Eight years later, following a distinguished NBA career, Yao confirmed Wednesday that he will retire because of repeated injuries. His impact, though, after becoming the first foreign player with no American basketball background to be drafted No. 1 overall, continues to resonate on many levels.
“Today is an important day for me and holds a special meaning for both my basketball career and my future,” Yao said while announcing his retirement in his hometown, Shanghai.
“Yao Ming gave the Chinese people and China a human face in the United States,” said James Sasser, who served as U.S. ambassador to China from 1996 to ’99 and still travels to the country regularly. “He had a commonality Americans could identify with, particularly those who are interested in sports and sports fans.”
Never before had a Chinese athlete, or any athlete of Asian descent for that matter, generated as much buzz on U.S. soil. Reporters from Chinese newspapers followed him from city to city. Television cameras chronicled his nearly every move to satisfy an adoring fan base back home that hardly could get enough. Sports Illustrated proclaimed Yao “The Next Big Thing” on the cover of its 2002 NBA preview issue.
Chinese fans in the United States packed arenas for a glimpse of the 7-foot-6 center with the smooth passing touch, and even those with little to no previous interest in the NBA attended his games to support the outsize figure entrusted with the hopes of his country’s 1.3 billion people.
Yao served as an unofficial ambassador, generating interest in Chinese heritage and debunking the stereotype that Chinese athletes couldn’t compete professionally at the highest levels. Many arenas, including Verizon Center, welcomed Yao with dragon dances as part of Chinese appreciation night, and fans wore Chinese national team jerseys and waved the Chinese flag.
“You don’t see that among Asian Americans much,” said John Ball, a Japanese American who started and maintains the yaomingmania.com blog. “You’ll see it maybe over there, but to see them coming out in this country, it’s just not in our culture to really be all that demonstrative about our loyalties. We tend to be the more academic, low-key guys that don’t want to stand out, and Yao kind of changed a lot of that.”
Yao’s athletic accomplishments include averaging 19 points, 9.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks over eight seasons (he missed all of 2009-10 recovering from foot surgery), the last of which he played only five games because of a stress fracture in his left foot. Jeff Van Gundy, his former coach with the Rockets and current NBA television analyst, has said Yao deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, as have stars such as Shaquille O’Neal and Kevin Durant.