Originally published in July 16-22 edition of NW Asian Weekly.
Many National Basketball Association (NBA) fans were stunned when news came down that Houston Rockets Center Yao Ming would retire from basketball. Although he spent just eight seasons in the NBA, his legacy will extend much farther than his massive wingspan and last longer than his time playing basketball. Although Yao may not have had as long of a career as most NBA Hall of Famers, his impact on the game of basketball has been great.
As the top pick in the 2002 NBA Draft, many Americans did not know much about this 7′6″ man from China. Many thought that this was a grand experiment and that he would fizzle out of the league. Some thought his success was based on taking advantage of lesser competition in China and that he would fall apart under the pressure of playing at the highest level. However, Yao flourished. Many found out that Yao was more than just tall. He was athletic. He had nice footwork and a nice shooting touch. In his first season, he was voted to the NBA All-Rookie First Team. He finished second for Rookie of the Year honors. He later became an eight-time all-star.
Yao was a force off the court as much as he was on the court. He was a pitchman for such major companies as Visa, Apple, and McDonald’s. Yao became one of the most recognizable NBA players in the world. His success in the NBA gave the league the opportunity to market the game in China and other countries in Asia. Yao’s presence (and success) in the league fostered the globalization of the NBA. Without Yao, the NBA’s popularity in China would not be as high as it is today. He has become an icon in his homeland and a hero to many aspiring basketball players. He also became widely popular in the United States. Yao’s teammate Chuck Hayes best described the uniqueness of being around Yao, “Michael Jackson was before my time. Elvis was before my time, but if I had to guess, it was like being around Yao Ming.”
In addition, Yao donated $2 million to the relief efforts after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and created a foundation to rebuild schools in the area. He also participated in various charity endeavors including the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program, which conducted events in countries in Asia promoting positive social change, education, and health.
Despite a demanding NBA schedule, Yao continued his commitment to play for the Chinese National team. Unfortunately, the constant play took a toll on Yao’s body. The same feet that allowed him to move with such grace hobbled him. Yao’s last seasons with the Rockets were filled with injuries due to issues with his feet.
Yao’s NBA statistics were impressive. He averaged 19 points and almost 10 rebounds per game. Prior to his NBA career, he averaged 32 points and 15 rebounds in five seasons with his Chinese Basketball team in Shanghai.
It’s unlikely that we will see anyone as important to the global reach of the sport of basketball as Yao Ming. At the early age of 30, Yao’s career in professional basketball is over. Still, his legacy will live on much longer and his popularity will remain. He is truly an ambassador of the game and should be rewarded with the honor of being in the NBA’s Hall of Fame. ♦