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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.