Deputy Prime Minister Bill English met towering 7’5” former Chinese basketball star, Yao Ming in Beijing recently.
Yao told Mr English he had a cousin who’d studied in New Zealand and despite efforts to convince him to play lock for the All Blacks, Yao – the guy who regularly takes on Shaquille, LeBron and co - reckons that rugby is far too aggressive.
Yao’s pretty hard to miss in a crowd – he stands at 2.26m (or 7’5” – Brad Thorn is 1.96m, or 6’5” inches) and wears size 18 shoes. A single shoe is displayed in the Jinmao Tower in hometown Shanghai.
He was selected by the Houston Rockets in 2002 as “that skinny Chinese kid” and transformed himself into one of the game’s genuine superstars.
With a huge following in China, his retirement last month was described in the Chinese media as like being the “end of the Ming Dynasty”. Yao was given the honour of being the Chinese Olympic team’s flag bearer at the 2008 Beijing Games.
New Zealand’s Beijing Embassy staff were impressed with Yao’s graciousness, humility and offbeat humour. He’s a genuinely likeable guy who, despite being constantly pestered, willingly gives of himself. In this respect, he’s a lot like All Black legend Michael Jones.
His fluent, colloquial English and ability to move effortlessly between China and the West meant he did far more for China’s image than any cultural ambassador. Yao has also had an impact well beyond his chosen sport. He remains active in charity work and fronts a conservation campaign in Asia against eating shark fin.
His departure from basketball will leave a huge hole but, as he himself has said, “in my life, this is not a full stop, only a comma”.
The New Zealand Beijing Embassy wish Yao all the best.