Xie Xie Yao Ming

Yao and Me

It’s a pretty somber day here at BDA. Although we have known it was coming for quite some time, Yao Ming’s retirement press conference took place yesterday and the reality of it all is finally sinking in. As usual, Yao handled himself with exceptional dignity and grace. Typical Yao. He spoke little of himself, instead expressing his gratitude to those who helped and supported him on the way. He also tried to make us all feel a bit better by talking about how when doors close, others open. He said he would still be around, that he wasn’t going to disappear. I know all of this is true, but I can’t help but feel a bit blue today. Since we have plenty of very exciting Yao projects in the fire, and our relationship with him has a long way to go, I’m not quite clear why I’m down. I guess it is the reminder that sometimes things don’t work out the way we would like them to.

It seems like yesterday that Bill Duffy took me to China for the first time. It was 2000, and we attended opening night of the 2000/2001 CBA season. The Bayi Rockets faced off against the Shanghai Sharks. The Rockets were reigning CBA champions, and were led by superstar Wang Zhi Zhi. BDA was getting ready to sign Wang, but we were also there to meet the tall skinny kid, Yao Ming. That night, Yao completely dominated. He drained long jumpers, blocked countless shots, made pinpoint cross-court passes and scored at will. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Yao's ESPN "Next" shoot. That's Bill Duffy holding up the light.

The next day, Yao had a shoot for ESPN’s “NEXT” issue. We spent several days with him. I was taken by his humility, his shyness and his kind nature. He seemed so gentle. But he was also clearly not comfortable in his own skin yet. He didn’t smile for pictures, and often walked with his head a bit low in an attempt to get closer to those around him. In hindsight, Yao probably already had an idea of what the coming years would hold for him.

One thing was clear right out of the gate. Yao was not in this for the fame. Or the money. Yao showed a sense of obligation to his country, his family and his team that he carried throughout his career. In the early years, I sometimes wondered that if Yao wouldn’t rather be 6’4″. Yao saw himself as a basketball player who was obligated to deliver for others. He wasn’t in it for himself.

Another Serious Cover

Yao and his Shanghai Sharks eventually won the CBA championship, and his road to the NBA cleared. His first year was a whirlwind. #1 draft pick, magazine covers, national ads, autobiography, movie. It was nuts. It was also a critical year for me professionally, as Yao helped me build relationships and develop experience that I still rely on almost 10 years later. But that’s not what I remember most about that time. What I remember most is Yao taking it all in stride. The world around him was insane, but he kept his composure. I wondered if fame and fortune would change Yao at all. It did not. To this day, Yao is better at returning phone calls than anyone I’ve ever worked with.

Business Week Cover. Still no smile.

When Yao arrived in the US, most “experts” said he would not be marketable. He was painted as a tall, awkward, Chinese speaking foreigner. But my instinct was that the experts were wrong. Yao’s character, intelligence and sense of humor are remarkable, and something told me that he would emerge as a marketing icon. I honestly had no idea just how big he would become, but I knew he was special. The public loves good guys, and Yao was emerging as one of the best. His press conferences became legendary, as Yao found humor in the fact that throngs of reporters wanted to know every last detail of his NBA experience. People started to fall in love with him. Apple, Visa, Gatorade, Pepsi, T-Mobile and Coke did not align with Yao because he was tall. They aligned with him because he was charming, and because he was captivating people all over the world.

Talent and hard work (not just Chinese voters) made Yao an All Star

We all survived the first year, and Yao seemed to breathe a bit easier as we walked him to security at SFO for his flight back to China. He eventually found his groove, both on and off the court. His on court performance improved dramatically, as did his off court demeanor. At Thanksgiving time during his second NBA season, a reporter asked “Yao, what are you thankful for this year?”. Yao replied, “LeBron James”. LeBron’s arrival had shifted some of the attention away from Yao, which was perfectly fine with him.

Team China meant everything to Yao.

The following years a pattern emerged that possibly ended up shortening Yao’s career. As soon as each NBA season ended, Yao was on a plane back to China to report to the Chinese National Team. While every other NBA player took time off, Yao reported to Team China training camp to prepare for summer competition. Whether it was Olympics, World Championships or Asian Championships, Yao dutifully put in his time with his home country team. Others saw it as a burden, but Yao saw it as his duty. He felt he owed it to his country to play for the national team. When Beijing was awarded the 2008 Summer Olympics, we all new that Yao would not be taking time off to rest and heal that summer, and that he would likely return from injury prematurely in order to play in those games. During those years, I believe Yao played more basketball than any other human on the planet. Perhaps all of that time on the court led to the injuries that eventually ended his career. But would Yao do it differently if he could? Would he have skipped the Beijing Olympics to prolong his NBA career? I seriously doubt it.

My favorite Yao photo. Thank you Andy Bernstein!

The past several years have been challenging for all of us. Seeing Yao repeatedly suffer broken bones, followed by very intense rehab, followed by repeated setbacks, had us fearing that the writing was on the wall. Those of us around Yao so deeply admired the boundless effort he put into recovery that we wanted more than anything to see Yao win championships, reach his full basketball potential, and enjoy a long career. But something funny happened the first time Yao talked about the possibility of retirement. He seemed at ease. Of course he desperately wanted to come back, but he also seemed very content in his personally life. He was now married (to the equally wonderful Ye Li) and was the father of his beautiful daughter, Amy. He was a family man. I believe it was the first time in Yao’s life that he really started to think about what HE wanted. He had given over 15 years of his life completely to others, first the Sharks, then the Chinese National Team and finally to the Houston Rockets and the NBA. He did it not only without complaint, but did it graciously. He gave them all everything he had. He gave them 100%. Yao’s coaches and teammates all agree, he is the hardest working basketball player they’ve ever know. His work ethic is simply unmatched. After many years of hard work, the possibility of life after basketball became real. Finally, the thought of a life that he created and controlled probably sounded pretty interesting.

We will never know how dominant Yao would have been over a 15+ year NBA career. I do believe he would have gone down as perhaps the most dominant center the game has ever seen. He was the complete package, and when healthy he was an absolute force. But that was not Yao’s destiny. Instead, his destiny was to establish basketball as the most popular sport in China, and thus, the world. He carried the flag and the torch. He captured the hearts of basketball fans all over the world. He inspired people with his hard work and his warm heart. The ultimate lesson he taught us is that you can give it 100% and live with the results. Sometimes you don’t win the trophy. Sometimes you don’t get to play as long as you want to. But if you do it with dedication, dignity, grace and humility, you can walk away with your head held high.

Yao Ming

Today, Yao Ming smiles. He smiles a lot. And he doesn’t slouch when he walks. Not only is he no longer shy, but his charm dominates the room when he enters. And he has big plans. He wants to study business, become an entrepreneur,  establish the Sharks as the best franchise in the world. He’ll do it all, and much more. And he’ll also immerse himself into family life. Yes, we are a bit blue today. But Yao Ming is happy. And we have a very bright future ahead together.

Xie Xie Yao Ming. It has been an honor to be a part of this adventure. I look forward to whatever lies ahead.

About Bill Sanders

SVP of Personal Brand Management at PMK*BNC. Helping icons from all walks of life to connect with their fans and monetize their brands.
This entry was posted in Athlete marketability, Athlete Marketing, Uncategorized, Yao Ming. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Xie Xie Yao Ming

  1. Ross Grandolph says:

    My friend and I were talking about the possibility of Yao being inducted into the Hall of Fame. Even though he only played 9 seasons, I feel like he should be a first ballot Hall of Famer because he is the greatest global ambassador for basketball the sport has ever seen. He was responsible for making basketball popular in the most populous country in the world. I’m sure David Stern will be in close contact with you and Yao so he can continue to promote the NBA on a global level.

    • Bill Sanders says:

      Hi Ross. Of course I am biased, but I absolutely believe he is a Hall of Famer. I just hope people don’t assume he makes it ONLY for his ambassadorship. He was also an absolutely dominant player. It is easy to forget that given all he has done for the game away from the court. But he was deservedly a perennial All Star. Thanks so much for your comment!

  2. John says:

    Awesome piece, Bill. You’ve had a perspective of Yao that very few people have had. Thanks for taking the time to write it, and sharing.

    • Bill Sanders says:

      John, you and YaoMingMania have been a part of this journey from day one. There will be more to come too. Thank you so much for your loyalty and enthusiasm. Meeting you was one of the unexpected rewards along the way.

  3. George Tam says:

    A lot have been said about Yao Ming carrying the hopes and aspirations of his country on his shoulders. What have not been mentioned is that he also carried the dreams and pride of Asian Americans across this country. Whether he realizes or not, what Yao did was to dispel the notion of the Asian stereotype: nerdy looking, athletically challenged, subservient, and a push-over. For those of us who came to this country as immigrants, we all can identify with what Yao went through- the suspicious stares, mocking of the way we speak, and underestimating of our abilities. As many of us have discovered, the only way to change other people’s perceptions was to prove them wrong through patience, dedication, and hard work. As I am writing this, I am replaying in my mind a scene in the documentary, “Year of the Yao”, in which Yao tripped over his feet and fell on his bottom while defending a guard doing a cross-over. The camera cut to the opposing team’s bench and you saw players laughing so hard that they almost fell out of their seat. I wonder where many of those same players are right now. What kind of careers did they have and what marks have they left the game of basketball? While some of us could gloat about that now, I don’t think Yao spends much energy thinking about that. He has greater things to accomplish. For Yao, it’s never about crushing an opponent’s ego as it is gaining their respect. Today, Yao has unequivocally gained the respect from all of his peers and fans around the world.

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  5. Bill Sanders says:

    You are so right George. Yao helped obliterate stereotypes. It’s easy to forget just how much mystery there was to China and its people 10 years ago. I too believe that Yao helped lift the veil of mystery.

  6. Carrie Xu says:

    Thank you Bill, it is great to read all these amazing stories of Yao from such a special perspective. All the little things such as “better at returning the phone calls than anyone” tell us besides a great player how nice a person Yao is, unbelievable!
    As a Shanghai native, Yao has always been a hero in my heart, I still remember many wonderful details in The Year of The Yao. I can tell Yao’s feelings while watching Wednesday’s press conference online here in LA.
    All the best to Yao Ming’s new journey! And all the best to the Sharks!

  7. Larry Taman says:


    What a great post! Incredibly well written and incredibly interesting. If you remember, when I met with you years ago with our Consumer Connection Points, Yao hit on so many high levels that matter to people (Effort, Performance, Respect, Personal Bond, Game IQ) that he became a true force from a marketing perspective. Kudos to you and your team for making this happen so well.

    Like someone else says above, I loved your reference to returning phone calls better than anyone else. That little item almost says more about the man than anything else. That is ultimate respect for others…


  8. Bill Sanders says:

    Thanks so much Larry and Carrie. We’re all very fortunate to have been able to watch Yao the past 9 years. He is one of a kind, and I don’t expect another like him again. You should know the gratitude he feels towards his fans. Your support does not go unnoticed.

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