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Born on the cusp of China's economic resurgence, Yao Ming was part of the first Chinese generation in 40 years that could entertain personal ambition. As a child he fantasized about being an explorer traveling into new worlds rather than his parents' old one. "I've always wanted to be an archaeologist, to go looking for adventure everywhere," Yao said, adding that "it would be hard for me, of course, to crawl in and out of those small caves." Nevertheless, when his parents told him he would have to start basketball training, Yao not yet nine didn't protest. Ever the obedient child, he agreed to stand outside his primary school, waiting for his coach to come and guide him by bicycle through the maze of Shanghai streets to the Xuhui Sports School, where the boy would initially train five afternoons a week and on Saturdays. Yao hated basketball, but he resigned himself to attending practice "purely for my parents, because I respect them so much."
Yao's size and clumsiness made him the object of ridicule at first. But the teasing wasn't nearly as painful as the training. Every day, the boys ran until they almost collapsed, jumped until their legs burned and shot baskets until they couldn't lift their arms. What often seemed even harder to take was the numbing boredom of repetitive training, a process the sportswriter Zhao Yu likened to "trying to create a tiger by copying the drawing of a cat." It would take nearly a decade before Yao took a genuine interest in basketball.
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. Da Fang not only rejected Xu's plea. She removed him from Xuhui 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 soon unraveled. 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 books about foreign lands and China's imperial history. But Yao had started the semester too far behind, and he couldn't keep up. 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."