Shortly after Yao Ming joined the Houston Rockets in 2002, the hometown team in which he got his start retired his No. 15 jersey. This gesture from the Shanghai Sharks made Yao the first athlete in Chinese sports history to have his number retired, and he was humbled enough to take out a full-page ad in Shanghai’s biggest newspaper.
“How does a single blade of grass thank the sun?” The ad’s large headline expressed Yao’s gratitude in a Chinese adage that aptly described his emerging status: one person, lifted by a nation.
But for the approximately 200 million viewers in China who regularly tuned into Yao’s games with the Rockets, he soon encapsulated the sun, the moon and the stars — a newfound, 7-foot-6 reason to see professional basketball as a realm that could be theirs, too.
Yao wasn’t the first Chinese person to play in the NBA. That honor goes to Wang Zhizhi, who joined the Dallas Mavericks in 2001.
Yao was the first foreign-born number one draft pick in professional basketball history. And his skill as a center coupled with his impenetrable stature (for a time, he was the tallest active player in the league) fueled a fandom that the Chinese had never seen before.
As The Washington Post’s Gene Wang wrote in 2011 upon Yao’s retirement, he “was destined to become the most recognizable and tangible representation of their country in the United States.”
He was, as Sports Illustrated proclaimed in 2002, “The Next Big Thing.” In both nations. He acknowledged as much in his memoir: “Yao: A Life in Two Worlds.”
This adroit bridging of cultures, bringing basketball across oceans, is part of the reason Yao was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame on Monday. As the selection committee said he “changed the face of global basketball as a respected player and ambassador of the game.”
Yao was an All-Star, no doubt, one who broke Michael Jordan’s records for votes. But more importantly, he did it while being a trailblazer who redefined what to expect from a Chinese basketball player.
It started off the courts, when it was immediately apparent that fellow players and sports commentators alike weren’t accustomed to seeing Yao around.
Some spectators reacted to his draft pick by yelling, “Go back to China.”
“Tell Yao Ming, ‘Ching chong yang, wah, ah soh,” Shaquille O’Neal said in a TV interview in 2003. O’Neal later apologized, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Later, when O’Neal was outvoted by Yao in All-Star balloting, Lakers coach Phil Jackson told the L.A. Times: “I don’t think it bothers [O’Neal] in the least. He understands fully the NBA has put out four forms of (All Star ballots) in Mandarin, Cantonese, Pekingese and also Hong Kong-ese.”
(“Pekingese” and “Hong Kong-ese” are not real languages, and the former refers to a dog breed.)
During a Rockets game in 2004, former basketball player and TNT broadcaster Steve Kerr also referred to Yao as a “Chinaman,” a derogatory term dating back to the mid-1800s, when Americans feared that the “Yellow Peril” would dominate the labor force. (Kerr later apologized.)
In response to such remarks, Yao remained upbeat. “We’re all basketball players,” he said of O’Neal’s comment. “We all live together on this Earth.”
He wrote in his memoir: “I don’t think what I’m doing makes me a big hero. I’m just doing my job.”
Yao continued to do this job for eight years with the Rockets, at the premature end of which he ranked second in the team’s history in blocks, sixth in total points and sixth in total rebounds. Though he wrote in 2011 that retirement wasn’t on his horizon, Yao made a tearful exit in 2011, after relentless injuries caused him to miss 250 regular-season games in the prior six years.
By then, he and O’Neal had fostered a mutual admiration, and Yao paid tribute to him during his retirement announcement “for making me a better player.”
At the Hall of Fame announcement on Monday, O’Neal was equally laudatory.
“Yao,” he said, “I want to say congratulations to you, to the nation of China, you definitely deserve it. You are a great player, a great ambassador to the game, a great friend.”
O’Neal capped off the praise with a more tasteful Chinese interjection than the taunt he’d used years ago: “Ni Hao,” a customary Chinese greeting. “Congratulations brother.”
When rumors surfaced that Yao would be inducted, some basketball fans protested, noting that he had spent relatively little time on the court.
The Huffington Post’s Justin Block countered on Monday that “Yao was arguably the best center in basketball” from 2003 to 2007, before he was stymied by one injury after another.
And of course, Block wrote, Yao’s role in expanding the reach of the NBA was unparalleled:
By virtue of his nationality, he became the NBA’s bridge into China, a sports-mad country that other North American sports leagues had yet to stake a legitimate claim in. Yao’s stardom and success in the NBA unlocked a country of over a billion people boasting 300 million basketball playing citizens, according to the Chinese Basketball Association…When NBA China, the league’s Chinese subsidiary, received a $253 million investment from Disney and a few Chinese investment firms in 2008, it was valued at $2.3 billion.
“Out of Yao’s stardom and the league’s diligence in China,” Block concluded, “the NBA was able to squeeze out a billion-dollar company.” What’s more, China now boasts the NBA’s largest international audience.
Still, Yao’s influence wasn’t all about macro-level global dominance. For Asian Americans who grew up with the NBA but without representation, he was a defiant symbol against longstanding stereotypes — namely, that Asian men were unathletic, incapable of physical prowess.
“Like millions in the United States and China, I watched Yao face Shaquille O’Neal for the first time on Jan. 17, 2003,” wrote ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk. “Seeing Yao stand taller than Shaq and actually block the first three shots by one of the NBA’s most physically dominant players ever was something I’ll never forget.”
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