Yao Ming: NBA Giant Is Big in U.S., Bigger in China

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
May 30, 2003
On the court and off, Houston Rockets basketball star Yao Ming is a true
giant. During his rookie year, the Chinese sensation created a stir in
the NBA and across the globe. Battling both Shaq and the skeptics, the
seven-foot-five-inch (226-centimeter) center displayed skills that
silenced the critics and earned him a trip to the All-Star game.

While Yao could quickly become one of the league's dominant players, his off-court impact is already colossal. At 22, he is a marketing megastar. Like Madonna or Elvis, Yao needs a first name-only reference—as sure a sign of superstardom as any. He's come to symbolize the aspirations of a rapidly changing China—while undergoing some serious life changes of his own.

The business that is the NBA is global, both on and off the court. This spring NBA teams included 65 international players from 34 countries and territories. The diverse product on the court helps attract new audiences around the world.

And perhaps the most important foreign player to suit up is the Rockets' Yao. To understand why, one only need look to China's 1.3 billion residents—and potential basketball fans.

Two other members of the Chinese National Team play in the NBA. Wang Zhizhi plays for the Los Angeles Clippers, while Mengke Bateers suits up for San Antonio Spurs. But Yao is in a class all his own. The National Team star is a towering hero in China and elsewhere in Asia.

Yao has made the NBA a hot proposition in the emerging markets of the Far East. That means major league business opportunities. And Yao may be the ultimate marketing tool for the rapidly growing Chinese market. As China's economy continues to grow larger and more global, multinational companies continue to compete for pieces of the country's enormous consumer market.

Within China, Yao appears ever present, a marketing icon ready to connect China with global markets.

"The Little Giant"

Yao was the first number one NBA draft pick to come from an international basketball league. In the 2002-2003 season, "the Little Giant" proved he was up to the competition, ranking among the league's top 20 players for rebounds and blocked shots.

While those are very solid numbers for a rookie, Yao posts even more impressive stats. "When Yao plays basketball, 300 million people watch him," said Lisa Ling, the Ultimate Explorer television host who recently profiled Yao. "That's more than the population of the United States and only a fraction of the population of China. You can imagine what that means in terms of marketing dollars."

It also means a tremendous amount of pressure on the basketball star. But with the weight of a nation on his shoulders, not to mention that of his team and the NBA, Yao handles the pressure and responsibility with aplomb.

"All of the Chinese people, the Asian people say, 'Oh Yao Ming, you are all the Chinese, all of Asia's hopes,'" Yao told Ultimate Explorer. "That's a lot of pressure," he said. "I'm just a basketball player."

But to many, Yao is more than that. He's a symbol of China's emergence on the international stage, a commercial powerhouse with the second largest economy in the world.

Same Planet, Different Worlds

Yao is also a source of unabashed pride. "For China, he encompasses everything that [people] want to be," Ling said. "He's larger than life, strong, intelligent, an international star, a family man, and a team player. He embodies much of what China is becoming," she said.

Lost in the hype is the fact that Yao is a 22-year-old experiencing a dramatic lifestyle change. Both of Yao's parents played for China's national teams. From a young age, he lived and played basketball at state-run facilities for elite athletes.

That prestigious but insular world could not have prepared him for the culture shock of superstardom that followed the Chinese government's decision to allow him to jump to the NBA. (The Chinese government collects half of his U.S. $18 million dollar annual salary, and Yao remains obligated to play on China's national team.)

Now in the U.S., Yao lives inside a media crucible few others experience. "He's probably one of the most swamped people in the world," said Ling. "The press follows him everywhere. I've been out with Brittany Spears and other huge celebrities, but no one has gotten the kind of attention that Yao has. It's incredible. He can't exactly put on a hat and glasses and sort of blend into the crowd."

While Yao's career in the NBA is just beginning, his stardom is already realized on two continents. It's a lot to ask, but this 22-year-old basketball player might just become a symbol of how the two worlds can grow together.

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