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Thursday, May 8
Updated: May 11, 4:50 PM ET
Yao implores everyone to join in battling SARS

Associated Press

BEIJING -- The world knows Yao Ming the basketball sensation. Now meet Yao Ming the telethon host.

China's homegrown basketball talent took center stage in that most American of fund-raising events broadcast Sunday from his hometown of Shanghai, bringing in more than $300,000 to help researchers seeking a cure for SARS, which has killed at least 240 people in China.

The Houston Rockets center said the three-hour event was all about giving back to his homeland, to which he returned last month after his rookie season in the United States.

"I returned to my motherland, but found it struggling through a most serious trial. Now everyone needs to make their contribution to the fight against SARS,'' Yao said on the show, broadcast around the country by Shanghai Television's satellite Great Sports Channel.

Yao had a little help from his friends, both old and new. Those making appearances included Chinese national soccer player Qi Hong and women's national soccer team captain Sun Wen. NBA players and former stars from Shaquille O'Neal to Magic Johnson appeared in videotaped messages played on the show, urging viewers to give generously.

"I love you, xie xie, peace,'' said O'Neal, using the Chinese word for thank you.

Yao answered questions from viewers sent in over the Internet and sat down for an interview in the final hour to discuss his budding career, life in America, and what it felt like to come home to Shanghai. Yao and Qi also signed basketballs, jerseys, cards and other souvenirs given as presents for donors.

"There were times in America when it was very stressful and I was just terrified. But I had my family to give me support and other players really helped me a lot,'' Yao said.

Yao's appearance seemed to be what viewers were waiting for: Donations more than doubled in the final minutes of the program after he sat down for the interview.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome has killed at least 240 people in China with nearly 5,000 cases reported. After a slow start during which little information was released about the flu-like disease, China's government has launched an all-out propaganda campaign to urge people to protect themselves and help wipe out SARS.

Yao has also taped a public service announcement for Shanghai television in which he tells viewers: "We need your portion of strength to conquer SARS.'' Last month, he appeared at a ceremony for military medics sent from Shanghai to Beijing to help the capital's beleaguered doctors.

Yao was a star of China's basketball league, playing for the Shanghai Sharks, before becoming the NBA's No. 1 draft pick last year. The move propelled him to superstar status in China and the United States, and he said he was inspired to host the telethon by visiting hospitals and attending fund-raisers as part of the Rockets' public service program.

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