Basketball Great Yao Ming: 'Never Underestimate Strength of Character'

Interview by Klaus Brinkbšumer and Bernhard Zand

Photo Gallery: Yao Ming's World Photos
Getty Images

Yao Ming is by far China's most recognizable athlete. The former professional basketball star is now retired, but remains a popular figure in his home country. SPIEGEL speaks with him about China's role in the world and why learning to lose is important.

Former professional basketball star Yao Ming, 33, is one of the most successful athletes China has ever produced and likely the most famous Chinese person in the US. In 2002, he joined the Houston Rockets, where he played until the end of his career in 2011. In 2009, he bought his hometown club, the Shanghai Sharks, to save the team from bankruptcy. Currently, he is the team's manager and plays an increasingly important role in Chinese public life.


SPIEGEL: Yao Ming, were the Chinese nation a basketball team, what would be its greatest strengths?

Yao: Well, first of all we would have the advantage of our language because very few people on the court would understand when we call a play (laughs). No, our strengths in sports are hard work and resilience.

SPIEGEL: And Team USA? What are their strengths?

Yao: Good management. Creativity. Efficiency.

SPIEGEL: You lived and played in Houston, Texas, for 10 years. How do you manage moving back and forth between these two countries, these two cultures?

Yao: Obviously, they are different, and I feel at home in both of them. But sometimes, maybe a little more than sometimes, even I get confused. My brain then feels like a radio. You have to change the channel every time you fly. And sometimes you play the wrong channel anyway.

SPIEGEL: The US and China -- for many people this represents the competition of the century, and not just in sports. Let's put it positively: What can these two cultures learn from each other?

Yao: Not just the countries, the character of the people is different too. I think what the Chinese can learn from Americans is to make things clear, meaning to either give a yes or a no instead of keeping people guessing. What the Americans can learn from us -- maybe a certain sort of discipline....

SPIEGEL: You mean as a work ethic or a training model?

Yao: Discipline is understood differently in different countries. In China, discipline is more like a roadmap for your day: When will I leave home, what are my office hours, when will I travel and so on. In America, discipline is more about self-discipline. You are at your office, you are a grown man, you know what to do. In a way, both countries are very disciplined. But in the end, when it comes to discipline there is no people more experienced than the Germans....

SPIEGEL: What made you happier in the last few days: the Houston Rockets victory over the Boston Celtics or the Shanghai Sharks win against the Qingdao Eagles?

Yao: Since I am managing the Shanghai Sharks now, I of course enjoy their victories. Watching the Rockets is more like a habit, it's more of a casual energy to watch their games. The pressure and the frustration are gone, and so is some of the excitement. But the Sharks are my job, my responsibility. And Shanghai is my hometown.

SPIEGEL: You wouldn't call Houston your home anymore?

Yao: Houston is also my home. My parents still live there. I visit every month or two.

SPIEGEL: Why did your parents stay in Texas?

Yao: It's warmer there. They actually live in both places. They have a lot of friends on both sides, so it is hard to choose one side after 10 years.

SPIEGEL: Yet you came back to Shanghai. Why?

Yao: I have a lot of work to do in China. My career after basketball as a player is in Shanghai. There is more opportunity here. We have a lot that can be developed.

SPIEGEL: Was it hard for you to end your career as a player?

Yao: I hate injuries. I had suffered from a serious left ankle injury since 2008. In 2009, I had an operation. The doctors were brilliant, they had to break some bones and rebuild the joint. Then I went into rehab for a year, came back and played a few games when another problem came up.

SPIEGEL: Was it simply too hard in the end for your feet to cushion the landings of your 2.29 meter (7'6") body?

Yao: Sort of. I can't say that I was prepared for the end. But it was more of a slide down rather than a sudden fall.

SPIEGEL: Have you thought about becoming a coach?

Yao: It crossed my mind but I think I don't have enough experience to do it. Being a coach is not about how good you know basketball or how good you know people. It's about communication and psychology.

SPIEGEL: And you don't think you could do that? You were China's best basketball player. The players would certainly respect you.

Yao: I think I haven't learned enough to teach those young guys. And also I am a special case. How many people grow to 229 centimeters? What works for me will not necessarily work for others. There are coaches who may never have played in the NBA but they definitely learned more about how to teach than me.

SPIEGEL: We Europeans may not be aware of it, but you are extremely famous in the two largest economies of the world. Recently you sat together with President George H.W. Bush and you watched a Bulls game in Chicago with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, President Obama's former chief of staff. What do you discuss with such personalities?

Yao: I was very honored to be invited to President Bush Sr.'s wine tasting -- it was a fund-raising dinner for his foundation. In Chicago, it was a pleasure to sit with the vice premier, Madame Liu Yandong and tell her about the NBA.

SPIEGEL: In China, your face is almost ubiquitous. It is seen on TV and printed on billboards. Apart from advertising, what do you do with your popularity?

Yao: I work for my own foundation and a couple of other organizations. The Yao Foundation has built 16 schools so far in several earthquake regions and Western provinces. I'm also working with the Special Olympics and with WildAid, which is attempting to take shark fin soup off of our national menu. I took this over from Jackie Chan, who has a big influence in China and was a hero for my generation and myself.

SPIEGEL: Like him you are also a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. What are you doing there?

Yao: This is a consulting group which meets once a year to write proposals to the government and come up with ideas. It's full of bright, tough and ambitious people, university professors, successful businessmen, people who can speak for a community.

SPIEGEL: And you speak for the sports community?

Yao: I try to give them my advice about sports and private charity. We are in the early stages in this field and I am lucky to have some experience.

SPIEGEL: Do you consider yourself an ambassador of your country? Do you see a political role for yourself?

Yao: If you mean that I would have a message to tell people on purpose -- no, I don't. I grew up in China, a lot of Chinese culture and character is in my bone and blood. I naturally act the way I do because I grew up here. But beyond that: no message.

SPIEGEL: In the US, as in other countries, some people are worried about China's rise. In a way, you represent this country. Are you aware of that?

Yao: I can't stop people from thinking that way, and I am glad if they like me. But I still don't see myself as a messenger. A messenger is taking something that does not belong to him and passes it on to someone else. What I represent is myself, my culture and character. It belongs to me. It's me. And by the way, I carry some of the Texas character too now (laughs).

SPIEGEL: Among other things, you have a Texan accent.

Yao: Yes, Chinese-Texan. That's part of it.

SPIEGEL: Do you understand some people's unease about an ever expanding China?

Yao: The people who lead our country, President Xi Jinping and

Premier Li Keqiang, they all have a lot of overseas experience. And that is true for many of our high-ranking officials, for professors and people like me. We share, well maybe not totally the same dream but we can make a comment as a whole. We know that the future of the world depends on compromise, and compromise is a two-way-thing. So you can't block a country of 9.6 million square kilometers and a one-point-something billion population from joining the international community. We want to participate.

SPIEGEL: President Xi Jinping has created the concept of the "Chinese Dream." What is your Chinese dream?

Yao: That I can help team China win a gold medal in the Olympics someday. That's my dream.

SPIEGEL: How realistic is that goal?

Yao: It will take a long time to make it happen, and I will work hard to do my part.

SPIEGEL: Just like with economy and politics, some people fear that China will dominate in sports too one day.

Yao: Ok, let's take the major, most popular sports of today: soccer, basketball, tennis, cycling. Of those major sports, China is dominating none of them. We have a couple of good swimmers. And we have Liu Xiang the hurdler; we have Li Na, the tennis player. But we have asked ourselves: Achievement in sports, is it about fun or about gold? I think for most of our major sports, you cannot have gold before you have the fun.

SPIEGEL: Why is it that China is strong in individual sports but not so accomplished in team sports?

Yao: Team sports are more complex. It's not only about yourself, it is about chemistry, about leadership, about sacrifice. I respect everyone who pursues individual sports, but working in a team is different. You can't learn this on your own, you have got to practice it with others. And you have got to have fun. So far we've focused too much on gold and not enough on fun.

SPIEGEL: You began training early in your life. Was it always fun?

Yao: Not really. But I had another motivation because my

parents were both basketball players. I was proud to follow in their footsteps. But, honestly, it wasn't only fun at the beginning. It became fun when I was 16, 17 years old.

SPIEGEL: The history of your family is well known in China. How did your parents actually meet?

Yao: The same way I met my wife, who is a basketball player too. You practice, you go to school, and at some place and time, you meet.

SPIEGEL: It was clear early on that you would be very tall, so the authorities wanted you to become a basketball player.

Yao: What I know is that a few guys came to our home to talk to my parents. I assume they checked on me, how tall I am and how it's going. Of course my parents knew many people at that time who were scouting for talent. I don't know exactly what they told my parents, but since I've been to the US, I know that it's pretty much the same there as well. Some kids are tall and a lot of people tell them: "You should play basketball because of your size." Many do, and so did I. If you want to say that I was led to it, okay, that's part of it. But I can say I'm fortunate because it turned out that I love this sport.

SPIEGEL: How did your parents like the idea?

Yao: My parents didn't want it. They protected me. Meanwhile I am 33 and I can understand them. I don't want my kid to play basketball unless she really wants to.

SPIEGEL: Your daughter is three and a half years old now. Is she tall?

Yao: A little taller than the others: 1.1 meters (3'7"). Basketball can be a difficult sport. You have to start over after you retire and there is a high risk of injury. It may not affect me now, but what about when I am 50 or 60 years old?

SPIEGEL: Like most Chinese of your age, you are a single child.

Yao: Actually, I belong to the first generation of the one-child policy.

SPIEGEL: Today, 35 years after its inception, the government is relaxing the policy. Do you agree with this?

Yao: Yeah. I think a son or daughter needs a sibling.

SPIEGEL: Was the one-child-policy a disadvantage for your generation?

Yao: We didn't need to share. Then again, when I was born we didn't have much to share. But sharing forms your character, specifically in team sports. We missed that part. This may be one reason why we struggle in team sports. You have to rely on each other, show solidarity, trust each other.

SPIEGEL: What will you tell your daughter if she wants to become a basketball player?

Yao: I'll tell her that in sports, it's not just about winning. It's about winning and losing. And in the end, it's about shaping your character from your defeats and victories.

SPIEGEL: Are the Chinese good at facing defeat?

Yao: I'm not. How about the Germans? Your question reminds me of a story, a picture rather, of the man who is kneeling down in the 1970s ...

SPIEGEL: Former German Chancellor Willy Brandt in Warsaw, when he honored the victims of the Nazis.

Yao: Right. Never underestimate strength of character.

SPIEGEL: So the Chinese. Are they good at facing defeat?

Yao: That is something we must practice. Just a few days ago, a Chinese rover landed on the moon, and we are doing well with our GDP too. Such things help motivate people. But it can't always be the good news. You cannot always have the candy. We are in the process of learning that.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Yao, thank you very much for this interview.

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1. Basketball analysis
Dudesicle 01/27/2014
The Spiegel could also ask what the German basketball players think should be done about the country's future. They're experts as good as any.
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