Nation expects Yao Ming to succeed in second career
Adored by fans and a media darling, the former NBA centre is coy about his future, but many believe he'll be a hit in business
Yao Ming, the biggest international sports star yet produced by China, says his studies at Shanghai Jiao Tong University are now his priority, sidestepping questions about his career plans.
The former Houston Rockets centre, who spent eight seasons playing in America's National Basketball Association competition before retiring in 2011, said last week that he was "tied up in preparations for exams". He is a second-year student in the university's economics department.
Yao remains a media darling not only because of his 2.29-metre height and his achievements on the basketball court, but also because of his engaging off-court personality.
Mainlanders have high hopes for Yao - dubbed the country's smartest athlete - envisioning him becoming a successful businessman and philanthropist.
The former sports star said he currently spends about a third of his energy running the Yao Foundation, the charity he launched in 2008, but would not offer any hints about the direction his career could take.
Many had hoped Yao, now 32, would come to the rescue of the mainland's embattled charity sector after a scandal involving the Red Cross Society of China erupted two years ago.
Guo Meimei , who claimed to be general manager of a Red Cross affiliate, provoked widespread public anger when she showed off her wealth on the internet, with millions of people accusing the high-profile charity organisation of misusing and wasting funds to further some unethical managers' personal interests.
In an apparent effort to ease public concerns about controversial charity organisations, Yao suggested people should pay more attention to the management of charities' funds than to the celebrities who ran them.
"Some of the people showed keen interest in the charity funds because of their curiosity about the scandals and the celebrities," he said. "That was not correct, since we should focus on what the foundations have done for society through their operations."
Last week, the Yao Foundation signed a three-year contract with Marriott International, which will see the hotel group donate US$800,000 to support the charity's educational programmes in rural areas of the mainland.
Simon Cooper, president of Marriott International Asia, said Yao's "participatory" role in running the fund had cemented the company's belief that it could help Chinese youngsters.
Since its establishment, the Yao Foundation has helped more than 9,000 children to study at the 15 Hope Primary schools it has funded. It also teaches children basketball skills to boost their confidence and build their sportsmanship, with some 67,000 youngsters having so far participated in basketball activities it has organised.
Mainland sports fans also believe Yao can be a huge success in the business world, based on his intellect and influence.
Yao began investing when he was playing for the Rockets.
His star power boosted the listing of Beijing Unistrong Science & Technology in March 2010 as investors rushed to buy shares in the electronics maker's initial public offering.
Yao's shares in Unistrong were valued at nearly 80 million yuan after its listing on the SME board at the Shenzhen Stock Exchange - about 70 times the amount he invested.
The successful investment added lustre to Yao's image, with mainlanders touting him as a talented businessman who could earn more in the future to support his charity activities.
However, the worsening performance of Unistrong and weak market sentiment has since wiped more than 80 per cent off its market value.
Yao is also the owner of the Shanghai Sharks, the China Basketball Association team he played for from 1997 to 2002 before becoming the top pick in the 2002 NBA draft.
It is widely believed that China's rigid and isolated sports training system is unlikely to produce another athlete of Yao's iconic status.
But he is obviously uncomfortable with his standing as a "rare asset" and the high expectations placed on him.
Yao recently quipped to the media that he is worried about his daughter's future because she might be too tall to find a husband.
His touches of humour win him more fans, and they will be keeping a close eye on how his career blossoms.