Yao Ming "ambassador"

Updated: 2014-03-31 10:58

By Chen Weihua in Washington (China Daily USA)

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He was an unexpected speaker to talk about diplomacy at the Brookings Institution, and at 7-foot-6-inches, he is certainly the tallest speaker ever to speak at the Washington-based think tank.

Yao Ming, the former NBA star, drew a packed auditorium of people on Friday afternoon when he appeared with former NBA Commissioner David Stern in a panel discussion on sports and cultural diplomacy between China and the United States. It was part of an event reflecting on diplomacy, culture and soft power upon the 35th anniversary of China-US diplomatic relations this year.

After being drafted by the NBA in 2002, then 22-year-old Yao instantly became not just a sports star but an ambassador between the two countries.

"All of a sudden, Americans were going to learn more about China through Yao Ming," said Stern. "And interestingly, through television, our Chinese fans were going to learn about American through Yao Ming.

"And this for a young 22-year-old who was burdened with this, I think he did wonderfully," Stern added.

Stern said Yao actually became an ambassador for the two countries. "And that to me was an extraordinary beginning contribution," he said.

Looking at the dozens of television cameras in the back of the Brookings auditorium, Yao joked that at that time he did not really feel pressure from the 1.3 billion Chinese people, but rather from all the cameras in front of him.

But he tried to focus on basketball, while at the same time learn about American culture.

To Yao, basketball creates an opportunity for people to understand each other, because people in both countries like to watch sports.

Every year, a dozen Chinese sports journalists came from China to Houston to cover Rockets games. Besides basketball games, they also wrote about American life and culture.

Stern recalled how American TV crews going to China in those years were astounded to find the huge popularity of Yao among the Chinese fans, many of whom looked like American fans, wearing pants too low and headphones.

Since then, Yao has used his influence to help bring NBA stars such as Steve Nash and others playing charity games in China to raise funds for children with HIV/AIDS, as well as for poor children in rural areas.

"When the Chinese government wants to demystify HIV/AIDS, they turn to Yao," said Stern, citing a series of public service announcements Yao did with Magic Johnson, a retired NBA star who first announced his HIV/AIDS infection in 1991 and later launched a public campaign combating AIDS.

"It was spectacular and it has huge impact. Yao was a much-in-demand spokesperson and he has devoted his time spectacularly," said Stern.

Since 2006, Yao has also become active in animal conservation, joining WildAid, a non-governmental organization, in protecting sharks and calling on Chinese to stop eating traditional shark's fin soup.

He revealed that campaign has helped dramatically cut down the consumption of shark's fin, but also admitted this is not going to be easy and people need to be patient.

Yao has received angry letters from the Chinese. "The first letter to me was pretty sharp. That was actually the first protest letter directed at me," he said.

Yao believes that participating in sports, such as playing basketball, helps children become healthier and learn leadership, character and teamwork.

Now owner of the Shanghai Sharks basketball team, Yao said his immediate goal is to finish his master's degree in the coming year. He will still focus on building his team, but at the same time work on philanthropy, such as the Yao Foundation, helping children, and children's after-school sports, Special Olympics and animal conservation.

Due to Yao's experience, China has become the NBA's largest overseas market.

"I don't believe Yao Ming is the last great Chinese player. He is the first great Chinese player, and the rest are coming," said Stern.


 Yao Ming

Former NBA star Yao Ming (right) talks about sports and cultural diplomacy on Friday afternoon in a seminar held at the Brookings Institution in Washington. From left are moderator William Antholis, a senior fellow at Brookings; David Stern, commissioner emeritus of National Basketball Association, and Yao's interpreter. Chen Weihua / China Daily

(China Daily USA 03/31/2014 page2)