Since making the last jump hook of a stellar career for the Houston Rockets, Yao has transitioned into a comfortable life that doesn’t involve the physical grind of competitive basketball.
He lives in Shanghai with his wife and young daughter, has become heavily involved in wildlife conservation — recently taking a stand against elephant and rhinoceros ivory poachers — and is taking economics courses at Jiao Tong University.
Yao also is the owner of the Chinese Basketball Association’s Shanghai Sharks, the team he played for before coming to the NBA in 2002 and the current home of former Washington Wizards star Gilbert Arenas.
“Basketball is still a part of my life,” Yao said, “just in a different way.”
Yao formed a partnership with NBA China last summer to continue to build upon the incredible influence that the 7-foot-6 center has had on the popularity of the game in his native country.
The sides will collaborate on several development programs in a nation where the NBA estimates that the number of people playing basketball is almost the population of the United States.
And, as Chinese New Year approaches, the NBA again will lean on Yao to take a yet-to-be determined role in an eight-day celebration that will include 23 live televised games and five in-arena events, tipping off on Feb. 8, when the Wizards host the Brooklyn Nets at Verizon Center.
“People are always looking for something exciting,” Yao said, while promoting the NBA’s efforts to acknowledge the year of the snake. “It’s good entertainment for some people’s life.”
For the first time in 12 years, the NBA is without a Chinese-born player. Wang Zhizhi was first in 2001, followed by Yao. Yi Jianlian, the sixth overall pick of the 2007 draft, was expected to carry the mantle after Yao but had a mediocre five-year career with four teams — including the Wizards — before returning to China to play for the Guangdong Southern Tigers this season.
Yao believes that having a Chinese player in the NBA will help expand its popularity and is optimistic the void will be filled soon enough. Wang Zhelin, a 19-year-old 7-footer who plays for Fujian, is projected as a possible second-round pick in the 2014 NBA draft.
“I know few kids that are very talented and very often talk about them, how they possibly may make it to the NBA. I can’t give you their names because I don’t want to cause trouble,” Yao said. “Both of the players I’m talking about are very young. There is still a lot of work to do. But as long as they keep their attitude right and they play hard, I believe that one day you will see something out of China again.”