Basketball: Charity begins at homefor China's biggest star

Yao has found fame and fortune in the US but is back to help his country in a tough task

As the most extravagant opening ceremony in Olympic history demonstrated here in Beijing two days ago, China does nothing by halves. Only the biggest and best will do in the world's most populous nation.

The hosts' opening match tonight against the United States in the men's basketball tournament should satisfy Games organisers on all counts. The American team include Kobe Bryant, the highest-earning sportsman here; their opponents are led by Yao Ming, the most famous man in China, and the match looks certain to be watched by the biggest television audience in the country's history.

The biggest cheer during Friday night's extravaganza came when Yao, the Chinese flag-bearer for the second Games in succession, led the host team into the Bird's Nest Stadium. As in other walks of life, China has not found integration with the rest of the sporting world easy, but the 27-year-old Yao is an exception, having enjoyed great success in his six years playing in the National Basketball Association for the Houston Rockets.

Basketball is hugely popular in China, and Yao's NBA debut was watched by a Chinese TV audience of 300 million. He was not the first Chinese to play in the NBA – Wang Zhizhi joined the Dallas Mavericks a year earlier – but has been the most successful. His earnings last year were estimated at more than $56 million (£29m).

Yao's modesty, politeness and smart appearance off the court appeal to the Chinese, as does his loyalty to his home country. He has returned regularly to play for the national team and helped China secure eighth place at the 2004 Olympics. Speaking of his pride at carrying the Olympic flame in the torch relay, he said: "After lighting it, my mind wentblank. I just wanted to hurry up running ahead."

In the wake of the earthquake that struck Sichuan three months ago, Yao gave £1m to a foundation in his name to help rebuild schools in the province. Three years ago he was named China's "Model Worker", an annual award normally given to humblefolk devoted to Marxist principles rather than multi-millionaires based in the US.

The Chinese, nevertheless, see him as the perfect image to show to the world. The nation fretted for weeks after he suffered a stress fracture in his left foot five months ago, and in the build-up to the Games the injury became as famous as David Beckham's broken metatarsal was in England before the 2002 World Cup. He returned home in April to seek advice from experts in traditional Chinese medicine.

Yao finally put on his size 18 basketball shoes again last month, but though he has played in warm-up matches his fitness remains a concern. Even with their fully-fit centre available the hosts seem certain to fall short of a medal. Argentina, the defending champions, Spain and Greece all look stronger, while the US are determined to better their bronze four years ago. The draw, placing China in a group alongside the US, Spain, Greece, Germany and Angola, has done them no favours. "This is the worst draw I can ever imagine," Yao said. "The other teams are very strong."

At 7ft 6in, Yao is the tallest man ever to play in the NBA. Both his basketball-playing parents are over 6ft tall and baby Yao was nearly two feet long at birth. He was 6ft tall by the time he was nine – "I always had to sit in the back row in class" – and at 14 a Chinese newspaper said he was like "a crane towering over a flock of chickens".

By 17 he had reached 7ft and could touch the basketball rim without jumping, and he did not stop growing until the age of 23. When he moved to the US, the Houston Rockets had to build him a nine-foot long bed.

Born in Shanghai, Yao startedplaying basketball at nine. By 19 he was playing for China, and in 2000 he appeared at the Sydney Olympics. He studied English for five years in the hope that he would eventually play in the NBA. The Chinese government initially blocked his path, saying he should stay to help the growth of the game here, but in 2002 they relented and he signed a four-year contract with the Houston Rockets worth $18m.

Having sometimes struggled in his first year, Yao worked on his strength in the off-season and added 15lb of muscle. He blossomed in 2004 and his form was instrumental in Houston's passage to the play-offs for the first time since 1999. In 2005 he broke Michael Jordan's record for most All Star votes and received a five-year contract extension.

Modest and quietly spoken, he has a dry sense of humour. After joining Houston he was asked what was the most difficult part of living in the US and replied: "Eating cold sandwiches." When invited later to name his favourite piece of American music he chose the national anthem. "I listen to it at least 82 times a year," he said.

Ones to watch today...

* American swimmer Michael Phelps aims to win the first of seven golds, in the 400m individual medley (3am BST, BBC1).

* In the women's equivalent, Britain's Hannah Miley hopes for a medal – the teenager is the short course world-record holder (3.39am, BBC1).

* No 2 in the world, Britain's female archers aim for gold in the team event (9am, BBC1).

* All of China will watch as Yao Ming leads the basketball team against a US side that includes Kobe Bryant (3.15pm, BBC2).

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