TV Host Lisa Ling on New Ultimate Explorer, Yao Ming

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
May 30, 2003
In the debut episode of National Geographic Television's Ultimate Explorer, host Lisa Ling travels to China to report on budding NBA star Yao Ming and the changing face of his home country. National Geographic News recently spoke with Ling about her new show and basketball phenomenon Yao Ming.

What's new about Ultimate Explorer? What should viewers expect to see?

Well, the show has an international focus. The stories are told by correspondents who provide a kind of experiential, first person storytelling. I like to say that the series mixes the best of reality TV—and yes there actually are some redeeming qualities to reality TV—with the best of reporting.

You worked on getting access to Yao Ming for two years. He must be incredibly busy.

He's probably one of the most swamped people in the world. 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.

I'd been following his story for two years. When I first found out about him I was very intrigued because I saw him as having such huge potential to access the Chinese market and found him fascinating as a marketing tool—beyond being a fantastic basketball player and a generally great guy.

So is Yao Ming the Michael Jordan of China?

Everyone in China knows him, and he is now absolutely everywhere. For China, he encompasses everything that they want to be: 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, he's really a symbol of where they want to be. They are very proud of Yao.

Is it safe to say the Houston Rockets, the NBA team Yao plays on in the U.S., also have high hopes for him? They are definitely counting on him. They are hoping that he'll fill seats in this enormous new stadium that they're building. I went to the site and one of the construction workers called it the "House of Yao." I just thought, "What an amazing statement that was for American construction workers to make about a Chinese national."

What about his life here in America? It's a tremendous change for a young man, from growing up in China to superstardom in the United States

I think he is starting to assimilate a bit. He has his license. So he drives. His buddies on the team embrace him. So he's adjusting. But he just can't sort of go around like anyone else.

All the time, he really recognizes his responsibilities and he carries himself so elegantly. He takes the pressure very seriously. It's important for him to maintain a clean reputation. He's carrying the weight of over a billion people's hopes.

Yao is one of a kind, but do you foresee be other Chinese players breaking into the NBA?

There will never be another Yao, but everyone is on the lookout for the next superstar player from China. When I was in China there was a scout there from the NBA. Even though they are not supposed to be there, people are combing the country.

Every time I go back, it's just unbelievable how much it changes. Economies around the world are struggling and multinational companies continue to pour money in there because it's a population of over a billion consumers. And a lot of them aren't even profitable right now—they just want to be there.

When Yao plays basketball, 300 million people watch him. 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. In times when marketing dollars are tight, Yao has money thrown at him.

This story has a personal aspect for you because your family left China when the Communists took over. Now Yao is a symbol of a changing China and perhaps even of a closing gap between your traditional home and your new one.

It's been such an incredible learning experience. Growing up as an Asian American, I was conflicted. I never felt entirely American nor entirely Chinese. It's pretty extraordinary to have a guy who both sides cheer for so fervently. He' s helping to change the perception of not only China but of Asian Americans in this country, and I think that's pretty extraordinary.

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