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Terrence Ross of the Toronto Raptors goes up during the dunk contest at NBA All-Star Saturday Night in Houston. Ross beat defending champion Jeremy Evans to win the title. [Eric Gay / Associated Press]
Chinese basketball great set to represent Houton on world stage
He may be gone - well, a lot of the time - but Yao Ming is by no means forgotten in Houston, the city where he forged an NBA All-Star career.
Last week the giant Chinese center became a goodwill ambassador for the Texas city where he has a home and restaurant business, although he mainly resides in Shanghai, where he played as a teenager and owns the Chinese Basketball Association's Shanghai Sharks.
It was the Houston Rockets that picked Yao first in the 2002 draft and he played professional basketball with that team and represented China at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics.
His basketball career ended when foot, ankle and knee injuries forced him to retire in 2011 and, since then, he has concentrated on a growing number of nonprofit and business enterprises.
Judges Rudy Tomjanovich, Dikembe Mutombo and Yao Ming talk during the Sprite Slam Dunk Contest of 2013 NBA All-Star Weekend at the Toyota Center on Saturday in Houston, Texas. [Ronald Martinez / Agence France-Presse]
"I hope to be remembered as a good person who did something in his hometowns of Shanghai and Houston to make things better," Yao told about 50 people gathered at the Asia Society Texas Center on Friday before the announcement of his ambassadorship was made by Houston Mayor Annise Parker.
Asia Society Texas guests were treated to samplings of Yao Family Wines, particularly a 2009 Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon bottled the year he began that business in California. Meanwhile, the society's head, Charles Foster, described Yao as "a force of nature".
"He is a symbol for many Americans of United States and Chinese relations," Foster said.
To Yao, he said, "You've made Houston a household word".
Former NBA star Yao Ming is less generous than other judges at an All-Star slam-dunk contest in Houston on Saturday. [Photo by Wang Huan / China News Service]
Foster described Yao's activism on behalf of education and the environment, including the Yao Ming Foundation's work in supporting the rebuilding of schools in China.
The foundation was created under the auspices of its partner, the China Youth Development Fund.
In addition to building 14 schools, mainly in Western China, the foundation has recruited more than 50 volunteer university professors to help train teachers and coaches.
"We teach kids to play basketball and have other after-school programs," said Yao. "It may surprise you, but a lot of Chinese don't know a lot about basketball."
He said that before coming to Houston, he imagined it as a city of astronauts and scientists that happened to have a basketball team.
"I thought there must be a lot of scientists to put a man on the moon," he said.
In his post-Rockets life, Yao is also known to speak out against the killing of sharks for their fins, Foster said.
Yao was born in 1980 to parents who both played professional basketball, but he said he was never pressured to play.
He began playing basketball at the age of nine because he was drawn to the sport.
Of all the things Yao is involved in now, he said it is his family that is most important to him.
"I have a daughter. Everything takes a back seat to my family," he said. "My wife runs the house."
He said he's glad to have Houston and Shanghai as home bases.
"When I am in Houston, I miss Shanghai. When I'm in Shanghai, I miss Houston," he said.
Asked about his injury-plagued final years with the Rockets, Yao was philosophical.
"My injury happened. I can't change it. I had to accept it," he said. "But when a door shuts, always a window opens."