When Yao came home from practice demoralized and wanting to quit, his father would take him behind their building to shoot at the hoop hanging above the bicycle garage. For every basket Yao made, his father promised to buy him a little gift. "My father bribed me into playing!" Yao recalled with mock incredulity.
His mother tried a different tack. One day when Yao was nine, Da Fang snared a pair of tickets to see the Harlem Globetrotters. Never before had they seen basketball played with such joy. These visitors made the sport seem not so much a duty as a source of pleasure, even exhilaration. "I think that experience had a strong influence on Yao Ming," Da Fang said. "They turned basketball into a great show, a form of entertainment."
Nonetheless, Da Fang feared for her son's future. A life in basketball seemed to offer little reward. If China were truly opening up to the world, then Yao needed to prepare to seize the opportunities that would come outside the old socialist sports system. Da Fang's true redemption would be to give her son an education and a chance to lead what she wistfully called "a normal life."
In the name of normality Da Fang did something quite extraordinary: She tried to pull her son out of the sports system. In 1992, when Yao finished sixth grade, Xu Weili put pressure on the family to send him full time to Xuhui, where academics took a backseat to athletic training. Da Fang not only rejected Xu's plea. She removed him from Xuhui altogether and enrolled him full time in a middle school known for its academic rigor. "Da Fang only wanted Yao Ming to study," Xu recalls. "She didn't care if he played basketball again."
The scheme unraveled in just a few months. Halfway through his first semester, Yao was floundering in the classroom. His teachers didn't fault his effort or intelligence. The 11-year-old loved reading books about foreign lands and China's imperial history. But Yao had started the semester too far behind, and he couldn't keep up with the academic grind. Within a few months Xu Weili was back, and Da Fang felt compelled to enroll Yao full time at Xuhui, his experiment with education in the real world a disappointing failure. "Leaving school to play basketball," says one of Yao's close friends in Shanghai, "was his biggest regret."
Two years later Yao, just 13 but already 6'7", moved out of his parents' apartment to live at the Shanghai Sports Technology Institute. The city sports authorities, marveling at both Yao's size and his continuing awkwardness on the court, felt that he would succeed only with more professional training. Over the next eight years Shanghai's top coaches and scientists would work around the clock to turn the galumphing giant into a basketball star--and his parents would barely see him.
Letting go wasn't easy for Da Fang. During those years she did her best to look after Yao's welfare, cooking big meals on his days off and, after home games, waiting outside the locker room to hand him food and clothing. At one point, frustrated by her inability to find basketball shoes big enough for her son in China, Da Fang made a desperate plea to a friend of the family who lived in the U.S. The girl's boyfriend found a pair of size-18 Nike Airs for $92 and shuttled them back to Shanghai.
Like so many of her compatriots, even former Red Guards, Da Fang would gradually turn to the capitalist West not just for shoes but for a vision of life beyond the confines of the Chinese system. Her main source of ideas, initially, was Nike, which was angling for an advantage in China's burgeoning consumer market. From the moment in late 1996 when a group of Nike executives first glimpsed Yao swaying like a giraffe into a Shanghai gym, they hoped that the then 7'2" teenager would become the kind of hero who would help them sell the swoosh to the Chinese masses. Nike reps quickly cozied up to his mother, offering, in addition to cool shoes and clothing, endless advice about how to turn Yao into a world-class basketball player. To reach his potential, they said, Yao would have to find a way out of the deadening world of Chinese basketball and expose himself to foreign competition.
At Nike's urging, Da Fang pushed Shanghai's sports leaders to let Yao attend a 1997 Nike junior basketball camp in Paris. After seeing the effects of that first foreign trip--"He started to have more faith in himself," she said later--she embraced Nike's plan to escort Yao on a two-month basketball tour of the U.S. in the summer of '98. It was the first time Chinese authorities had given a player so much freedom. By the time a newly confident Yao returned at the end of the summer, he and his mother had begun to believe he might one day be good enough to play in the NBA. And the crowd that showed up at the family's apartment in September for Yao's 18th birthday party offered strong supporting evidence: It included an NBA coach, an NBA scout and Nike's full retinue of marketing reps in China.
Two vastly different worlds-- China and the U.S.--were colliding over Yao, and nobody could predict the consequences, least of all Da Fang. China itself was in the throes of a frenzied transformation. Rigid nationalists still ran the sports system, but many in the chain of command were acting more like businessmen on the make. One evening in April 1999, Li Yaomin, the deputy general manager of Yao's Shanghai team, summoned Da Fang and her family to the sumptuous Grand Hyatt hotel for an urgent meeting with a U.S. lawyer named Michael Coyne. "Your son has been taken care of for life," Li reportedly assured them. Late into the night, the club manager and his American friend tried to persuade the family to sign a contract that would give a third of Yao's future earnings to Coyne's company, Evergreen Sports Management. As the clock ticked past 2 a.m., Li reportedly warned the family that this would be Yao's only chance to go to the NBA. Reluctantly, Da Fang gave in.