(5 of 9)
The joy that normally attends the birth of a son in China was muted, in Yao's case, by his family's sense of uncertainty. The end of the Cultural Revolution, which followed Mao's death in 1976, had ushered China into a new era of hope and economic opportunity under Deng Xiaoping, the former Communist Party secretary who had returned to power after three stints in political exile. But Deng was not the only one who had risen from the ashes. Zhu Yong had also been rehabilitated, and Da Fang would suffer as a consequence.
When she retired from playing in 1978, Da Fang became assistant coach for the Shanghai junior women's team, a job that many assumed would soon lead to more prestigious assignments. But according to several former teammates and coaches, her fate changed when Zhu assumed a top position in the Shanghai sports commission, at which he would eventually become deputy director. After barely six months as a coach, Da Fang was shunted off to what one former teammate described as "the worst job in the sports system": doing menial work at a compound for retired athletes.
For a time the former national hero stocked bathrooms with soap. Later she would be transferred to a clerical job at the Shanghai Sports Science Research Institute. She would never work as a coach again, and she lacked the basic education to find other employment. Her husband, too, failed to land a job as a coach and would work his entire career in the Shanghai port. Together the couple made less than 80 yuan per month about $50 at the time barely more than half the average salary of an urban Chinese household and hardly enough to raise a rapidly growing child.
The vendors at the outdoor food market on Shanghai's Wukang Road got to know Da Fang well. Nearly every evening at dusk she would appear before them in worn clothes, quietly bargaining for day-old cuts of pork or surplus rations of rice. She and Da Yao spent nearly all their income on food, and yet they often sat at the table watching their son eat while they themselves went hungry. By the time Yao Ming turned four, he measured well over one meter and weighed a whopping 27 kg.
Four years later Yao was already 1.70 m, and his potential as a basketball player was literally too big for anyone to ignore. By then Zhu Yong had retired from the sports commission, and one of Da Fang's old friends from No. 651 Nanjing Road, Xu Weili, wanted Yao Ming for the Xuhui District Sports School, where she was the top party official. It would not be easy to pry the boy away from his parents, who were keen to give him the education they had been deprived of. But Xu gently reminded Da Fang and Da Yao that their son's talents belonged to the nation and that the Xuhui school could provide him not just with training but with nutritious food. Yao's parents eventually acquiesced, grudgingly accepting that their only child might have to follow in their footsteps. "We didn't choose this career for him," Da Fang says, "but we were basketball players. All of our old colleagues and coaches had their eyes on Yao Ming since he was young."