From Aarne Heikkila, TODAY producer
It's difficult to comprehend just how tall 7 foot 6 is until you see Yao Ming duck through a doorway. Correspondent Peter Alexander and I caught our first glimpse of the NBA star at a recent press conference in Houston, where his mere entrance elicited 'oohs' and 'ahhs' from fans and reporters. That's because Yao didn't just walk into the room, he bent his knees, slouched his body, and ducked his head underneath a doorway that I probably couldn't have touched if I had jumped.
For Yao, it's just a part of everyday life, but for those of us who are fortunate enough to spend just a little bit of time with the superstar, its an image that makes for a lasting impression.
The NBA agreed to sit down with NBC News for an exclusive interview just prior to returning home to China where he's hoping to lead the Chinese basketball team to Gold in Beijing this summer. In the two hours we spent with him, the superstar touched on the pressures he faces from the 1.3 billion Chinese back home, his Olympic dreams, and his life as a newlywed (Yao married 6 foot 3 Ye Li, a former member of China's national basketball team, last year).
With his English much improved from even just a few years ago, Yao no longer needs a translator and was able to speak freely with us. He's known for cracking jokes at the expense of his teammates and Peter Alexander was on the receiving end of one of those when Yao told him to "stand up" while the two were taking a picture together (Peter was standing up). It was obviously a line Yao used many times before to put people at ease, but it's a side of him that not a lot of people know exist.
The relaxed and friendly atmosphere extended to the interview when Yao shared with us some of his favorites:
Favorite song: "Bad Day" by Daniel Powter (He says he listened to this song after doctors told him he had a stress fracture in his left foot and would have to miss the rest of the 2008 season)
Favorite food: Chinese food (no surprise here)
Favorite drink: Green tea (he brought his own Thermos to the interview)
And the person he would most like to meet: The person who lights the torch at the Olympic Games this August (many think it will be him)
We also got into some weightier issues with Yao too, like his new charitable foundation that will help rebuild more than 185 schools destroyed by the devastating 7.9 earthquake in Sichuan province in May. Talking to Yao, it wasn't hard to see just how extremely saddened he was by the tragedy. He told us that for the first few days after the earthquake struck, he kept going online for updates and was hoping against hope that the death toll would stop rising. "You just feel so sad about the people who are living there," he said. "So sad for those numbers we lost and so sad for those people who (are) living."
His foundation, he hopes, will give a little bit of hope to those who need it most. To help, go to: YaoMingFoundation.org