Carrying a lunch prepared by his wife, Ye Li, a 6-foot-3 former player in China’s professional league, Mr. Yao drives more than an hour to Jiao Tong University, where he sits through his required courses in the economics and management department, NY Times reported.
According to one Chinese news report, Mr. Yao would prefer to live in the dorms with his 20-year-old classmates, a move that would save time and energy, “but the beds are too small.”
“When I signed my first professional contract with the Shanghai Sharks at age 17, I promised my parents that, after my basketball career ended, I would pursue my studies at the university level,” Mr. Yao told reporters in Shanghai.
Now in his third year at Jiao Tong University, Mr. Yao is less than two years away from fulfilling that promise.
It hasn’t always been easy. The 33-year-old can hardly walk anywhere on campus without being swarmed by fans and reportedly complained once that one of his professors was a former high school classmate.
But true to his word, Mr. Yao has diligently continued studying, taking English, journalism and finance electives in addition to his required classes.
On his first day of studies in the fall of 2011, Mr. Yao told reporters: “I feel good today, but a little tired, since I haven’t been in class for over 10 years. I am rusty.”
Returning to the classroom is a common but seldom realized dream for Chinese athletes, many of whom are removed from regular schools in their preteens and placed in athletic institutes. The Chinese government maintains a separate Soviet-inspired network of sports schools that are almost entirely dedicated to increasing China’s Olympic medal count.
When Mr. Yao first entered the Chinese Basketball Association, the state-run equivalent of the N.B.A., he was reportedly forced to practice 10 hours a day.
When Mr. Yao retired at the age of 31 because of injuries, many sports analysts suggested that he had been overworked by the Chinese state athletics system.
During the N.B.A.’s off-season, players from the United States and other countries usually use the time to relax and give their bodies time to recuperate. During Mr. Yao’s off-seasons, he would rush back to China to take part in months of rigorous training for the national team.
When high-profile Chinese athletes retire, they often are drawn into the political sphere. In 2011, shortly after retiring and becoming the owner of the struggling Shanghai Sharks, the team where he got his professional start, Mr. Yao was elected to be one of seven new members on the Shanghai Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body to the local government. The other new members were all nearly twice his age.
In 2013, he was promoted to the National Committee of the C.P.P.C.C. alongside military officers, government officials, state-recognized religious leaders and other prominent figures.
It is unclear whether Yao’s political responsibilities pose an impediment to his studies, but last week he was photographed in Chicago accompanying Vice Prime Minister Liu Yandong, China’s highest-ranking female politician, to a Chicago Bulls game.
The two shared one of the arena’s spectator boxes with Scottie Pippen, the former Chicago Bull; Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel; and other notables.
Yao played 8 years in the NBA – all for the Houston Rockets. He holds career averages of 19 points per game, 9.2 rebounds per game, and 1.9 blocks per game.
He appeared in 486 NBA games (476 started), and was selected to the NBA All-Star team 8 times.Follow @exnbadotcom
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