Less than a week ago, after standing near mid-court chatting with some friends from Houston while the Rockets took part in a Special Olympics clinic, Yao Ming bent down to pick up a ball that had rolled toward him, straightened up and let fly with a 3-pointer.
It missed badly, coming nowhere close to the rim or even the backboard inside the Taipei Arena.
“You didn’t see that, did you?” Yao asked, chuckling. “I guess that’s the end of the comeback.”
At 33, Yao’s playing days are at least two seasons into the rear view mirror, the result of so many broken bones in his feet. Yet he continues to have an impact on the game in his country.
Yao and NBA China announced a partnership to develop and operate the first-ever NBA Yao School in Beijing. Launching in February 2014, it will provide after-school basketball training and fitness programs for boys and girls up to age 16 at all skill levels. The school aims to teach the importance of teamwork, leadership and communication in a fun basketball environment.
“It has always been my dream to positively impact the lives of youth through sports participation,” Yao said. “Basketball fans in China are passionate and eager to participate in high-standard basketball training programs. I look forward to working with the NBA to establish the NBA Yao School as a trusted destination for basketball training.”
At 7-foot-6, even out of uniform, Yao, of course, stands out in any crowd. Which is why it strikes one as a natural gift the way that he handles the constant reaching, pawing, leaning up against him to take photos with a natural aplomb.
“I am never without this,” he says, motioning at the furor his presence creates in any room. “What is also always with me are my feelings for Houston. Not just the team. Not just the games or the basketball. But all of Houston, the friendships that I made.”
He has often told the story of how the first NBA game he ever watched on live TV was the Rockets vs. the Knicks in the 1994 NBA Finals. All of his Chinese teammates were pulling for the Knicks, so Yao went the other way and adopted the Rockets as his team. And eight years later, they made him the No. 1 pick in the draft.
“I believe it is fate,” Yao said. “I believe that something put me together with Houston and tied us together.”
The ties have him still referring to the Rockets as “we.” Those ties still reach to Jeremy Lin, the American-born guard of Taiwanese parents, who has dealt with a similar mania on both sides of the Pacific.
“I think it’s harder for Jeremy,” Yao said. “I really do. He understands all of the pressure that he is under. I did not. I just tried to keep everything with a small focus and played the game.”
Yao is now a businessman and student with many interests. He is two years into a five-year degree program in economics management, is owner of his old team the Shanghai Sharks in the Chinese Basketball Association, runs Yao Family wines and heads up his philanthropic endeavors.
While he admits that there are times when he wishes he could pull on his sneakers and try to help his Sharks as they struggle near the bottom of the CBA standings, what Yao sees now in the game that was both kind and cruel to him is a Rockets team that could achieve what always exceeded his grasp — an NBA championship.
“With Dwight Howard, with James Harden, those are great players,” Yao said. “What we have to hope for is that they will not have the same kind of bad luck and injuries as me and Tracy (McGrady).
“When Rudy (Tomjanovich) said after the Rockets won the (1995) championship, ‘never underestimate the heart of a champion,’ that represented an attitude. The talent we have is probably the best we have in the league. It will be about attitude.”