BEIJING (Reuters) - Yao Ming is highly unlikely to walk away from the Beijing Olympics with a medal and his importance to the host nation is more totemic, proof that Chinese athletes can make it big in major professional sports.
While its soccer results have been disappointing of late, China has grown increasingly in love with basketball and as a conduit of that passion the Houston Rockets center has become the country’s best paid and most popular celebrity.
Yao’s face features on thousands of billboards and in countless television adverts -- touting everything from Coca Cola to Visa to China Life insurance. He earned $56.6 million last year, according to Forbes.
The 27-year-old is popular with the government and if gambling were not illegal in the People’s Republic, he would be heavily backed to light the Olympic cauldron on August 8.
“He’s not only good on the basketball court but also off it. He’s a good person, not just a good player,” said Xu Jicheng, a top Chinese basketball commentator and friend of Yao.
As an athlete, Yao’s most obvious quality is his height, a freakish 7ft 6in.
It was no guarantee of success in the NBA, however. But although his first four selections as an All-Star were put down in part to the sheer volume of the Chinese fan vote, his inclusion in the last couple of years has been uncontroversial.
“In the last two years he’s started to look like a great player. He is the first of the really big guys who could really play,” Alan Paul, China bureau chief for the U.S. basketball magazine Slam, told Reuters.
“The others couldn’t really move. Certainly his height is pretty incredible but he is very skilful so I don’t think it is his height alone. If Yao was a little shorter, I think he would still be a great player.”
Yao’s height, and perhaps his basketball skills, came from his parents. His father Yao Zhiyuan is 2.08 meters tall and a former center for Shanghai while Yao’s mother Fang Fengdi is 1.88 meters and captained China’s women’s team.
By the age of nine, Yao was 30 centimeters taller than his class mates and had already been drafted into China’s sports system at a school in his native Shanghai. Five years later he was a professional nicknamed “Little Giant”.
At 18, he represented China for the first time at senior level and in 1999 he helped his country to become Asian champions. NBA scouts started to take notice.
In 2000, he joined China’s first two NBA players, Wang Zhizhi and Menk Bateer, to form the “Great Wall” as China finished 10th at the Sydney Olympics.
After his club Shanghai Sharks finally won the Chinese Basketball Association title in 2002, Yao decided to enter the NBA draft and became the first international player to be number one pick when the Rockets selected him.
Yao started impressively enough and when he scored 20 points against the L.A. Lakers in November 2002, retired basketball great Charles Barkley lost a bet that the big man would never make those stats and kissed a donkey’s backside on live TV.
The most commonly heard refrain from the many sports leagues and officials trying to “break into” the Chinese market is that they are looking for a Yao to spearhead their efforts.
“Yao is just tremendous. I think every sports league in the world would dream of having him,” said Paul.
Xu said: ”I think it’s a win-win situation. The NBA has Yao Ming there and that draws more attention from China.
“And Yao Ming playing at the highest level can help raise the standard of Chinese basketball and maybe make a breakthrough in Olympic results.”
Yao does not always follow the party line. He has been outspoken on matters such as the consumption of shark’s fin in his native country and has campaigned for his fellow Chinese basketball players to be allowed to move to Europe.
Part of Yao’s popularity at home is that he has continued to play for China despite his success in the United States and that he carried the red flag at the opening ceremony of the Athens Games in 2004.
But the stress on his body from playing so much basketball has taken its toll and he has experienced a rash of serious injuries have blighted his career.
“There’s a history of really big guys getting injured,” said Paul. “I think being as big as he is pretty clearly does put unusual stress on his feet.”
In February this year, a stress fracture was detected in his left foot and since then he has been involved in a race to get fit to play his part in the Beijing Games.
He returned to court in mid-July but even with him and New Jersey Net Yi Jianlian in the team, Paul rates China’s chances of winning a medal in Beijing as “virtually none”.