The following article was written by Elva Li, the deputy managing editor of JingKids (beijingkids’ Chinese-language sister magazine). She and former beijingkids staff writer Oscar Holland recently had a chance to sit down with Chinese sports hero Yao Ming at the opening of his eponymous basketball school in Wukesong – the NBA Yao School.
When writing these interview questions, I fixated on a picture of Yao Ming and wondered about the defining moment of his life. Was it when he joined the Chinese national basketball team at age 18, was voted FIBA Asia Championship MVP at age 21, served as the flag bearer at the Olympic opening ceremony at age 24, or bought the Shanghai Sharks – his first club team – at age 29?
It wasn’t until I met Yao Ming at the MasterCard Center in Wukesong that I got a hint of an answer. As he stooped down to give his full attention to his younger fans, completely unfazed by the flashes of cameras going off all around him, I realized that becoming a father was perhaps the most significant moment of Yao’s life.
Our interview took place at the opening of his long-awaited NBA Yao School, which offers basketball programs for kids and teens from both the local and expat communities. The core values of the school are teamwork, respect, persistence, a positive attitude, punctuality, and efficiency, he said in a speech to the various media outlets and families in attendance. “We hope that the kids can develop social skills and a strong sense of teamwork, and feel the joy that sports can bring,” he said.
We got a chance to catch up with Yao after the speech and ask him about his aspirations for the school, as well as what it means to be father to 3-year-old Yao Qinlei.
What is the goal of the NBA Yao School?
It’s not about training professionals, but getting kids to enjoy playing basketball and achieve all-round development. We wanted to give this chance to a broader group of students; although China has a population of over 1.3 billion, we only have 1,000 to 2,000 registered basketball players.
In addition, students’ fitness levels have been declining in schools over the past few years, which allows the NBA Yao School to play a complementary role in boosting kids’ physical well-being. I have always held the belief that physical education is an important part of a well-rounded education; it completes education just as art does. Physical education not only promotes fitness, but also cultivates strong will.
What is the school’s educational philosophy?
If an excellent basketball player emerged from my school in the future, I would definitely be proud of them. However, the NBA Yao School is more like a “life school.” We want to cultivate kids with communication skills, a desire to make friends, team spirit, a winning attitude, and leadership qualities. NBA Yao School aims to lay the foundation for the skills that best prepare kids for university and higher education.
What will be your role?
Personally, I will take part in selecting basketball coaches, designing the best courses, promoting and operating the school, and evaluating the kids after they go through the program. But the day-to-day work will be overseen by professionals.
In your speech, you emphasized that kids should make more friends. Why?
Most kids nowadays opt to stay within the small circle of their classmates. I had an additional circle when I was young: the friends I played basketball with. As we grow up, we’re thrust into a world of opportunities. We never know who we’ll run into, but when we meet someone for the first time, we should take an open attitude and talk to them on a human level.
Now, kids tend to adopt this attitude [pretends to play on his phone]. Their communication skills gradually deteriorate. It’s only when people are face-to-face – when they can perceive each other’s body language, expressions, even the slightest muscle movement on another’s face – that they can build a more solid friendship. An iPad or an iPhone can never replace sports in this sense, so we believe that the NBA Yao School will be a great platform for developing communication skills.
Three hundred million people play basketball in this country, yet at the Olympics China didn’t win a game. What needs to change in the way that kids are taught basketball to start translating numbers into success?
We have to change the [reason]why they play basketball. Right now, a lot of people – especially the professionals – play the game not because they like it, but because they have to. Their motivation has to shift into real interest…I can’t say [this is the whole reason], but there needs to be more balance.
What has changed the most since you’ve become a father?
Patience. [When my daughter was born], that was the first time I had to be with a child for such an extended period. We were all kids once, but we gradually grew up and matured, learning to do everything at a fast pace and becoming less patient in the process. But when we talk to a child, we have to regain this patience by reviewing what we ourselves learned as kids and pass it on to them. We come to recall the times we were taught by our own parents and pass on this torch of love.
Tell us a bit about your home life. Do you get to spend much time with your daughter?
My wife has more time with our daughter. [Qinlei] is interested in every toy right now; she is really active and won’t stop moving around – but I don’t mean to say she’s good at sports. [Laughs] She’s just over 3 now, and often speaks Mandarin or Shanghai dialect at home and English at her kindergarten. She’s sometimes lost in her own world, talking to little dolls in English – it’s so funny.
Having lived in the US, can you share with us your opinion on your daughter’s education?
First, I hope to preserve her curiosity; that’s what keeps us engaged when exploring and studying. Secondly, I believe in employing the right learning methods and techniques. I think these two factors will allow her to progress on this exciting but arduous journey.
I also believe that sports promote development. I recently spoke with a professor who studies sports theory at a sports university. He told me about an interesting theory: in the course of human evolution, physical activity contributed to the development of our thinking abilities.
Our primitive ancestors had to run in order to hunt, thus developing a system of logic and contributing to the evolution of human intelligence. When they learned to use tools such as wooden sticks or flint, this opened up another way of thinking, and they evolved, step-by-step, into what we are today. Whether in hunting or farming, these basic forms of sport – and more advanced forms like basketball – make us better and smarter. This actually isn’t a new theory, but it sounds novel because we place so much emphasis on studying.
The old saying goes: “All brawn and no brains.”
Don’t forget, it was lazy people who created escalators and washing machines.
I understand that you attended a basketball summer camp in the US at the age of 17?
I was in France at 17, the US at 18. My English wasn’t very good back then; communication was hard despite there being an interpreter present. I had an innate desire to communicate, whether it was in France, the UK, the US, or Africa.
Did you feel culture shock?
It wasn’t that much of a shock because I was too young to understand at the time. Living in Shanghai also gave me the advantage of having exposure to many foreigners, so I wasn’t that shocked to see more. It was also 2000 when I was 18; society was more open by then.
Do you plan to send your daughter to a local public school or an international school?
I believe it would be a combination. I’d like her to get a solid foundation in Chinese culture and language, then experience a more diverse upbringing.
If your daughter decides to become a basketball player in the future, will you be supportive?
She’s too young right now. But I think she needs to do sports; they’re part of well-balanced education. Team sports teach kids how to communicate, be a leader, stay fit, and also face failure. If she eventually makes the decision [to become a basketball player], I will be behind her the whole way.
In China, Yao Ming is said to have “three highs”: high stature, high IQ, and high EQ (emotional intelligence). After talking to him in person, I found that this wasn’t just a media fabrication. He occasionally flashed one of his signature smiles and revealed an easygoing but thoughtful personality. It was clear that he believed IQ plays a decisive role in how a person does something, while EQ plays a decisive role in whether that person will succeed.
During the interview, Yao told us that the first lesson that he learned after becoming a dad was patience. He also spoke about his mixed feelings about the prospect of his daughter inheriting his career and his concerns for kids in the digital age, emphasized the relationship between sports and education, and told us about his philosophy of being the gateway to emotional intelligence.
He gave eloquent answers to our questions while remaining tactful and measured in his responses. At the same time, he had no trouble exchanging banter with the other reporters. If Yao was a teacher, he would make a good one; he has discerned the important of emotional intelligence in a child’s development, which has often been neglected in modern education. Yao is also the ultimate cool dad. Of all his crowning achievements, his daughter ranks the highest.
To find out more about the NBA Yao School’s basketball programs, visit www.nbayaoschool.com.
Photos: MISHKA FAMILY PHOTOGRAPHY, and courtesy of NBA CHINA
This article originally appeared on p44-47 of the beijingkids April 2014 issue. Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com