We Miss Yao


Originally published in SLAM 176

by Karan Madhok / @hoopistani

The Chinese don’t say goodbye. Instead, the most commonly used phrase for an appropriate parting is zài jiàn—or zeh weh, in a Shanghai dialect—which literally translates to “meet again.” In China, no end is permanent. There is always another chance, another time.

Yao Ming was only 30 years old when he officially ended his basketball-playing career. In the short time the gentle 7-6 giant bounced a basketball, he experienced unprecedented highs and disappointing lows; he became one of the most recognizable faces on the planet, and then quickly fizzled out.  

Amidst it all—being the No. 1 overall pick, the first draft pick from China, an All-Star, a 20/10 player, the face of the Houston Rockets and China—Yao maintains that the most memorable moment of his career occurred on April 11, 2011, during a game against the Dallas Mavericks that he didn’t even dress for. 

“That was my last game,” says Yao, who’d appeared in five games earlier that season. “I didn’t play because I was hurt already. Usually I just walk down, but that time I was thinking, I know this is my last time…I will miss this court! I didn’t tell the fans, or anybody that I was retiring. Only the Rockets management knew that this was my decision. They had to move on and know that I was out of the picture.”

Move on. It’s easier said than done, but Yao took the initiative by moving on himself. At 33, Yao seems to be at peace with his decision, at peace with the glories that lifted him up and the injuries that grounded him. He has moved on to owning a basketball team in China, his hometown Shanghai Sharks, and to engaging in a variety of business ventures back in his homeland. But he remains most excited about his upcoming project, the NBA Yao School, which will launch in Beijing later this year, where he and his team will be coaching kids in an after-school program to learn life skills through basketball. 

Yao recently sat down with SLAM in Shanghai and reflected on his playing career and his post-playing life.

SLAM: Why did you open the Yao School? 

Yao: I wanted to provide a service for kids after school. The education system [in China] has been focused only on academics. I feel that sports are equally important. Sports can provide a social experience before a child steps into the real world. The idea was for an after-school program where kids can relax their minds from school and have a chance to learn to become a team member. Concepts like teamwork, communication, cooperation or leadership can’t just be learned from paper; you have to experience them. And that’s what Yao School is here for. Basketball skills are the strategy to put that experience together. 

SLAM: What are your goals, in terms of basketball and culturally, for this program?

Yao: This is character education. For years, kids in China have been isolated. Isolated at home, because of the one-child policy, and in school, where everyone is worried about [grades]. I want to take them out of that element and give them a chance to play as a group. A future career cannot be done in isolation; you have to work with somebody. 

SLAM: What is your fondest memory of your international career?

Yao: Playing in the Beijing Olympics in 2008 was a special moment. And I still remember the first time I ever put my national team uniform on. It was the China junior team in ’97. That moment was so enjoyable; I spent a lot of time looking at myself in the mirror! I didn’t realize there was a long journey ahead for me. 

SLAM: You retired as one of the most popular players of all time, and definitely the most successful Asian player. When you look back at your career, do you feel that you achieved the goals you had when you started off? 

Yao: Honestly, I feel that the American players probably dream much bigger than this, but my situation was that I never dreamt to play in the NBA. I just hoped to play on the Chinese national team. The NBA seemed too far for me when I was a kid. Being drafted by the Rockets was already beyond my goals. But of course when you get there, you want to set a higher goal, you don’t want to stop, you want more. So, maybe I broke even. Maybe I should’ve gone a little bit further, but my injuries slowed me down. But you can’t change that fact. And you can’t live in regret. 

SLAM: Do you have any regrets? Is there anything else that you wish you had achieved? 

Yao: Not many…I think I did everything possibly I could. And if I went any harder, I would have probably broken my ankles a couple years earlier [laughs].

SLAM: If you, Tracy McGrady and all of the Rockets had been healthy in your prime, how good do you think you guys could’ve been?

Yao: First of all, there’s no such thing as “if”…I think we had our chance but we missed it. Whether we regret it or not, that is a fact, and we just need to learn from the experience and move on. Otherwise how can we go to teach kids: “Hey, you have to pull yourself together after this loss and move on,” you know? 

SLAM: Was there one particular year when you thought that you were good enough to go all the way and win a Championship? 

Yao: Yes, a couple of years. In ’06-’07, I felt really good about myself. I had rehabbed well from a fracture, had a good summer with the national team to get back to shape and I won Player of the Month the first month of the season. But then my knees broke right before Christmas. After that I never really had a complete season. My last full year [’08-’09] was good, too. Even though Dikembe [Mutombo] got hurt in the first round and I got hurt in the second round, it was a good year for me. 

SLAM: Was there any one moment that made you decide to retire? 

Yao: I was mentally stressed from the injuries and the recovery process. It’s hard to imagine waking up every morning, going to rehab for two to three hours, and then still going to practice after that…That’s really hard. You worry about getting hurt again. Once or twice it’s OK, but then to get hurt three or four times a couple of years in a row? You lose that confidence, and when you lose confidence, you cannot compete at that level. I thought I wasn’t at that level anymore. Of course, I was concerned about my future life…[Points at his feet and laughs] I didn’t want to end up in a wheelchair. 

SLAM: You’ve said you still follow the NBA closely, so you’ve noticed the League’s shift toward small ball. If you were still healthy and still at the top of the game, how do you think you’d fit in now?

Yao: I’ve thought more than once about how I would compete in today’s basketball if I was still healthy and in my best shape. I think, if you can make enough free throws, or create enough free throws, you can still be effective. Otherwise, you probably need to run with the small ball. Someone like Shaquille O’Neal could create enough free throws for himself. He was very dominant and could change the pace of the game with that. But, the shooting skill today is so incredible. The three-pointer is so easy today. I think they should extend the line even another meter farther [laughs]. The defense is much more stressed by the range. And obviously, players with size like me would find it much more difficult to guard a shooter. So…[today’s NBA] definitely would not be easy for me.

The game has changed. Basketball is a form of knowledge. Sometimes I compare basketball skill to war weapons. Think about war weapons through history. In the beginning, if people wanted to knock down some big towns they needed those big machines, like catapults, and they were huge. Consider that they are centers. And then came the fire guns. When the fire guns first came out how big were they? [Motions with his hands] They were huge. And then they became smaller and smaller, and now the pistol is only that size [shows the size of his palm]. That is the skill and shape of a player, you see. The first nuclear weapons, the first missiles were so big, but now, they can be very small. Consider a player’s skill and body like a weapon. The weapon has gone from huge to small, but their damage is the same or even greater now. The point guards are the smaller and more powerful weapon nowadays. And they are mobilized. More mobile. Easy to transport, easy to ship somewhere, easy to sneak into somewhere like cutting into the lane. That’s what I think. 

SLAM: You inspired so many people in China and beyond to take up basketball, to learn the game. When you are inducted in the Hall of Fame, how do you want your legacy to be remembered?  

Yao: I’m too young to be in the Hall of Fame. But, well, I want people to think of me as a basketball man, not just a basketball player. Of course I was a basketball player in my career, but after that, I still continue to work with basketball and to spread the sport. And I want many people to benefit not from me, but from that sport.