There’s a cliche in basketball that you “can’t teach height.” What people mean by that is no matter how much practice and coaching and hard work a basketball player puts into his or her craft, if they’re not tall, there’s only so good they can get. The flip side of this, of course, is that if you are very, very tall, there’s a place for you in basketball as long as you are coordinated enough to run. As a consequence, NBA centers, the tallest of the tall, are often very interesting people. As a group they tend to be less single-mindedly obsessed with basketball. They may not have needed to be that obsessed to have successful NBA careers. If you follow sports, you get the sense that some of them might not even like basketball very much.
Retired NBA center Yao Ming is very, very tall. He’s seven and a half feet tall or, as they would best understand it in his native China, 2.29 meters. He’s absolutely not of the type that did not like basketball, on the contrary, I think he loved it, but he is a well-rounded person. I’ll always remember his comment in response to media concerns that he would be devastated if forced to retire because of foot injuries:
“I haven’t died,” he said. “Right now I’m drinking a beer and eating fried chicken. What were you expecting, a funeral?”
Recently Yao Ming’s name popped up in the news for his role in an effort to save Africa’s “dwindling elephant population.” Simon Denyer brings us this story in an article in the Washington Post and it is well worth a read. I was impressed to find out that Yao Ming’s effort to save elephants from poaching by reducing Chinese demand for illegal ivory has a precedent for success. He’s done the same for sharks by “pressing the Chinese people to give up shark fin soup.” In fact, after his campaign against shark fin soup, “prices and sales of shark fins in China [went] down by 50 to 70 percent.”
I wish Yao Ming success in his new drive against ivory sales and elephant poaching. Saving animals in Africa from extinction is a worthy cause for everyone who loves the earth but especially for retired NBA centers. Why? Because as Yao Ming jokes, he loves Africa because in Africa, many animals are even bigger than him!