ma said. “There’s never been anyone like him before and I doubt we’ll ever see anyone like him again in the next decade.” Ma was chief of China Central Television’s sports channel 1993-2005.

“He was already a larger-than-life national hero in China. And that status came from a perfect combination of born gifts, intelligence, Chinese-Western nurturing and even good timing. It’s hard to be duplicated,” Ma told China Daily.

Ma, a renowned figure in Chinese sports, hailed Yao’s role as an international ambassador, and said it was akin to one of the sport’s all-time icons, Michael Jordan.

“Jordan’s retirement left the void of a true leader in the NBA, and that will happen in China after Yao’s departure. The Americans haven’t found the next Jordan. We will also struggle to see another Yao,” Ma said.

During a TV interview two months ago, even Yao admitted his route to success couldn’t be copied due to his rare physical attributes.

According to a poll on China Daily’s website, 73 percent of the respondents didn’t believe “there is someone from the serving national team that could take on Yao’s role”.

Li said Yao excelled at each level of the game, which made it difficult for others to receive the torch.

He triggered massive interest in the sport here while averaging 19 points and 9.2 rebounds per NBA game, which won him eight NBA all-star appearances.

Meanwhile, former NBA players including Stephon Marbury, Quincy Douby and Steve Francis came to China and play in the CBA. Current NBA stars such as Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard are considering joining the league due to the NBA lockout.

“It is Yao who makes the kids in China like basketball and makes them know how a real professional basketball player should be. It’s also him who promotes the CBA’s profile abroad,” said Xu Jicheng, a popular basketball commentator.

Off the court, Yao performs for charity and is a businessman.

After the devastating 8.0-magnitude earthquake that hit Wenchuan in Southwest China in 2008, Yao donated 2 million yuan ($309,741) and then set up the Yao Foundation to further aid the victims and other poverty-stricken people in rural areas of China. Since 2007, Yao has teamed with a series of NBA icons and entertainment celebrities to twice stage the Yao Ming-Steve Nash charity games in Beijing and Chinese Taipei to raise donations for poor children.

So far, Yao’s foundation has reaped 44 million yuan in donations and has completed seven schools, according to Yao’s agent, Zhang Mingji.

“Charity will be my lifetime-long job compared to my limited career as a basketball player. I’ll try my best to do it even after I retire,” Yao said last month during the completion ceremony of a special education school in Gansu province.

Apart from charity work, Yao has started his own business network.

According to Forbes, Yao reaped about 2 billion yuan from his salary and global endorsements since 2002. He routinely tops Forbes’ wealthy celebrities list in China. In 2009, Yao bought his hometown CBA club Shanghai Sharks for 96 million yuan.

Ma, who has promoted the CBA over the past three years, believes Yao’s retirement could be a boon for the league.

“He will put more energy into the Sharks’ management when he retires. His return to the CBA as an owner will definitely draw attention back from the US. That should lure more sponsorship and eyeballs to his Shanghai team and the league. He still has that kind of power.

“The NBA has benefited from his popularity a lot. Many domestic companies bought commercial ads in the Toyota Center (the Rockets’ home court) and signed his teammates, including Shane Battier and Luis Scola, with big deals. Now it’s the time of the CBA,” said Ma.

Source: China Daily

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