DYLAN JOSEPH WRITES – 14 years ago, a 22-year-old Chinese basketball phenom called Yao Ming entered his name into the 2002 National Basketball Association Draft and changed the basketball world forever. On September 9, 2016, Yao was enshrined into the NBA’s Naismith Hall of Fame not just for his outstanding play on the court, but also for opening the NBA up to millions of Asian sports fans.
Yao Ming was selected 1st overall in the 2002 NBA Draft by the Houston Rockets in late June of that year. Yao is the only Chinese player ever to be selected first overall in the NBA draft and, standing at 7’6”, was the perfect person to carry the hopes of a massive country on equally massive shoulders. The Houston Rockets and fans receive Yao warmly as he made his transition from living in China to the United States. Before his arrival in Houston his teammates took classes about Chinese cultural customs so that they could help make the big man feel more welcome as he arrived as a member of the team in a new country.
Despite a rocky start to his career, trying to adjust to the NBA’s style of play, Yao was able to find a way to make an impact both on and off the court.
In a famed game against the consecutive three-time winner of the NBA finals MVP, Shaquille O’Neal (also being inducted into the Hall of Fame this year with Yao), Yao brushed off some borderline insulting comments made by Shaq and played a strong game, resulting in a Houston Rocket overtime win against the three-time defending champions, the Los Angeles Lakers.
With Yao coming into the league, the NBA looked to capitalize on the growing interest of Chinese fans by involving China more and more in league operations and relations. For the first time, the NBA offered fan voting for the starters of the 2003 All-Star game their choices three different languages: English, Spanish, and Chinese. Despite his inferior statistical averages and a lack of NBA finals MVPs (compared to Shaquille O’Neal), Yao Ming was voted to start in the 2003 NBA All-Star game during his rookie year. The power of the Chinese market and its fans were on full display. Yao garnered a quarter million more votes than the three-time champion and NBA veteran, O’Neal, becoming the first rookie to start in an All-Star game since 1995.
Looking back on Yao’s career, he wasn’t just a player, but also a “global ambassador”for the NBA and China. His Hall of Fame enshrinement speech is the perfect way to understand his impact in both the NBA and China.
Yao enjoyed a successful NBA career that would be derailed prematurely by injuries. He played with several top players and left the game as an eight-time All-Star, two-time All-NBA Second Team member, three-time All-NBA Third Team Member, and will forever be enshrined in the Hall of Fame for his work on and off the court helping the NBA’s globalization.