Basketball superstar Yao is a natural champion
Carving out legendary status as China's first NBA superstar meant Yao Ming sacrificed many things, not least indulging his boyhood love of nature, due to an all-consuming training regime. But a trip last year to the wetlands of Hainan Island rekindled his passion.
The imposing 31-year-old was in Hong Kong yesterday to raise funds for a partnership between his Yao Foundation charity and Rare - a US-based organisation that trains conservation leaders.
The Yao-Rare partnership aims to instil pride in people for their natural surroundings and motivate changing the way they live.
Yao hosted a charity basketball festival in Hong Kong for around 80 local children. Yao's wife, Ye Li, was also in town, but their two-year-old daughter Amy stayed at home in Shanghai.
'Experiences in nature and sport can give children strength and a mentally healthy upbringing,' said the gentle giant, adding he had been impressed by Hong Kong. 'When I look out my hotel window, I see lush mountains and trees merging seamlessly with man-made structures.'
Yao, who spent nine seasons with the NBA's Houston Rockets, hasn't let the grass grow under his feet. He has funded the building of 14 rural primary schools, many in quake-stricken Sichuan province, he runs the Shanghai Sharks basketball team, and has just completed his first year at Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Antai economics and management college. He has also campaigned for a ban on shark's fin soup.
Explaining the importance of conserving nature, Yao said: 'Life can be like a highway. But sometimes there needs to be small trails where you can relax and go for a brisk stroll, and being able to retreat into nature serves as a refuge from our hectic lives.'
After meeting Rare's CEO Brett Jenks at the Boao Forum conference on Hainan last year, Yao was inspired by the group's 'unconventional' method of promoting conservation.
Jenks says it is all about changing human behaviour, as with commercial marketing. 'When you think of how you sell a product, you think of a process to get someone to change their behaviour. First, you make them aware that there's a problem, then you need to shift their attitude so they believe there's something they need to do.'
Yao woke up at 6am the next day and visited the Dongzhaigang wetlands with the conservation group. Jenks, who was on the trip, pointed out the various bird species as well as the destructive fishing practices by locals that threatened the ecosystem.
A video posted on Rare's website shows Yao listening intently like a schoolboy as he studies the scenery through binoculars. 'I really felt like I returned to my childhood,' he said.
Now Yao hopes to disseminate this love of nature to 9,000 children from the schools he helped to build.
The superstar has just launched a basketball coaching programme. 'A lot of rural schools don't have physical education teachers or basketball coaches. So we have trained a hundred students studying PE education who will then train rural children how to play basketball,' he said.
And the nugget of wisdom that catapulted Yao's basketball career? 'You may not always succeed even if you work hard, but you will definitely fail if you give up - and I have always taken that to heart,' he said.