Can anyone fill Yao Ming's giant shoes?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 July, 2011, 12:00am

The retirement of Yao Ming has not only seen Shanghai lose one of its greatest international sport stars, but also raised the question of whether a faulty sports system can produce any more Yao-style sport icons.

Speculation has been rife in Shanghai's media over who will be the next Yao, or when another superstar at Yao's level will emerge, exuding confidence in Shanghai's ability to produce more great athletes, banking on the city's economic might and a growing interest in sporting activity.

Yao's legacy goes beyond sports. China has spawned dozens of world champions and talented athletes in the past decades. Their achievements were regarded as part of the country's rejuvenation. However, only Yao was catapulted into global prominence as a cultural ambassador.

The retired 2.29-metre tall centre attributed his success to hard work and good luck, highlighting the importance of communication with foreign teammates, coaches and other club employees.

Yao refused to tell reporters whether he would spend more time in the United States or Shanghai, but indicated that he would continue his 'basketball life' with the Shanghai Sharks, the basketball team he now owns. He played for the team before 2002, when he was selected by the Houston Rockets as the No1 pick in the NBA draft. Yao once said he hoped to use the club to cultivate the next generation of basketball players as rounded human beings, rather than basketball machines.

That dream may have its roots in Yao's early career.

The eight-time NBA all-star centre grew up in a system under which the government authorities played a vital role in a player's development and had a final say in his career path.

Players were contained in the secluded world of a training institute, commuting between dormitories and basketball courts every day.

For Yao, the road to the NBA proved convoluted. He was coveted by a number of teams as early as 1999, with many believing the gangly youngster could challenge the then dominant Los Angeles Lakers centre Shaquille O'Neal.

Treated as a state-owned asset rather than an individual, he was barred from taking part in the NBA draft that year.

It was not until 2002, when Yao led Shanghai Sharks to the national title, that he was allowed to move on and pursue his own career path.

Yet he was asked to compensate the Chinese Basketball Association and the Sharks for the 'loss of [a] state asset'.

Beijing required athletes to turn over at least half their pre-tax income to the authorities if they planned to join overseas clubs.

People informed of Yao's deal with the government said his mother, Fang Fengdi, a veteran basketball player for the national team, did a good job in bargaining the rate down to approximately 10 per cent of Yao's earnings.

Yao was supposed to pay at least US$9.3 million to the sport authorities and the club based on the value of his two contracts with the Rockets in his nine-year NBA career.

The amount is enough to run the domestic CBA league for two years.

But it all paid off. Once Yao left the state machine, he became the pride of Shanghai and an international face for China. For example, in the 60-second commercial broadcast on six huge screens on New York's Broadway during president Hu Jintao's visit to the United States earlier this year, Yao was one of the most well-known faces among a group of celebrities, supermodels, money-makers, innovators and astronauts featured to publicise China's soft power.

Yao is recognised as Shanghai's biggest sport star, even eclipsing hurdler Liu Xiang , an Olympic gold medallist.

The absence of the towering centre in NBA games or international competitions will deflate Shanghai's pride, as the city always dreams of being big.

If Shanghai wants to produce another great sports star like Yao Ming, then it is noteworthy that Yao's success is not only to do with skills, but his communication skills and charm.

For example, Yao speaks good English (complete with a Texas accent) and makes jokes with a touch of Western-style humour.

He's also a media darling, who never gives rigid answers in a diplomatic manner. Asked whether he felt upset at being heavily charged by the authorities to play for the Rockets, he always kept tight-lipped.

He knows the rules of the game - off the court - both in China and the United States.

These qualities mean it is not easy for Shanghai to produce another Yao Ming.

In terms of physical strength and skills, the mainland's commercial capital may abound with talented youngsters with the skills to play in the world's elite sport leagues.

But the young prospects must first hone their language and communication skills in the secluded training centres before jumping into the boots left by Yao, not to mention cultivating negotiating abilities ahead of drawn-out battles with the officials who are always determined to protect 'state assets'.

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