An NBA legend is taking a stand against a Chinese delicacy — and rebuilding China's schools

Regarded as one of the top basketball players in the history of the National Basketball Association, Yao Ming is one of China’s most recognizable and influential faces.

At 7 feet 6 inches (2.29 meters) tall, he is among the tallest players to have played in the NBA and helped to change the perception of basketball in the world’s most populous nation.

Now the president of the Chinese Basketball Association, Yao’s height proved to be a challenge for opponents ever since his arrival in the NBA for the Houston Rockets back in 2002. But his journey to the top has been fraught with challenges.

Both of Yao’s parents were former basketball players, though he said their love for the game never translated to pressure to succeed in the sport. Conversations with his mother and father, he said, would be “on the couch, maybe a coffee or tea and some family talking so we’re not getting so intense after practice.”

Still, there were stresses during his move to the NBA.

“I felt pressure as it’s a ground undiscovered for me and you don’t know what waits out there. Especially when you don’t speak English back then,” Yao told CNBC’s Tania Bryer.

Throughout his time in the league, the Houston Rockets star was designated an NBA All-Star in eight seasons. He likely could have extended his success had it not been for a foot injury that pushed him into retirement at 30 years old in 2011. Still, over a decade after his U.S. debut, Yao was inducted into the NBA’s Hall of Fame.

Yao’s assertive frame frequently put him in competition with NBA titans such as Shaquille O’Neal. In 2003, a rookie Yao stood in O’Neal’s way and blocked multiple shots during their first meeting.

Such audacity won fans over and sparked a rivalry with O’Neal that would last for years. But by 2016, the two greats were clasping hands in a ceremony inducting them both into the league’s Hall of Fame.

“It’s an accomplishment for me, for somebody to call me as a rival to him, you know, he has no comparison in basketball history,” Yao said.

Yao himself has reached the heights of popularity in both the U.S. and China, but the basketball star is quick to change the topic from that subject.

“Popularity comes after you finish work. Never let popularity distract you,” he said.

Seven years on, his popularity persists in Houston, a city that held a “Yao Ming Day.”

“Well, they named the first Yao Ming day when I arrived in Houston, and then they named the second when I left, so what is that? Like a birthday?” he said of the city he called his “home away from home.”

The former basketball player noted, however, that not all his memories of Houston were positive. But, he said, “Without the bad, how can you tell the good?

Despite a decade playing elite basketball in the U.S., the pull of Shanghai remains strong for Yao: His Twitter profile location puts him in “Shanghai and sometimes Houston.”

The NBA legend may have reached stardom for his activities in the U.S., but his attentions turned back home for very different reasons.

Events even beyond the reach of a basketball giant would shape Yao’s future.

In the summer of 2003, just after completing his debut season with the Rockets, Yao was back in China spending time with family. That visit coincided with the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic that started in southern China. The disease would eventually kill more than 750 people across the world.

Rather than sitting back and relaxing, Yao used his growing influence to raise money for medical research.

“That’s the first time I was personally deeply involved with any kind of social responsibility or social activity. So, it gave me the feeling of ‘Okay, I can use my success on the basketball (court) into different areas to help people.’”

The SARS experience opened the door to philanthropy and charity as a newfound passion. In 2007, Yao organized a charity game in Beijing, inviting NBA players to play against a Chinese team. Through ticket sales and subsequent donations, Yao helped raise $2 million in a week for Chinese schools and housing initiatives.

As China prepared to host the 2008 Summer Olympics, euphoria was building across the country, but then tragedy struck. An 8.0 magnitude earthquake struck China’s Sichuan province in May of that year, killing tens of thousands. Thousands of children were killed, many of them students in classes killed by building collapses.

Yao had been planning to build a foundation, but hadn’t yet put his plan into action. That natural disaster spurred him into action.

“Everybody got mobilized in the country, trying to do our own part to restore something, and then my team and I (were) thinking: ‘Oh, why not now?’ I mean, it’s urgent.”

The Yao Foundation launched in June of that year, helping to build schools destroyed by the earthquake. Ten years later, the foundation continues. Rebuilding schools was only part of the plan.

“A school is not only a building, but it should be (about the) content. And obviously, we are not good at education, and we don’t want to pretend like we have educational expertise, or are the expert. We’re good at sports.”

Four years after the Sichuan earthquake, Yao’s foundation had built 17 earthquake resistant schools, many of them spread in rural parts of China. To move beyond physical building, Yao recruited staff to create a new basketball league connecting them with each other and other academies. As of this year, 500 schools take part in the Yao Foundation’s basketball league.

Basketball not only provides children an opportunity to visit towns beyond their normal horizons, but also teaches values. It’s all deeply personal for Yao.

“For my part, I’m not good at academic study. Never was.”

For Yao, sport teaches values not found in academia and China’s famously difficult university entrance exam.

“I think it’s something that we just can’t teach. They have to experience it on the court. When you have a teammate fall down on the ground, will you just tell them to stand up? Or are you going to give him a hand and pull him up? It’s a kind of friendship and it’s kind of like teamwork,” Yao said.

Sports, he said, teaches children to make independent decisions and trust their gut instinct. Yao would embody that attitude in his pursuit of activism away from the basketball court.

Rebuilding schools and sports education isn’t the only activity taking up Yao’s post-NBA time.

The former Houston star has also helped curb China’s consumption of shark fin soup by starring in commercials and short documentaries exposing how the delicacy has made many shark species endangered. Shark fin consumption in China has fallen by up to 70 percent in the last seven years — almost the exact same period of time as Yao’s activism on the issue.

Partnering with anti-wildlife trade organization WildAid, Yao got the public to pay attention. The traction and publicity Yao brings to causes across television and social media is decidedly influential: Forbes named Yao as China’s most powerful celebrity for the six consecutive years from 2004 to 2009.

And just like he did for shark fin soup, Yao has taken on China’s ivory trade and has used his platform to campaign against elephant poaching. As of January this year, all trade in ivory-made products is illegal in China.

Chinese state media Xinhua described the run-up to the ban as “one of the largest ever public awareness campaigns” with support from other celebrities such as actress Li Bingbing.

But Yao isn’t celebrating just yet.

“We all know that there is ‘on paper,’ and under the paper, there’s still a long way to go to save the animals — and then save ourselves,” he said.

Yao recalls a starry night in Kenya with clear skies. It’s not often that he sees the stars back home in Shanghai, and it’s a moment that encapsulates a defining value that has stood tall for the basketball star.

“To see the stars in the middle of the night, I have to get up at like 3 a.m. So when the moon was going down, we can see very clearly the Milky Way and all the stars up there. It really gave me a feeling of focus.”

Focusing on real connections underpins what Yao describes as his defining principal in life — one that he wants to pass onto the next generation.

“Talk to people,” Yao says, when asked what he’d like his daughter to learn. “Eye-to-eye and face-to-face, not through the phone!”

The NBA star doesn’t want to create another basketball star. If it happens, so be it. His vision for philanthropy through sports is to mold characters rather than careers.

“I always have a dream that, one day, one of the kids who played in this small school league will become a good guy,” he said.

Pupils from the schools built by his foundation “shouldn’t necessarily be like Steve Jobs,” he said, but they should learn how to “just be a good guy, maybe just a good husband, good son, or something like that.”

The NBA star has traversed almost every continent and shaped his destiny. What does he hope the future holds for those he has inspired?

“For the future, I’d say I hope everybody finds their own worth, and finds their happiness. In there, happiness is immeasurable and there’s no standard in it. As long as they find their interests, know what they do and know that’s their destiny, I think that’s their future,” Yao said.

“The future is not decided by any individuals”.

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