Kun Kun Yu writes for Bloomberg Businessweek China and is the author of “Not Polite, Not Vulgar.” Her work has appeared in GQ China and Sanlian Life Week. She blogs at http://www.bullock.cn/blogs/catnapkun/
Last December I stood with Yao Ming on the balcony of the Roosevelt Hotel in Shanghai. Located on the seat of the Bund, we had a sweeping view of the city. Across from us stood traditional houses packed together in narrow alleyways, and across from them stood a tall and imposing building, its walls a blue mottled stone. I discovered later that the building had been owned by Jardine Matheson in the 1880s, and back then was considered an architectural crown jewel. The building that stood in front of us, however, was a skeleton. Its expression was dark and somber. White paper covered its broken windows.
For a while, Yao Ming did nothing but watch. “When I was a kid, back when I could still walk around these streets undisturbed, I’d run around this area. The moment I’d run across one of these blue houses, I’d know that I was near the Bund.” Yao Ming talks about missing his childhood, about hanging around old neighborhoods, eating fried bread. He misses not being disturbed. “A lot of people come here because they want to see the two sides of the Oriental Pearl Tower, or the Union Church, but I come to look at these old houses. They’re the real Shanghai. The wind here feels as if it came from a hundred years ago.”
From Shanghai he departs and to Shanghai he returns. Already retired, Yao Ming’s journey hasn’t been about just the physical displacement. He crosses two kinds of sport institutions, two kinds of cultures, two kinds of faiths and imaginations.
After retiring in July 2011, Yao Ming did not immediately announce his plans for the future. The Yao Ming in front of us is the owner of the Shanghai Sharks, the city team he’d once played for. He’s the face of multi-million endorsement deals. He heads “Team Yao,” a six person group started in 2000 that helps him manage his investments. He has invested in a music downloading website called top100, and he leads the Yao Ming Foundation。In November 2011, Yao Ming appeared at an Economics and Management class at Jiaotong University. From a scale point of view, Yao Ming is a business man. But his agent Zhang Mingji chooses not to talk about Yao’s investments, his business model, or that commercialization is Yao’s biggest focus right now.
In November 2011, Yao bought a winery in Napa Valley, naming his company ‘Yao Family Wines.’ It’s the first winery in Napa Valley that’s owned by a Chinese person. His first contact with the press after retiring was in fact in the capacity of brand ambassador and winery owner.
“Things began to change after I turned 25. That was in 2005. I’d been in the NBA for 3 years and was on the rise. But looking from hindsight, the biggest change that occurred to me at that time was internal. During NBA season, the everyday pressure is great no matter if you’re playing games or just traveling. We were always in the middle of a battle. I traveled to so many cities, and left each of them with blank impressions. Apart from work, my life was empty. I started taking daily breaks, even if it was only 20 minutes, to sit, clear my mind, and to organize my feelings.”
“I started to feel that my career wasn’t realistic. The higher the level of competition, the more unrealistic. I’m not saying that competition isn’t realistic, but that the life it creates isn’t realistic. There aren’t many careers that can give you that great of a salary, that many benefits, that high of a social platform, but sports gave me all of that. The nature of sports is aggressive, and conceited, and this creates a lot of discrepancies with real life.”
After I turned 25, my state of mind began to change. Before 25, I felt that nothing was fast enough, but after 25 I started to wish that life would slow down. The Yao that pursued speed as a rule missed a lot on the way, including the joy of success, the pain of failure, folks who came and went. After 25, I wanted to savor life, to sip on it. That is my relationship with red wine.”
As expected, Yao doesn’t act like a real wine merchant. “Yao Ming Family Wines” is run by a professional team, the winery’s president and director Tom Hinde, and his consulting viticulturalist Larry Bradley. They are two red faced Americans, and they have worked in the industry for 20 years. They are baby boomers. “So you think that basketball’s a highly technical sport. Wine is even more stringently technical. You have to record everything, the weather, the rain, etc. That’s the only way you can know what a bottle will taste like.”
Red wine isn’t a bad metaphor—the athlete who once chased after speed and victory now returns to peace. But this isn’t Yao Ming’s whole story. The fast growing Shanghai boy goes on to become China’s most watched Basketball player. The athlete who begins his career in an austere government culture heads into glitz and glam of the NBA. The man goes from being an international celebrity to finishing his career in a mere 7 years. Yao Ming has always carried a burden to succeed, to succeed not for himself, but for his family, his team, his country. It’s difficult for any of us to imagine the type of pressure he’s had to face. What Yao Ming has experienced is too big, and the words “return to peace after retirement” cannot fully capture his life now.
I ask, “A lot of people say, Yao Ming, Virgo, perfectionist. What do you think of this?”
“There’s a bit of truth, but I’ve changed. Take wine as an example. A huge part of my feeling towards red wine is that there is no such thing as the perfect wine. Everyone’s taste is different. Some people like bitter wines, others dislike it. Does a $10 wines have to be better than a $1 dollar wine? How do you create the perfect wine? I’ve slowly started to understand that what “fits” is the most important thing.”
I ask a question that marks a turning point in our two hour conversation. “Do you always live for others?” People wait to be asked certain questions but questions like this stop them and push them into the fringes of memory. Yao Ming is a giant. His face is broad and his hands are larger than those of ordinary people. He’s used to bowing his head, stooping his back. The first thing he does when he enters a room is to look for a seat. His voice is thick and low, and this gives people the impression of humility and calmness. One listens to him speak and sees how witty he is and how much thought he puts into his responses. He’s quick to capture the gist of a conversation, and has a habit of saying “Let me tell you a story, this will answer your question.”
But this question “Are you always living for others?” stumps him. He pauses, and his agent starts talking. Bill Sanderson says that when Yao Ming first arrived in America, he spent a lot of time learning to say ‘No.’ “Because of the environment in which he grew up, Yao was taught to always sacrifice his own desires, his own ideas for others. But a mature human being knows how to say “no.” There were opportunities being passed in front of Yao everyday, people asking him to choose between two shiny apples. We helped Yao narrow his options down so that he could say ‘Yes’ more often.”
Sounds like another story about an agent playing bad cop. But what Yao needs to learn to say “no” to isn’t just his agent, or to endorsement deals or to investment opportunities. Yao starts telling me a story.
“When we came home from the 2004 Athens game, the prevailing feeling amongst the Chinese team wasn’t regret or shame. We’d made the final eight. Everyone was pretty happy. But now that I look back, I find that I’d acted in a manner that was completely wrong.”
“Back then everything about me had to be quick, had to have momentum, had to have results. Just like what the Americans say, “It’s my way or the highway.” In 2004, I was team captain and needed to have a degree of boldness. I also needed to understand how to communicate strategically.”
“Effective communication requires patience and strategy, and once you start to think about these two things, you naturally start to slow down.”
“When we lost Athens, I was furious. At the press conference I commented that “Mr. Lu Xun once said that those who don’t die in silence erupt in silence.” In 2006, we lost again at the World Championships. The scene after the game and on the way to the press conference was exactly the same as 2004: we’d lost, it was just after the game, everyone was on edge. This time, a journalist who’d known me for a while, asked “Is Mr. Lu Xun coming today?” I replied “Let Mr. Lu Xun rest in peace.” [Need explanation]
“What I want to say is that the person I was in 2004 and the person I was in 2006 are not the same. I can’t say that I’ve improved, but at least I’ve changed. Of course, I don’t mean any disrespect to Mr. Lu Xun.”
In this story, Yao Ming wasn’t saying that he’d learned to say “no” to a particular thing. He was learning to reject something much bigger…
“If there was no Wang Zhizhi, I would probably have never written this book. Wang Zhizhi and Yao Ming are two sides of the same moon. They are darkness and light.”
Newsweek journalist Brook Lamer spent 6 years writing “Operation Yaoming.” His book, published in 2005, is considered the best non-authorized Yao Ming biography on the market. Financial Times wrote that Larmer has written a riveting account “On how one man’s life had been transformed by opportunities that would have been unimaginable a couple of decades ago. This is a tale of social engineering bordering on quackery as much as sport. Larmer’s narrative of China’s sporting aspirations – and the sports industry’s ambitions in China – features Yao Ming as an occasionally hapless Hamlet in a drama scripted by other people.”
Brook Lamer sees Yao Ming as a “Hamlet,” but Yao is more of a Macbeth—a chosen son who becomes king, even temporarily, by conquering his own nightmares, his own curse. Lamer says “In the world of sports, no one can repeat Yao Ming’s story. There are few instances in sports history where an athlete has so urgently needed to represent a country. He’s neither a politician, nor a hero. He’s just an athlete. China needed a face, one bearing both strength and humility, and Yao Ming appeared at just the right moment. No one can repeat him. Wang Zhizhi was Yao Ming’s “pioneer.” He was a guinea pig. We’re shaky on Wang Zhizhi, but we have no doubt that Yao Ming has turned out a ‘guaranteed success.'”
At 13, Yao Ming was training full time at the Shanghai Sports technical institute in Meilong. He was already 6’5. The Shanghai sports commission decided to invest in him a more rigorous, scientific training to help him play at his highest level, and to reach his greatest height potential. ‘Operation Yao Ming’ describes in depth the “Genius creation office.” Yao Ming’s special training included frequent bone density testing. Yao was urged to drink milk like water. He was prescribed nutritional supplements. He underwent test after test to make sure that he could withstand the harsh training.
Did Yao Ming receive the right medical treatment? Larmer says that every country has its system of shaping an athlete’s physical potential, whether it’s medical or social. China is no exception except that China has Chinese medicine and that complicates things. As a kid, Yao Ming received “special training.” What does this have to do with his early retirement? Yao retires at 31. His NBA career only lasts 7 years. Shaquille O’Neil also retired in 2011 but he entered the NBA in 1992, ten years earlier than Yao. Sports Journalist Suqun says, “Yao Ming’s career in the NBA ended before it was half over. His career is incomplete.”
“I don’t play basketball because I love it,” said Yao Ming to me. “But one thing is certain: I’m very proud that my parents are Shanghai athletes. They contributed to this country’s team. I have a lot of pride in this. What I ended up playing for, was honor. I felt like basketball was something I inherited from my father. There was a sense of heritage.”
He says that none of his heroes come from the NBA. He worships Li Ning and Lang Ping and basketball players Hu Weidong, and Gong Xiaobin, even Wang Zhizhi.
At the time when Yao Ming was receiving special training in Meilong, Wang Zhizhi had already been accepted into the National Sports Training Commission. The compound was located in Jinsong, Beijing. It was surrounded by old yellow and grey houses. In the middle of the compound lay the Chinese basketball training ground. The Men’s and Women’s courts were separated by a strip of cloth. Adjacent to the court stood the natatorium where Xiong Ni practiced. Prior to 1988, sports journalist Yang Yi lived in the staff quarters in Jingsong. He saw Wang Zhizhi walk to training every morning. Wang was tall, skinny and baby faced. He could run as fast as the shorter kids, except that he could shoot a three pointer too. Yang Yi says, “Beijing kids worshipped Wang Zhizhi. They nicknamed him “Chase the Wind.” All the kids on the streets who were playing basketball were shouting amongst themselves, “Wang Zhizhi three-pointer!”
In 1999, the barely 22 year old Wang Zhizhi was drafted by Dallas, becoming the first Asian player in the NBA. In 2002, Wang Zhizhi refused to come home to represent China in the World Basketball Championships and the Asian Games, choosing instead to attend Summer League. Seen as a betrayal to his country, Wang Zhizhi was fired from the Chinese basketball team. It wasn’t until 2006, after five years of waiting, that Wang Zhizhi finally came home, and returned to the Chinese basketball team.
Wang Zhizhi’s existence has had a radiating influence on Yao Ming. In 1999, Yao Ming’s family signed a contract with America’s Evergreen Sports Management Company. Evergreen was going to represent Yao as he went into the 1999 NBA draft. A week later, the contract was overthrown. Yao Ming never made it to the 1999 NBA draft. A year passed. Shanghai’s Sports Bureau announced that Yao would not attend the NBA’s 2001 draft either. Shanghai Oriental Club said that they were keeping Yao because the CBA was in the middle of development. They’d already lost Wang Zhizhi, and they couldn’t lose Yao. Yao was still too young to play in the NBA. Most importantly, the Shanghai Sharks had never won a national championship, and there were high hopes that Yao Ming could deliver.
Yang Yi says that this was only an excuse used by sports officials. “At the CBA tournament that year, you could see blonde hair blue eyed scouts and GMs everywhere. They’d already opened talks with Shanghai. But to take an athlete away from China wasn’t easy, especially one who’d been carefully groomed by the government. Shanghai came up with all sorts of stipulations: financial compensation, player exchange, they even talked about building a stadium in Shanghai. But the Americans found that no one could take Yao Ming away before the CBA finals.”
In 2002, Yao Ming was drafted by the Houston Rockets. The Wang Zhizhi controversy created a shadow over Yao Ming’s NBA negotiations. Yao Ming promised to fulfill his CBA obligations during the NBA off season, and according to rumor, promised to give 5-8% of his NBA salary to the Chinese Basketball Association. He also bought out his own contract which took around $8-15 million dollars. His contact with the Rockets was worth $17.8 million, with a $76 million signing bonus after five years.
“Compared to Yao Ming, Wang Zhizhis splash in the NBA was tiny,” says Yang Yi. The context of their teams in China also foreshadowed the difference of their fates.” Shanghai is an outward looking city, a city that welcomes the foreign and the exotic. It is a city whose central concern is making money. Shanghai considers its commercial interests first. As long as negotiations went smoothly, the Shanghainese had no problem letting Yao Ming go. But Wang Zhizhi’s team, the Bayi Rockets, belongs to that stalwart governmental school. Bayi is a team that talks politics and national honor. Going into the NBA is a huge national honor. So the thing with Bayi was that it was easy as long as the officials said it was easy, hard if they said it was hard. The only thing was that there wasn’t a single word about money. What money? An army of three million isn’t short on money.
The difference between Wang Zhizhi and Yao’s personality also materialized the paths they took in the NBA. Wang Zhizhi is an introvert, he never came out on court as a draft champion, and he was never much in the public eye. He was “the tall guy from China.” Yao Ming, on the other hand, was “Yao.” His first NBA game wasn’t successful. Yao Ming didn’t score a single basket in the game against Indiana, but off the court he never seemed awkward. Then there was that famous incident with Shaq. Shaq ridiculed Yao (link) on television by mimicking Chinese, but Yao was quick to quell the fire. “It’s difficult for two kinds of cultures to understand each other. Chinese is very hard. When I was a kid, I had trouble learning it too.” Yao even sent Shaq a Christmas card that year. Even if American media interpreted the event as evidence of Yao’s naiveté and inexperience with racism, there were still many who felt that he was a breath of fresh air. His popularity in the U.S owes to his off-court charisma. He’s always treated fans with grace and humor. People see Yao as an unthreatening person, a gentle giant.
Yao Ming was once called ‘The Other Michael Jordan.’ In his heyday, Jordan’s Nike ads were tagged “Be like Mike,” but Yao Ming’s Nike ads don’t say “Be Like Yao.” Brook Lamer says “Yao Ming is old school. He’s just like an old brother. After him appeared Li Na. She’s even more laid back, fresh, a bit of a rebel. But Yao Ming is a conservative rebel. He does his best in the system, and then tries to change that system. People love Yao Ming, but no one wants to be him.”
On the wall of Shanghai’s Luwan Qu Athletic School hangs a quote: “Our dream is to become a Shanghai Shark.” The quote is outdated. Those ‘little giants’ now talk more about becoming Yao Ming and about getting into the NBA.
In 2009, Yao Ming bought the Sharks, the team he’d once played on. According to rumor, Team Yao had strongly opposed it. In 2010, Shanghai basketball’s press officer Zhang Ye said that the Sharks lost 3.2 million dollars between 2009 and 2010. Out of all of Yao’s investments, the Sharks are by far Yao’s most talked about and the one closest to his heart.
There are a total of 17 teams in the CBA. The annual investment in each team amounts to around $25-$30 million RMB per team, with an average loss of approximately 10 million-15 million RMB per team. “Even if individual teams are privatizing, they are still managed by the Chinese Basketball Association, which is owned by the Government’s general sport’s administration. For me, CBA is a national team and its goal is to strive for national glory.”
“The NBA is an entertainment business whose first priority is to make money. That’s a huge difference” says sports journalist Yang Yi. To him, CBA teams work for national government first and second as a city’s brand and cardholder.
The team as a business and as a city’s brand has helped create entertainment for the city. This has allowed the government to form relationships with local businesses and to work with them to create better tax policies. The Sharks may have lost 15 million RMB, but they may have very well earned 1 billion RMB through other avenues. For Yao Ming, the biggest problem is that he doesn’t have industry experience, though this hasn’t shifted his ambition.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s CBA or the NBA. They can’t remove themselves from their environment. There are two ideas here. No matter what team they’re on, NBA players are still in the NBA. They might belong to independent sports teams but they can’t remove themselves from the league, not if they want to be successful. NBA’s success is built on every single team’s performance, and their influence on each other. This is the relationship between the team and the league. You can’t have a strong league if the teams are weak. I mean the CBA isn’t the railway industry or the mining industry.”
He hopes that the Shanghai Sharks can be the face of the city. He hopes that it can promote sports as a kind of character education as opposed to solely chasing after championships and wins.
“My greatest issue with basketball is that it earns its place in society only through competition and championship. In China right now, everything is focused on the outcome of a game. But for athletes, their goal isn’t just the scoreboard at the end of the night. Athletes try to develop holistically. The most important training is character training. You can say that the Sharks bring you a team of athlete educators. The education isn’t just a technical one, but an education on social attitudes, how one acquires universal truths through sports.”
Before Yao entered the NBA, China’s sports market was still consolidating. China’s most popular sports merchandising brand, Li Ning, made no more than 130 million dollars a year. The world’s biggest sports merchandising company, Nike, didn’t make much of a dent in the China market either.
But after Yao Ming entered the NBA, Nike, Adidas, Puma “Internationalized” themselves, and flaunted their own Chinese brands. Nike’s revenue rose 20 times, and Li Ning’s rose 10. The fact that Team Yao Ming didn’t create its own sports licensing company at the peak of Yao’s career is considered one of the biggest industry mistakes. However, under the behest of Yao Ming, Team Yao’s investments aren’t only aimed at making money. In addition to Yao’s idealistic investment in the Shanghai Sharks, he’s also invested 3 million dollars in top100.cn, a music broadcasting website that supports legal downloading.
He is studying Economics and Management at Jiaotong University. He reads popular business books like Li Kaifu’s biography and Feng Lun’s “Barbaric Growth.” His path has started to intersect more with business men.
I ask him how he’s handling his new identity.
“I like competition. This probably has to do with an athlete’s personality. But at the same time…how to do I say this? I always want to learn more. I’ve entered a new arena. I must understand that making mistakes are an essential part of the process. I have the courage to make these mistakes, but of course, I make caution a rule. I want to be cautious with every step, and not surprised with every step.”
“A few days ago I ran into Chen Nanpeng. He’s also Shanghainese. He said to me, “Us Shanghainese, the best thing going for us is that we take things slow and steady. But the biggest downside is that we never take risks.” I replied, “That’s strange. Aren’t you a venture capitalist?” He answered, “Perhaps if I took risks, I could be making more…” The Shanghainese prepare for everything. We don’t like risk, we like things steady. But that doesn’t mean we’d pass up a good opportunity.
What kind of businessman will Yao Ming be? When he was younger, being tall never turned him into an aggressive person. The nation’s sports system gave him a sense of mission that’s never left him. In a country where Confucian values are still the guiding force behind its sports education, from national teams to the hundreds of thousands of kids at the base of the pyramid, Yao Ming has exemplified those Confucian values. Meanwhile his 9 years in the NBA has taught him the spirit of fair competition.
Yao’s life now follows two threads, a nation wide sports organization and the free market. Collectivism and individualism, Confucian values and capitalism. Yao Ming draws the advantages on both ends. His public image is perfect. He’s almost too good. And it’s because he’s too good that he may not be able to achieve that Chinese definition of “success” in the business world.
Yao Ming stands. He is about to toast his guests at his “Yao Ming Winery” dinner. They are the generation’s richest, most beautiful, most powerful people. They stare at him, and scramble to take out their cell phone cameras. Even a picture of his back is good enough. One can feel, that this is kind of disturbance for Yao. When he played ball, people would disturb his game; off the court, people would disturb his life. To be sure, he isn’t bad in front of the camera. He knows how to give a performance. But the feeling he gives is this: that if the camera and the microphone were off, and the audience were gone, he would compete and live his life more attentively.
Yao Ming’s 7 investments
1. YAO Restaurant and Bar; Texas
YAO Restaurant and Bar opened in 2005 on 9755 Westheimer street in Houston. It is said that Yao holds no shares, and that the main shareholders are his parents, teammates and various American businessmen. The restaurant’s financial statement has not been publicized.
top100.cn is a legal downloading site that was launched in March 2006. Yao Ming and Zhang Ming invested $3 million into the site. According to Forbes, Team Yao Ming invested another $1 million in June 2006. In 2010, top100’s revenues from ads reached around $1.6 million.
3. Sun Flower Hotel; Beijing
Yao Ming’s father’s name, Yao Zhiyuan, appears as the shareholder at Sun Flower Hotel. He invested 2 Million RMB, which accounts for 100% of the registered capital. Sun Flower has not made its financial statement public.
4. Yao Ming Gym; Beijing
In the summer of 2007, Yao Ming paired up with the biggest gym in America, “California Gyms,” to create “California, Yao Ming Gym” in Beijing. His total investment was 32 million RMB. A 2010 report revealed that Yao had only been the gym’s spokesperson and their partnership ended in 2008.
5. UniCom; Beijing
In April, 2010, Yao Ming became the spokesperson for UniStrong’s Navigation GPS, using his ad campaign as his initial investment. He is the fifth largest share holder. On April 2nd, 2010, UniStrong’s A-shares were released to the public. It is said that Yao holds 35 million RMB in shares.
6. Shanghai Sharks; Shanghai
In 2009, Yao Ming took over the Sharks’ debts, a total of 96 million RMB. He has invested 30 million RMB each year since 2009. In the 2009- 2010 CBA season, Yao Ming lost 20 million RMB. This past season has been filled with losses, so the expected financial losses won’t be lower than the previous season.
7. Yao Family Wines; California
Yao Family Wines went public in November 2011. His first launch was his 2009 vintage Cabernet Sauvignon, sold through Pernod Ricard, SA. The first 5000 cases of wine were labeled “Yao Ming,” and were priced at 1775RMB. Yao Ming and his team hasn’t publicized how much they have invested, but experts estimate that a winery needs $200 to $500 million to achieve full production.