On a snowy February evening in 2003, Yao Ming arrived at the Chinese Embassy in the District for a lavish reception in his honor roughly 24 hours before his Houston Rockets were to play the Washington Wizards.
The embassy is certainly accustomed to feting world leaders, dignitaries and high-ranking officials, but this event in its own way was even more meaningful because to hundreds of millions of Chinese, Yao was destined to become the most recognizable and tangible representation of their country in the United States.
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.
Yao has influenced countless Chinese to take an interest in basketball, either picking one up and playing or following his games on television. The NBA averages 30 million Chinese viewers every week, and in 2007, 100 million watched Yao play against Yi Jianlian, at the time a rookie with the Milwaukee Bucks. Last season Yi played for the Wizards.
Yao’s popularity was such that despite missing essentially all of last season, he was voted as the starting center in the NBA All-Star Game thanks primarily to fan balloting in China. In 2005, Yao received 2,558,278 all-star votes, breaking the record Michael Jordan had established.
Yao’s drawing power has made his financial imprint far-reaching and considerable as well. The NBA has become the most popular American sports league in China thanks largely to Yao, and that devotion has generated rapid economic growth for NBA China.
Goldman Sachs valued NBA China at $2.3 billion when it launched in 2008, and its revenues are estimated between $150 and $170 million, according to a Sports Business Daily report last year.
It remains unclear how Yao’s departure will affect the NBA’s marketability in China, although a recent poll on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent to Twitter with more than 21 / 2 times the subscribers, indicated that 57 percent surveyed would stop watching if Yao retired.
The last game Yao played was on Nov. 10 against the Wizards at Verizon Center, where Washington’s JaVale McGee collided with him on the night John Wall’s first triple-double sparked a 98-91 Wizards win. Yao limped to the sideline for good after playing 6 minutes 14 seconds. A month later, the Rockets announced Yao, who turns 31 in September, was done for the season.
“Everybody’s career has to come to an end,” Yao said during in interview with China Daily last summer in which he hinted at and seemed somewhat at peace with retirement. “Even if I play until 34, 35, 36, it will end someday. The only difference is 30 seems like the peak time in an athlete’s career, so it feels like a bit of a sudden ending, and that is why it’s hard to accept.”