Former basketball star Yao Ming sits at a classroom in Shanghai Jiao Tong University Monday, three months after announcing his retirement. Photo: IC
The gossip mills of Shanghai Jiao Tong University have been turning since basketball superstar Yao Ming, 31, began his studies at the university's economics school Monday, two months after the start of the academic year.
Taking credits in English, mathematics and history, the former basketball star gave a press conference in the university to mark the first day of his college life.
"I feel good today, but a little bit tired, since I have not been in class for over 10 years. I am rusty. Nevertheless, I will try hard to grasp this learning opportunity," Yao said at the 25-minute briefing, which attracted around 100 reporters.
According to Yao, who retired on July 20, he has enrolled in the Antai College of Economics & Management, although he will also study finance and journalism. The school has prepared a tailor-made chair for the supersize student.
"I chose Jiao Tong University instead of private tutors, because I want to feel the atmosphere on campus," Yao told reporters Monday.
However, the giant will spend more time in private one-to-one classes in order to reduce disturbing the lives of other students.
"Yao had thought about joining classes with other classmates. But he worried it might affect normal education within the school," Yao's agent Zhang Mingji told the Xinhua News Agency in September.
Zhang Chi, a spokesman of the Shanghai Sharks basketball team, which Yao owns, said at Monday's press conference that the media should leave Yao alone to study.
"Studying is to enrich myself, not for others to see. I hope everybody will give me space. I don't want too much extra needless pressure," Yao said in a televised interview last week.
Yao's enrollment has also boiled excitement among the student body.
"It's an honor to be in school with Yao, but I doubt we will see him often," Zhu Lei, 20, an accounting sophomore, told the Global Times Monday. "He will be having one-to-one lectures. What a shame. It would be nice if we got to be in the same class."
Li Detian, a maths student and basketball player, said it would not be unfair for Yao to receive special treatment.
"He is the pride of China. His good work in the NBA has earned him the special treatment," Li said. "I hope Yao can play for our university team, or at least come to teach us some techniques."
Media reports said that during a lecture Monday, Yao's presence caused chaos as many students tried to get his autograph or to take a picture with him.
Yao, who entered the China Basketball Association in 1997 before making it into the NBA in 2002, has been widely recognized for his influence and legacy in promoting friendly ties across the Pacific Ocean through basketball.
Apart from managing his club, Yao has also been frequently seen in different philanthropic or commercial activities since his retirement.
On October 17, Yao Ming joined with other celebrities aboard the maiden voyage of China's first A380 flight, run by China Southern Airlines. The next day, he visited a primary school for abandoned children in Chongqing.
Successful Chinese athletes often choose to study after they retire.
Former Olympic and world table tennis champion Deng Yaping spent 11 years studying in Tsinghua University, University of Nottingham and Cambridge University after her retirement in 1997. She is now the CEO of jike.com, a People's Daily-run search engine.
However, retirement can spell trouble for former sports heroes.
Zou Chunlan, a female national weightlifting champion, was unable to find a regular job after she retired in 1993, and eventually worked in a public bathhouse in 2003 for 500 yuan ($75) a month.
28-year-old Zhang Shangwu, a former Universiade gymnastics champion, was found performing on the streets to earn a living. He was later employed by philanthropist Chen Guangbiao with a monthly salary of 30,000 yuan after the media caught wind of the story.