Three years after injuries ended Yao Ming’s playing career, the Chinese trailblazer is at peace and as invested in the game as ever.
by Karan Madhok. Photos courtesy: SLAM and Starzsports.
SLAM No. 176). You can also find it on SLAMOnline.com.
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.”
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.