One Big Dream: Yao Ming Wants to Make Chinese Basketball Global

One Big Dream: Yao Ming Wants to Make Chinese Basketball Global

As his nation's first (and still only) NBA star, Yao Ming made basketball relevant in China. Now, as chairman of the CBA, he wants to make Chinese basketball relevant across the world and ensure that he's not the country's last export.
June 27, 2019

Sports Illustrated’s annual “Where Are They Now?” issue catches up with the stars and prominent figures from yesteryear—past features have included Sammy Sosa, Brett Favre, Dennis Rodman, Tony Hawk and Don King. The 2019 issue features an inside look into the new life of Alex Rodriguez, Yao Ming’s mission for Chinese basketball and more.

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BEIJING, China—In the digital land of Azeroth, a hero wanders alone. Over mountains and swamps, through castles and ziggurats, anywhere the World of Warcraft might lead. He once belonged to a guild, planning raids with fellow adventurers over voice chat, but the rest of his friends hung up their swords and headsets long ago. Now he moves in solitude, peaceful as a party of one. "Don't talk," Yao Ming says. "Nobody know who I am."

He's still using the same WoW character he created in 2005, not long after the popular online game was released, a third of the way through his nine-year, Hall of Fame career with the Rockets. When choosing his avatar's class, he settled on the rogue, a sect of agile fighters adept at lock-picking, poisoning and sneaking around undetected. The irony of this last trait is not lost. "People say the video character fulfill what you can't do," he notes. "In video games I can go anywhere."

These days, Yao typically heads straight home after work. He eats a dinner cooked by his wife, Ye Li, at the modest Beijing apartment they share with their nine-year-old daughter, Amy. Then he sends emails and battles orcs before bed. These gaming sessions aren't strenuous, nothing more than a mindless escape. Still, he worries about burnout. "You're building a self," he says. "It's not a world. If you obsess, you're stuck in there."

A beat passes, and a bigger thought forms. "I'll tell you this," Yao says. "NBA have that same function too. Because the spotlight, because the fame, some guys try to stay in there forever. I went to NBA because I felt that's a place to challenge me. Next level.

"And"—he all but draws in the air—"check."


Greg Nelson/Sports Illustrated

The offices of the Chinese Basketball Association occupy a single-story building in south-central Beijing, next to a public park, behind a thin cluster of bamboo trees. A cheery older woman is stationed at the entrance on this mid-March afternoon. Neither of us speaks the other's native language, but that problem disappears when I hold up a reporter's notebook. Grinning with realization, the receptionist stretches a hand above her head, as high as she can reach—though nowhere close to 7'6"—and motions to the open door marked PRESIDENT.

Inside, sunlight streams through half-drawn shades. Instrumental music, heavy on the flute, plays from a laptop. The white walls are almost totally blank. Parked at his desk, the height of which he earnestly apologizes for, the most powerful figure in Chinese basketball (if not one of the most recognizable people on the planet) sips from a steaming mug. "I'm old," Yao Ming explains, "so I drink hot water."

O.K., old is a stretch. A decade removed from his final full season with the Rockets, Yao is only 38. Younger than Dirk Nowitzki, who just walked away at 40; younger than Vince Carter, still going strong at 42. Watching from afar, Yao is happy for his NBA contemporaries—"It's good to have them still [representing] us, the guys already gone"—but those jump hooking, shot blocking, Shaqbattling days are far behind him. "Honestly, I find myself trying not to have a casual conversation, a beer, with my former teammates," he says. "That's a good feeling, hang out with old friends. But I don't want it to be too good. I have to learn to be in my new position."

And there's plenty to learn. Imagine if the responsibilities of NBA commissioner Adam Silver and USA Basketball CEO Jim Tooley fell upon one person ... in a country of 1.4 billion people ... where no one is immune to the government's heavy hand. Says Yao, the first non-Communistparty member to hold his position: "People may think I'm the Adam Silver here, but I'm really not. I have to report to my superior officer."

Roughly half of Yao's hours are spent in another building, on the opposite side of Beijing, chairing the privatized CBA, the country's professional league. The rest of his time is spent in this office as president of the state-run basketball federation, which handles the Chinese national team programs, oversees grassroots youth efforts, operates the professional women's league (the WCBA) and represents China in FIBA, the sport's governing body. "My life is not [as] exciting as before," he says, "but it's not boring. More complicated."

Among NBA peers Yao stood out for his unmatched work habits, poring over data packets and conducting hourlong weightlifting sessions both before and after games. Former Rockets teammate Shane Battier recalls once seeing Yao, less than a week after major foot surgery, putting up shots from a folding chair on a practice court. So it should come as no surprise that he has continued grinding after nagging injuries forced his retirement in July 2011.

Some of his early pursuits were straight out of the ex-athlete handbook: He opened Yao Family Wines in Napa, invested private equity money through Yao Capital and directed charitable initiatives for the Yao Ming Foundation. He founded an athlete marketing agency, collaborated on a series of public info campaigns that spurred a Chinese ban on commercial elephant ivory sales and filmed an episode of Running Wild with Bear Grylls. (Brave enough to rappel down a rocky cliff-side, Yao declined a bite of roasted maggots.)

Granted, these were extracurriculars compared to his actual career transition. "I'm an office man," Yao says. "Papers, numbers—all that kind of thing." His first taste of sports administration came when he purchased the CBA's Shanghai Sharks in 2009, shelling out a reported $3 million to save his old club from collapsing. He served as owner for eight seasons, bringing an NBA-minded perspective to the team's basketball operations while occasionally offering tips to Sharks big men on their low-post moves. But now, to borrow a phrase from his gamer-geek side, Yao has advanced to the boss stage. As his nation's first NBA player he made basketball relevant in China; now he needs to make Chinese basketball relevant across the world.

Years ago, his arrival in Houston was thought to signal an opening of the floodgates, with scores of Chinese talents sure to follow his path. Yet only Zhou Qi (also with the Rockets) and Ding Yanyuhang (Mavericks) appeared on NBA rosters this past season, and both were waived by Christmas. This bothers Yao. "I'm tired of being known," he says. "If 10 years from now we still use Yao Ming to represent China, it's a failure on my job. We need a new star to rise up. Then I can sit behind desk. This is my goal."


Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images

Before the winemaking and the maggots and all of that, Yao went back to school. Fulfilling a promise he made to his parents before signing with the Sharks at 17, he enrolled at Shanghai's renowned Jiao Tong University shortly after leaving the NBA. Given his celebrity, those who knew Yao expected him to hire professors for private lessons or to take online courses. But as he explained to Silver, "I want the classroom experience. I want to be a student."

And so he raised his hand in lectures. Compared notes in study hall. Packed his lunch each morning and drove an hour to campus. (He considered bunking in a dorm, "to try something I never had," but balked because he didn't want to be away from Ye Li and Amy.) It took seven school years of work, including a mind-bending advanced mathematics course he had to repeat, but Yao proudly delivered the commencement address to 3,300 fellow graduates in July 2018, wearing perhaps the largest cap-and-gown set in collegiate history.

His major, economics, continues to prove useful as Chinese society—and, by extension, the CBA—opens to free-market forces. But his favorite class was History of Modern China. Yao has always been a student of the past. Before stepping on the court, he dreamed of brushing off bones as an archeologist. "I love the fascinating stories from ancient dynasties," he says, "or before mankind." During his Hall of Fame enshrinement weekend, in September 2017, he arranged for a tour of the museum at Springfield College, fawning over James Naismith's original rules and one of the early hard-leather balls. According to the school, Yao was the first inductee ever to make such a request.

China's own hoops history stretches back further than many realize. Basketball arrived less than four years after Naismith's invention in December 1891, as missionaries fanned across the globe preaching the spread of "muscular Christianity." The oldest existing court in the world is located at the former YMCA in Tianjin, a photo of which hangs on Yao's federation office wall. The sport was declared a national pastime in 1935; the next summer, China's was one of 21 teams to compete when basketball debuted as a medal event at the Berlin Olympics.

It also reportedly wasn't uncommon to see People's Liberation Army soldiers choosing pickup sides at camp during the reign of Mao Zedong. Given the Chairman's distaste for Western culture, this was no small allowance. To him, physical education was the pathway toward projecting an image of national strength, an attitude that ultimately led China to adopt the Soviet model of development: Identify children with potential athletic prowess and place them in dedicated sports schools, where they would serve the country by training from "womb to tomb."

While such dedication to training might be productive in individual sports—it has worked O.K. in diving and gymnastics—it left no place for the rec leagues, school teams and AAU tournaments that have produced so many U.S. basketball stars. Decades passed before China found its first. Yao was unveiled to the world at the 2000 Sydney Games, where expectations clearly preceded him, considering the $1 million bounty promised by members of Team USA to anyone who posterized him during a prelim matchup. ("I was [almost] 20, I can't speak English," he says. "Otherwise I would say, 'Anybody want half-million dollars? Just let me know.'")

Even with Yao patrolling the paint, though, China never finished better than eighth at the Olympics, and regression followed his retirement. In 2014 the men were eliminated during the group stage at the world championships and for the first time ever failed to medal at the Asian Games. Three years later Yao assumed control and took a sobering look at the Sovietinspired system that produced him. "Just like a tree that grew up from the grass," he says, glancing at the park outside his office window, "who create the soil? When I grew up and [got] trained by the coaches in China, what kind of philosophy is behind it?"

At the roots, Yao is trying to broaden the talent pool in a country with an estimated 300 million fans but few structured avenues beyond its selective sports schools. His "mini-basketball" initiative distributed youth-sized balls in more than 100 cities, attracting 100,000 new players and almost 10,000 youth coaches. And last year he spearheaded a search for amateur ballers to represent China on its men's and women's three-on-three squads, both of which finished first at the 2018 Asian Games.

That tournament was a major proving ground for Yao, who'd raised eyebrows by splitting the men's five-on-five team into two squads, with different coaches and schedules. The experiment, meant to maximize international exposure, was vindicated when the two halves reunited in Indonesia and took gold last September. (The women also won the five-on-five event, completing a Chinese sweep of all four basketball competitions.) Now a major test looms in August when China, with the world's 30th-ranked men's team, hosts the FIBA World Cup. "I hope this will be a platform," Yao says of Team China, "so people 10 years from now remember them."


Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

The basketball power brokers gathered at the posh Ritz-Carlton Pudong, overlooking Shanghai's shimmering Bund waterfront. In October 2017, less than eight months after taking the job as CBA chairman, Yao had requested a meeting with Silver and deputy commissioner Mark Tatum while the NBA executives visited for the Global Games. He wasted little time getting down to business. As Tatum recalls, "One of the first things he said was, 'O.K., I want all of your operations manuals'"—documents like the NBA's constitution, bylaws and collective bargaining agreement. All things the CBA still lacked.

Yao spent the next hour peppering Silver and Tatum about procedural minutiae. What does the NBA org chart look like? Who votes on rule changes? How do board of governors meetings run? "He was in the research stage," says Silver. "He knew he wasn't going to change everything overnight."

Founded in 1995, the CBA occupies a strange corner of the sports landscape. On one hand it has become the world's second-highest-paying basketball league. Beyond competitive salaries, though, pretty much everything else needed an upgrade when Yao assumed control—a task one CBA staffer compares with renovating a rundown apartment complex while the residents are still living inside.

As Yao did with the national program, though, he has already tackled a wide range of league issues in short order. To ramp up visibility and competition, he increased the regular season from 36 to 46 games and expanded the playoff field from 10 to 12 of the league's 20 teams. He sold broadcast rights to a dozen TV stations, plus two streaming services. He brokered a three-year title sponsorship, reportedly worth one billion yuan ($144.7 million) with China Life insurance, one of his own longtime partners. Nine team logos and four nicknames were revamped. And the postseason awards were named after influential figures in Chinese basketball history, while the trophies themselves were redesigned. Until last season the league used generic prizes purchased online.

Still, certain matters lack quick fixes. The Chinese University Basketball Association, for starters, is far from the feeder pipeline the CBA needs. In the 2018 draft only 14 domestic university players were selected. "Can you imagine NBA without NCAA?" Yao asks. "That's what I'm doing right now."

It helps that Yao has good connections whenever he needs help. Rockets CEO Tad Brown and general manager Daryl Morey take the occasional long-distance call, discussing everything from the challenges of ownership to the NBA rumor mill. So do former Houston teammates Luis Scola, who lends a unique perspective as a current CBA player, and Battier, now in the Heat front office. "We talk about how to evaluate players, different ways to inspire coaches," says Battier. "He's thinking about the right things."

One of Yao's earliest meetings after taking over was held at the Manhattan office of David Stern, where he chatted up the old NBA commish for nearly three hours over chicken sandwiches. "He said, 'You have a hard job because you have the owners to deal with and the government to deal with,'" Yao recalls with a smile. "I think that old man knows things."

Indeed, the CBA can't take every lesson from its North American counterpart. "He has obstacles that I don't," Silver says of Yao. "As the Chinese economy has experienced dramatic growth, it's not a free enterprise system; the government hand is very strong on all businesses, including sports. He does not have the same economic liberties that a business in the U.S. has." But he does have the unqualified support of the world's strongest league—a league that benefits from flourishing fandom in the world's most populous country—beginning with the filing cabinet turned over at the Ritz. "We've shared lots of information," says Tatum. "Everything that he's asked for."

Resources, too. Three NBA-run development academies have opened in China since 2016; one graduate, 6'9" center Han Xu, recently became the WNBA's first Chinese draftee in 22 years. And in July the Chinese national team will participate in the NBA's Las Vegas summer league as a World Cup tune-up. "There's nothing wrong with cooperation," says Silver. "[Yao and I] agree there would be nothing greater than if, one day, the champion of the CBA played the NBA champion [in] a globally meaningful game. We're far away from that, but it's nice to have a long-term goal."

Such possibilities depend on a long-standing relationship built around mutual admiration. "I wish one day I can become like him," Yao says. For Silver's part, he got to know Yao when, as president of NBA Entertainment, he executive-produced a 2004 documentary capturing Yao's first season. Silver recalls a gathering at the NBA's inaugural Global Games in China, a trip that offered a first look at the same internal forces that still drive Yao today. Yao, then 24, had been asked to address a large, diverse group of NBA players and Chinese bureaucrats. "I remember standing in a back room," Silver says. "He wasn't sure that he could go out and speak. He was so overwhelmed by the moment. But he made a decision: I'm going to embrace it. And I'm going to accept this obligation—maybe sometimes a burden—to be the transformational person I believe I can be."


In the very real land of Beijing, a hero wanders ... what is the opposite of alone? Each day around lunch-time (at least when he's working from the federation office) Yao heads out for a stroll around a small lake at the center of the nearby park. I ask if he wants to take that walk today and he shakes his head. "Then you can't talk," he says. "Then I can't talk. People surround us."

Aside from light cardio, Yao doesn't exercise much these days. He can't remember the last time he played basketball (though a CBA colleague reports witnessing him casually drain nine of 10 free throws—with one hand—while visiting a national team practice). His explanation for quitting hoops is typically self-deprecating: "Me? No, no, no, no. I'm too fat." But there's a deeper logic too. The same reason he declined to be honored at center court during the Global Games last fall. The same reason he no longer autographs basketballs. "I'm not player anymore," he explains. "I have to put my commissioner face on."

For Yao this job has created something of a personal paradox. After so many years of attracting gawkers whenever he sets foot outside, he's aching to recede from the spotlight. "Remember that cape Harry Potter had?" he asks. "Invisible? I want one of those." And yet, given his singular qualifications for this uniquely demanding role, he must remain in the public eye. Before Yao Ming can disappear, he must first figure out how Chinese basketball can produce more Yao Mings.

"It is a big dream," he says. "But we have all the details, one by one, to fix."

He checks the clock. The sun is setting on the park outside.

"Look like I have to stay late," he says, and he heads back to work behind the really tall desk.