Yao Ming wears a variety of different hats since hanging up his size 18 shoes and retiring from the NBA in 2011.
There’s the stressed out and probably overzealous Yao, owner of the Shanghai Sharks of the Chinese Basketball League.
“I don’t want to talk about it because we just lost this morning,” Yao grumbles shaking his head in his hands.
There’s the 33-year old college sophomore Yao who feels out of place in a classroom full of students 12-15 years younger than he is. And there’s the chilled out and introspective Yao, owner of a Napa Valley wine company, Yao Family Wines.
The most successful Chinese player in NBA history certainly hasn’t used his retirement as a time to slow down — though he does like the wine business.
“This is a lifestyle,” he said in between sips of his $170 Yao Ming cabernet sauvignon. “It’s about friends chatting with each other, shared experiences and you need a (medium) to put everybody together. And red wine is something you can enjoy with your friends.”
“Then sometimes on a peaceful afternoon you can sit right next to your window and read a book, listen to some soft music and drink a glass of wine.”
Yao worked closely with winemaker Tom Hinde on the brand being sold in China and the United States. Yao was intimately involved because he didn’t want his name on something that wasn’t up to his standards. He knows that some will buy the wine simply because it bears his name, but he wanted it to have value for reasons apart from his fame.
Yao developed a taste for red wine enjoying big Texas steaks with his teammates while playing for the Houston Rockets, and he started learning more about it from teammate Dikembe Mutombo. He released the Yao Ming cabernet and the $625 Yao Ming Family reserve, also a cabernet sauvignon, in 2011. This year, he’s launched a more reasonably priced wine with his $48 Napa Crest, a Bordeaux-style red blend.
Wine consumers in China haven’t yet warmed up to white wine, so Yao only makes red for now.
On a recent Friday afternoon at a posh restaurant in downtown Houston, Yao nibbled on a Caesar salad and admitted he was playing hooky from classes at the prestigious Shanghai Jiao Tong University for a trip to the United States to promote his wine. He received permission from his professors to miss a week, but he’s still responsible for homework that will be due as soon as he returns.
Yao is about two years away from graduating with a degree in economics and management. Becoming an undergrad as a 30-something multimillionaire may seem odd to some, but it’s part of a promise he made years ago. When he signed his first basketball contract with the Sharks at age 17, he guaranteed his parents he’d return to school when his basketball career was done.
The university is about an hour drive from his home, so he looked into staying on campus during the week to avoid the commute. But the on-campus housing didn’t have any beds large enough to accommodate his 7-foot-6 frame. So he leaves at 6 a.m. each morning with a sack lunch made by his wife and tries to blend in with the masses.
He causes a stir at the start of each term before his classmates settle down and treat him like any other student. Already feeling uncomfortable because of his age, Yao said he had an awkward moment recently when one of his professors turned out to be a high school classmate.
On top of school and his business dealings, the eight-time NBA All-Star is a doting father to his 3 ½ year old daughter Yao Qinlei, who goes by her American name of Amy.
She was born in Houston but lives in Shanghai, where she attends a bilingual kindergarten program. Yao said he and his wife Ye Li, also a former basketball star, only speak Shanghainese and Mandarin to her. So he found it interesting when he overheard her speaking only English to her dolls during playtime recently.
As the child of Chinese basketball royalty, the obvious question about Amy is if she’ll follow in the footsteps of her famous parents.
“It’s too young to know what she likes,” Yao said. “But I believe that she needs to play some sports as a character education. I believe that team sports teach you communication, leadership, teamwork and physical health, obviously, and also how you face frustration from when you lose.”
Yao is still learning to deal with that kind of frustration as owner of the Sharks. He bought the team in 2009 and said it’s difficult to let his employees handle things and not step in and try to fix all the problems. Though he loves basketball, he was blunt when asked if he enjoyed ownership.
“Not so much,” he said. “It’s painful. But if one day we could go all the way that will make everything worth it.”
Yao has also considered coaching, but feels like he’s too young to do it now.
“Maybe when I’m 50 or something,” he said with a laugh.
If he ever decides to lead a team, he’d like to do it here instead of in China because he feels like his time in the NBA make him more suited for coaching in the U.S.
Yao maintains a close relationship with the Rockets, who selected him with the first pick in the 2002 draft. He tries to attend a few games a year and sat courtside with team President Tad Brown at a recent game. He’s developed a friendship with Houston point guard Jeremy Lin, the NBA’s first American-born player of Taiwanese descent.
Lin said that Yao’s parents, who now live in Houston, have reached out to his parents and that their mothers chat from time to time.
“He’s a legend,” Lin said. “Personally he’s helped me so much. We understand what it’s like to have the pressure that we have and be in the situation that we’re in.”