BEIJING –With one final press conference in Shanghai, Yao Ming officially retired from basketball, ending weeks of testimonials and news reports fondly recapping his NBA rise and impact on the game.
Eugene Hoshiko/AP Photo
NBA star Yao Ming waves to guests during a press conference in Shanghai, China, Wednesday, July 20, 2011. Yao announced his retirement to a packed room of Chinese and foreign journalists.
In coverage fit for a Chinese state leader, Yao’s entire retirement speech was posted on China Daily’s website soon after the announcement earlier today and China’s state television broadcaster, CCTV, was said to be planning five continuous hours of coverage on the eight-time all-star’s decision to formally end his career.
Five hours of coverage is indeed ambitious, but where does one start when synthesizing Yao’s basketball legacy and global influence into one storyline? Yao himself probably did it best during his press conference when he referred to himself as an “historian,” an apt description for a man whose ascension to the top of the basketball world coincided with China’s own meteoric economic rise.
But reading through the heaps of reporting, it is clear that the meaning of Yao’s career is truly in the eye of the beholder. In Chinese newspapers like the nationalistic Global Times, Yao was described glowingly as a “Chinese image ambassador,” who “contributed immensely to the development of the NBA in China, making millions of Chinese care for the game.”
That Yao did all of this for nine seasons while never shunning his higher responsibilities to the Chinese national team is precisely the type of lesson that the Global Times felt that his legacy should bring to Yao’s successors.
Others wonder whether Yao’s legacy is the starting point for an ongoing debate here over why China has been unsuccessful in developing other NBA stars in the years following his being drafted first overall in the 2002 NBA Draft.
Did Chinese basketball get complacent after Yao became the country’s first global superstar? That is the question an excellent article in the New York Times posed earlier this week on Chinese basketball’s squandered opportunities to use Yao’s popularity to install the grassroots programs so badly needed to allow NBA-worthy talent to blossom.
What has resulted is another manifestation of the old debate here in China: opening up athletes’ training to private development versus the status quo of the guiding hand of the all-encompassing state institutions.
Chinese fans of Yao Ming react to news of the basketball giant's retirement.
As we have seen with tennis superstar Li Na – another early product of China’s state sports system who broke away – the policy of letting athletes “fly alone” and plan their own career paths is certainly making headway here. However, it will likely face long-term resistance from a risk-adverse state institution, especially one that faces added pressure to perform on the world stage after achieving such success at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
What is not in question is the interest that Yao’s career sparked on both sides of the Pacific. American fans quickly warmed to the 7’6” center who was charming – if limited in his English skills – and affable, often showing a comedic touch that made him a hit with advertisers like Apple, McDonalds and Visa, who all rushed to sign him to endorsement deals (see Visa commercial below).
Chinese endorsement agreements with the likes of China Telecom were also quick to follow, but what was far more astonishing was how quickly the NBA took off in China once Yao took his talents to Houston. It is said today that there are 300 million NBA fans in China, but ones does not need to spend much time here to know how ubiquitous the league has become.
Basketball courts have sprung up all over the mainland, while the streets of Chinese cities are lined with young fans decked out in the jerseys of their favorite NBA heroes. Sprite and Pepsi cans often have NBA players plastered on them, and in the years leading up to the Olympics in 2008, it was difficult not to walk by a McDonalds that did not have at least one Yao Ming cutout draped with Chinese fans happily mugging for a camera.
Bill Baptist - NBAE/Getty Images
Yao Ming averaged 19 points and 9.2 rebounds a game during a 9 season NBA career with the Houston Rockets.
No surprise then that Yao’s personal brand valued at $1 billion regularly tops lists that measure the value of sports celebrities and their international appeal.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that Yao’s career has been a financial windfall for the NBA, making the organization truly one of the great success stories of American business in China. Few U.S. companies or industries can boast to the degree that the NBA can about its success in China. Similarly, few companies can point to the transformative effect that China has had on the way it does business.
In addition to Chinese advertisements now being a regular presence on the sidelines of NBA courts all over the United States, the NBA’s Chinese language website is said to get on average 12 million hits a day. Meanwhile, the NBA’s players have taken notice.
In greater numbers now, American players are turning their backs on shoe giants like Nike and Adidas and signing lucrative endorsement deals with Chinese apparel companies. To stay connected to Chinese fans during the season, players like Tracy McGrady, Lebron James and Kobe Bryant have taken to maintaining Sina Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter) accounts. During the off-season, players ranging in ability from NBA superstars to fringe starters have become regular fixtures in China during the NBA off-season, offering training camps, promotional tours and in some cases – most notably Stephon Marbury – agreeing to eventually play here.
Despite their successes in spurring the NBA forward, American players will now need to ride out the inevitable next step in the game’s development in China: the Post-Yao Age. Even before Yao’s press conference today, there were concerns that NBA interest in China may wane. An AP article published last week cited an online poll on Weibo that showed 57 percent of respondents would no longer continue watching the NBA after Yao’s retirement.
Further clouding the future of the league in China is the murky status of labor negotiations between the NBA and the Players Association, which are reportedly scheduled to meet this Friday but remain far apart on revenue sharing.
But even on this divisive issue, China’s rise as a primary market for the NBA is apparent. As the Players Association urges its members to look abroad for playing offers, many athletes have turned to China despite more competitive leagues being available in Europe.
Players such as the Orlando Magic’s Dwight Howard and the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry and Dorell Wright have all expressed interest in playing in China should the NBA season not begin as scheduled. Kobe Bryant himself, already in Shanghai for a skills camp he runs, has come out in recent weeks with preliminary plans for an all-star studded three city China tour that would last between two and three weeks.
Over the years, basketball pundits have described Yao as a “finesse player” who had trouble banging inside with the big men of the NBA. Ironic then that his efforts have pushed talented NBA scorers out of their comfort zones to his home turf.