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.”
David Shoemaker, NBA China’s chief executive, said last year’s Chinese New Year event attracted nearly 90 million viewers with the league’s local television partners; he is expecting more than 100 million this year. Shoemaker credited Yao with expanding the interest of NBA in China while also educating fans about the other quality players within the league.
“He was a transformational player and he attracted a whole generation of basketball fans here in China,” Shoemaker said of Yao. “The naysayers were quite concerned that we’d see a drop-off in popularity and the thing is last year, our TV ratings were stronger than the year before and I think we owe so much of that to Yao. But I think it’s because we have a more sophisticated and diverse fan base now. They no longer cheer for any one player or for that matter, any one team.”
The Rockets remain popular, Shoemaker said, and three of their games will be televised on Chinese Central Television, the nation’s state-run international broadcaster, during the Chinese New Year celebration.
It helps that the team currently boasts Jeremy Lin, a Taiwanese American, and an all-star guard in James Harden.
Yao has formed a relationship with Lin — though he said he tries not to bother him during the season — and believes the 23-year-old guard who spawned Linsanity last season with the New York Knicks is in the perfect environment to develop in Houston.
“I was there, first 10 games, didn’t play well and they continued to encourage me and they tried to help me to fit into the NBA, instead of trying to judge me a good or bad player. I remember that,” Yao said of his time with the Rockets. “Jeremy, of course, people expect that he repeat what he did in New York last year. Under that circumstance, he still consistently helps the team and I’m very impressed with what he did.”
Yao added that Lin shouldn’t feel any added pressure. “He played in New York last year. What kind of pressure can compare to the Big Apple?”
Several former NBA all-stars, including Stephon Marbury, Tracy McGrady and Arenas, have extended their careers in the CBA. Arenas, a three-time all-star with the Wizards, signed with the Sharks last November and Yao praised the work ethic of his former competitive peer, though injuries have sidelined Arenas for much of the season and contributed to the Sharks’ poor record.
“Gilbert is a very nice person. You know they have a word for people, they say, ‘workaholic.’ He’s probably like a ‘playholic.’ He loves to play basketball,” Yao said. “Only thing in his mind is basketball. He plays the game and practice all day long. Unfortunately, he has some injury problem. The few games he played, he showed what it means to be an all-star. Even though he is a former all-star, he’s still at a different level.”
Yao was elected to eight consecutive all-star games but the ballot no longer has a separate box for centers.
“I feel sorry for the big guys,” Yao said, while mentioning Dwight Howard, Tyson Chandler, Brook Lopez and former Georgetown star Roy Hibbert. “But if you’re looking through the history of basketball, the rule is always about limiting the power from the big man. Not the strongest survive, but the fittest. We have to make an adjustment to fit in those rules.”
Yao mentioned the three-point line and zone defenses, among other changes, for diminishing centers. He then asked: “What is a big man right now? Usually you talk a 7-footer or 6-10 and above around the paint. But now, all those 6-10, 6-11 guys like Kevin Durant, they play small forward; they play point guard.”
But even with all of the changes within the league since he departed, Yao plays down the impact of his absence.
“The NBA survived before me,” he said. “I think the league will survive again after I leave.”