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How Yao Ming scaled the Great Wall of Chinese bureaucracy to get to the NBA

Yao Ming overcame a lot more than what we think
Modified 18 Sep 2016, 01:35 IST

Without Dr. James Naismith, we wouldn't have basketball today. Equally true is the fact that without him making his invention at the YMCA, the game probably would not have spread as far and wide as it did. And if it wasn't for Christian missionaries introducing the sport of basketball in the city of Tianjin in 1895/1898, Yao Ming might not have been born at all.

Missionaries, who would travel far and wide to spread Christianity, would carry another tiny booklet with them along with the Bible: "The 13 rules of basketball". That led to the proliferation of the sport across the globe.

When we look at Yao Ming, we imagine a product developed by sparing no expense in some laboratory in China. A Goliath whose path to the NBA was ordained with a red carpet.  This was far from the case. For Yao, competing in the NBA was the easy part. He and his family had numerous obstacles to overcome before he could be allowed to play in the NBA. Here’s how he did it.

The chosen ones: Yao Ming’s parents

Da Feng and Da Yao

In the 1950s, the Chinese government picked out talented youngsters and initiated them in specialized training programs where they'd have access to ample food and nutrition and medicine. They'd also be put through a mechanized, grueling, year-long training schedule.

The idea was to attain supremacy in the 'big ball' games as well like they had in ping pong. On one hand, they sought excellence in the sport, on the other hand sometimes they instructed the basketball teams to lose games so that the opponent would lose face. 

“The intrusion of politics made us angry,” said Zhang Weiping, a high-scoring forward on the men’s national team. “The Chinese embassy talked to our coach and told him that we needed to give the locals some face. So we had to find creative ways to throw the game.”

Regardless, the program was extremely serious about getting tall citizens to be dedicated to the sport. Taking inspiration from Soviet Russia, China had adopted a policy of directing the young, talented sportspersons into the government program to develop sporting talent.


Yao Ming's parents were chosen by the Chinese government to marry and hopefully give birth to a tall child who'll grow up, up, and up even taller. His mother Feng Fengdi stood at 6"2 and his father Yao Zhiyuan was 6"10. They were both basketball players, although neither took it up by choice. 

"I was tall, so I had to learn how to play basketball. I had no choice," said Da Yao with a rueful smile. (Da Yao translates to Big Yao) He was sent to train at a specialized sports school in Shanghai's Xuhui District.

"I always thought I'd be an entertainer, but I didn't like Basketball at all," said Da Fang. She was sent to train at a sports club at No. 651, Nanjing Road.

Although the training locations differed for the yet to-meet-parents-to-be, the training principles revolved around three dictums: eat, sleep and train for six hours a day.

The players in the training programs in China were forbidden to marry before the age of 30 and 28 for the men and women. With both of Yao's parents probably being the tallest people in Shanghai, it was natural for the government to gravitate those two towards each other. 

One man who coached Yao Ming and played with his father back in the day, Wang Chongguang, said, "We had been looking forward to the arrival of Yao Ming for three generations."


Da Fang's former head coach on the Shanghai team would jokingly tell them both, "You both are so tall, you should get together, you'll understand each other. Just imagine how tall your children would be."

Yao's arrival was almost inevitable under the circumstances. At the time of his birth, Yao Ming was 23 inches tall and weighed 11.2 pounds. That's almost double the size of an average Chinese newborn. 

It's true that Yao's parents were chosen to produce the next big thing, but the end game wasn't making it to the NBA in the beginning. The goal was to attain glory for the Chinese national basketball team.

Growing pains

Yao Ming’s entire life has been devoted to basketball

If so much effort and planning had gone into getting two tall people to play basketball, then getting them to marry, why stop at one child? China might have had a one child policy, but anyone ought to exclude this exceptional couple. 

The answer lay in the Yao family not getting sanction/approval/directive to have another child. These directives come from the sports commission, and speculation has it that Yao's mother had offended the man in power at the sports training center, Zhu Yong. 


Former Shanghai forward Lu Bin recalls that the players who had been promoted to the position of Red Guards, and subsequently fell down from the position and were looked down upon by those on whom they had exercised their authority

Lu recalls, “The revenge was fierce. The leaders had long memories, and now that they were in power again, they wanted to ‘clear accounts’."

Yao didn't have the red carpet rolled out for him from birth. His father didn't have a lucrative salary, he worked a job at the Shanghai port, while his wife did clerical work at the sports science library. She barely earned half of what her colleagues made, which was roughly $17. 

Back in the 1980s, household commodities were sparsely available to them, as they were rationed by the government for everybody. Yao's parents often went hungry to feed their young boy whose appetite grew exponentially. When Yao's grandfather moved in with them owing to the death of his grandmother, the family's budget was constrained even further. 

Lu Bin also recalls that the family's friends would approach the Shanghai officials and request them to provide more food to Yao's family, to no avail. Lu Bin recalled, “A lot of us went to the sports commission and told them Da Fang needed help giving proper nourishment to Yao Ming. The officials all knew about Yao’s case, she said, “but they never did anything.”

This wasn't the case in the other cities with other families who had tall children. They were provided with extra rations. But because of some officials who allegedly held a grudge, they didn't get all that they needed.


Little acts of kindnesses helped them. For instance, their milkman offered them an extra ration card for several years so that they could supply Yao Ming with the calcium he'd need to grow.

Even so, some aftereffects lingered. His family thinks that the reason he's almost half deaf in his left ear is because of an allergic reaction to the penicillin he took as a child when he had a kidney disease.

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Published 18 Sep 2016, 00:49 IST
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