WASHINGTON - Chinese basketball superstar Yao Ming said Friday that he was shocked by protests when he spoke out against eating shark fin, but credits his campaign with helping the species rebound.
On a return visit to the United States, the retired Houston Rocket said he had "all good memories" from his NBA days, even when he endured taunts by Shaquille O'Neal.
But Yao said that he was stung when he spoke out against eating shark fin soup, a luxury food for China's elite. Demand has decimated the shark population with tens of millions killed each year, generally by slicing off the animals' fins while they are still alive.
"The first letter to me was pretty sharp. That was actually the first protest letter directed to me. Maybe my team got a few already but put it on the side," Yao told a forum at the Brookings Institution.
"It was a shock for me," Yao said.
But Yao said it was important to be patient and credited his efforts with cutting by half the Chinese demand for shark fin. China's government last year announced a ban on serving shark fin and other wild animal products at official functions.
Since returning to China, the seven-foot-six (229-centimeter) centre has bought his former team - incidentally called the Shanghai Sharks. He said he planned to stay active on animal conservation.
Yao said he was also using his name and fortune to start after-school sports programs for Chinese children, voicing concern that youngsters were overloaded with classwork that affected their physical and mental health.
"It's not trying to select the next basketball star. We're more focused on those character, personality and lifestyles (taught by sports), like chemistry, teamwork and leadership," he said.