While the Chinese basketball team that he used to lead was routed one game after another at the London Games, the 7-foot-6 centre who spearheaded a basketball boom in the increasingly sports-crazy nation observed from high above the court in the media area as a commentator for Chinese television.
From that vantage point, Yao has never cast a larger shadow. Maybe that's because everyone is finally starting to accept that he's not coming back to save them.
While the Chinese are piling up the medals in another Summer Games, their most popular team was overwhelmed from the start. They went 0-5 in pool play and lost by an average of 25.2 points per game. The quarterfinal round of the tournament began Wednesday, and the Chinese didn't qualify for the first time since Sydney in 2000.
"I think as the tournament moved on we kind of lost ourselves a little bit, lost our confidence, lost our way," coach Bob Donewald Jr. said. "We were happy to be here, we were surprised to be here, we gave it everything we got to be here. But once we got here, it was a lot to chew and it was just a little bit too much."
Following a disastrous loss to Iran in the Asian Games in 2009, the Chinese Basketball Association turned to Donewald, a charismatic Michigan native who had success with the Shanghai Sharks, and Pete Philo, a Minnesota Timberwolves scout with a strong international hoops background, to start the painful rebuilding process.
"I told him in 2010, there's two most difficult jobs in the world right now," veteran centre Wang Zhizhi said through an interpreter. "One is saving the miners in Chile and the other one is taking the Chinese men's basketball team."
In a nation of 1.3 billion people, Chinese sports officials' search for the next Yao begins at elementary school age, where children are plucked and entered into programs for athletic development based primarily on height. Those who are not chosen are left behind, unable to find the instruction and opportunity to hone their skills.
"I know there's some talent coming up," Donewald said. "I just hope it's developed properly. It's got to start young and it's got to be done in the right way."
In three years at the helm, Donewald and Philo managed to change some aspects of China's rigid basketball program. Donewald negotiated the power to choose the team, a huge departure for a CBA that has dictated the roster, coaching staff and even player bed times. The players no longer wear themselves out with eight hours a day of practice and the focus has shifted to defence.
"I'm the first coach in the history of this damn thing to be able to pick my staff and the roster," Donewald said over dinner at the Westfield Mall. "And now that was my speech to the players. 'I picked you. I picked you for a reason.'
"It also gave me the ability to say, if you don't play any defence, you're out of here."
The clash of cultures was evident from Day 1. Donewald and Philo are chatterboxes, quick to crack jokes and break down the intricacies of zone defence. The Chinese players, by nature, are more soft-spoken and humble, two traits not often associated with success in a game teeming with trash talk and bravado.
"At the very first practice, one of our players turned the ball over, stopped and turned to us and said, 'So sorry,'" Philo said. "We said, 'Sorry? You've got to get back on defence!'"
When Donewald first laid down the defence-first edict, Zhizhi told him, "This is China. We don't play defence."
Whenever a player did not talk on defence, his name was put on a board with a check mark by it. The more checks, the more sprints he had to run after practice.
"What we try to do is point out that basketball culture is different than culture culture," Donewald said. "In Chinese culture, you don't talk a lot. It's very reserved. In basketball you have to talk. You have to be outgoing. So what we've tried to do is to get a basketball culture when you step between the lines, there was a little more talking to it."
In a developmental system where every decision is made for them, they have tried to instil some sense of individualism, some "swagger," as Philo likes to put it.
"Don't be robotic," Donewald shouted at a recent practice, an interpreter translating for him.
"They're really fun to coach. They're professional. They bring it every night. They're so respectful," Donewald said. "It's trying to get them over that edge, get them the confidence."
Donewald got control of the basketball operations, but the CBA's influence hasn't disappeared. At each practice, CBA vice-president Hu Jiashi jogs laps around the court for the entire session, a quiet reminder of the strength and commitment the Chinese demand of their athletes.
There have been some signs of progress. China won the Asian Games in 2010 and the Asian Championship in 2011, reasserting its dominance on the continent. And the team does play with a little more flair. One player has a large tattoo on his back, another has dyed his hair bright red.
Donewald — known as Deng Hua De in China — has more than 4 million followers on the Chinese version of Twitter. That's more than Tom Cruise, Lance Armstrong and the White House.
But now he's heading back to Michigan where he is building a home. Philo is turning his attention back to the Timberwolves. So it will be up to the next coaching staff to continue the project.
"It's not the way we wanted to end it. But I think we laid the groundwork in the right way," Donewald said. "We've changed some things, we've changed some training, we've brought ideas, we've changed the way we play a little bit. And hopefully they can take it and go from here. ... I hope 10 years from now I look back and China's back on the map and we helped bridge something, we helped do something."
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