HOUSTON - Yao Ming was in Houston for the NBA All-Star Weekend, where he was honored by Houston Rockets owner Les Alexander during the game on Sunday evening.
Now a college student in China, the former Rockets center is on winter break for the Lunar New Year. He’s returned to the house he still has here, and to see the game he still loves.
From 2002 to 2011, when Yao scored a bucket in the Toyota Center, the announcer would shout a signature “Yaooooo Minnnngggg!” These days, Yao has traded in his No. 11 Jersey for a new uniform.
On this day, it was suit and tie, when he was the guest speaker at an Asia Society Texas Center event. He signed basketballs for charity auctions. Unworried that English speakers couldn’t read the Chinese characters he quipped, “I never sign it English…Most people’s signature cannot read.”
He talked about life today. He’s in college in China, studying economics in part, “to slow down myself after 20 years playing basketball.”
Following a campaign in China to stop shark fin soup, he is also an advocate for WildAid. The day before, he toured the Houston Zoo with school kids, talking about wildlife and endangered species.
Yao joked that pets and wildlife weren’t so different. Gesturing with his arms, he added except, “You can’t just hold them like this like elephant.”
Smiling, the 7 foot 6 inch former All-Star recalled feeding the giraffes, “Oh yes, very weird. I need to look up at something.”
Yao also ducked into a charity event for children held by current Rockets point guard Jeremy Lin. Yao said of the pressure on Lin, “I feel I’m lucky I’m not him. He really handles that well. I’m proud of him.”
Seeing his old team and watching all the NBA events this weekend was a bit emotional for him.
“Yeah a little. Seems like back to family again…To watch -- those current players on the court to play back something in our memory.”
Like his father, Yao became a basketball player and like his father, Yao learned to enjoy wine. He is also a vintner these days. The name “Yao Family Wines” is on wine bottled in California.
It’s pricey, starting at $150 a bottle. His best project is his family. He joked that he and his toddler daughter are both going to school these days. She is approaching 3 and happily oblivious to dad’s superstar status.
Yao said, “At that age people don’t care. I wish it continue this way.”