He burst onto the NBA scene with his first round selection by the Houston Rockets, culminating months of delicate negotiations between the United States and mainland China. Yet in his homeland, where soccer is king, Yao Ming is far from a household name.
In the midst of their obsession with soccer’s ongoing World Cup competition, mainland Chinese hardly picked up on the news about Yao Thursday.
“I’ve never heard of him,” said Li Yulong, a Beijing hardware store clerk, turning quickly to Sunday’s World Cup finals. “So who do you think will win the final, Germany or Brazil?”
Yao, a 2.26-meter (7-foot-5) center, was selected by Houston as the league’s No. 1 draft pick in New York on Wednesday night.
“This is a new start in my basketball and life career,” said the 22-year-old Yao, who was in Beijing Thursday training with the Chinese national team for an Asian tournament. “I am confident I will learn from the NBA and improve myself.”
In Yao’s native Shanghai, where he plays for the local team, the Sharks, residents were a bit more aware.
Fei Fusheng, 50, browsing in a sporting-goods store in a Shanghai shopping mall and wearing a red Sharks cap, said Yao’s departure for the United States would be a loss for Chinese fans.
“But it is definitely good for Yao’s personal future,” Fei said. “In the long term, his going will also promote the development of basketball in China.”
Though Yao’s selection came too late for China’s morning newspapers Thursday, earlier editions touted his rising star. “Americans can’t stop talking about Yao,” the Yangcheng Evening News said Wednesday in a sports-section headline sandwiched between World Cup stories.
Mainland Chinese-language Web sites also lauded his ascent.
“Houston, here I come!” said Shawei.com, a sports site. It also featured a cartoon showing Yao towering above an American player and asking: “Are you a point guard?”
Liu Jianchao, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, said Yao’s shift to Houston — following moves to the NBA by China’s Wang Zhizhi and Menk Bateer — could help smooth often rocky relations between China and the United States.
“We hope that he will succeed,” Liu said Thursday, praising all three Chinese NBA players. “In my view, their performances can only help enhance mutual understanding between the two countries.”
Yao’s skills easily qualified him to play in the United States. Approval from the government’s official China Basketball Association didn’t come as easily, though.
The CBA demanded a guarantee that its star player would be available to play for China’s national team when called upon. Details took a while to hammer out.
Word of a final agreement came through hours before the NBA draft in New York on Wednesday night — early Thursday in Beijing. Days earlier, Yao had separately closed the other part of the deal by reaching a compensation agreement with the Sharks.
“It was a somewhat tedious process at times, but the result was what we wanted,” said Yao’s Chinese agent, Erik Zhang. “We’re all very happy and very excited.”
Yao watched the draft results in Beijing with his parents and his American agent, John Huizinga, Zhang’s graduate studies adviser at the University of Chicago. He planned to appear with the national team at a news conference Thursday afternoon in Beijing.
“I’m looking forward to taking on all the NBA centers, though I know it won’t be an easy task,” Yao was quoted saying by China’s official Xinhua News Agency.
Yao will be only the third Chinese to play in the NBA after Wang, who played two seasons with the Dallas Mavericks, and Bateer, who plays for the Denver Nuggets. Chinese media have dubbed them the “walking Great Wall.”
Zhang said he was unsure when Yao would be traveling to the United States. He said Yao is training in Beijing with the national team, which will be going to the United States in August for a training camp to prepare for the world championships.