He came to the United States shrouded in mystery, a 7-foot-5 basketball phenom from a part of the world that had not produced many. No player, not Daryl Dawkins, not Shaquille O’Neal, not Kevin Garnett, entered the NBA with more pressure, the kind that can only come with the expectations of 1.3 billion people riding on your slender shoulders. As time goes by the career of Yao Ming, who sources say has decided to retire, will be scrutinized and dissected under the social media microscope but his contributions to the game will never be forgotten.
It’s easy to forget just how good Yao was when a troublesome left foot robbed him of all but five games in the last two seasons. But at his best, Yao was as smooth and polished as they come. In the first week of his rookie season with the Rockets, TNT analyst Charles Barkley famously told Kenny Smith he would kiss his backside if Yao scored 19 points in a game,Â a debt Barkley paid up on (sort of) two weeks later. Yao averaged 13.5 points in his first year and increased his scoring average over each of the next four seasons. He finished like a center, shot jumpers like a forward and swished free throws (83.3 percent for his career) like a guard.
“He was so big and so mobile in the post,” said Mavericks forward Caron Butler. “And he had that jump hook that was just impossible to block.”
It’s just as easy to consider Yao’s time in Houston a failure, and that criticism is valid. The Rockets never measured up to the high expectations (and payroll) they had during the Yao Era. Chronic foot trouble — an all too familiar problem for men Yao’s size — interrupted too many seasons late in his career. He was drafted, developed and signed to a five-year, $75 million deal in 2005 with an expectation of winning and Yao, thanks largely to his fragile foot, failed to deliver.
But what Yao gave to the game can’t be measured in wins and losses, points or rebounds. China was relatively uncharted territory for the NBA back in ’02. Yao was the league’s way in. Deals with CCTV, Shanghai TV, Beijing TV and others were quickly cut, exposing the NBA — and its merchandise — to hundreds of millions of people eager to embrace it. They signed sponsors, conducted clinics and began playing preseason games in the country’s major cities. Yao’s face was everywhere in China and the NBA milked every possible marketing opportunity from it.
“America is learning things about the Peoples’ Republic of China,” David Stern once said. “And a lot of people in China are learning about America through him.” Indeed, Yao made China cool. His Visa commercials (“Can I write a check?”) were brilliant and his Apple spot with Verne Troyer was a huge hit. His quiet, humble nature made him likeable and the grace and class with which he conducted himself in front of the media made him respected.
This is the legacy Yao leaves behind. He created a bridge where none existed and introduced many in two countries to cultures they may not have been familiar with. He made millions for himself, yes, but in singlehandedly opening the Asian market to the NBA he made so much more for others. The NBA office in China is the league’s most valuable foreign asset, a truth for which they have Yao to thank.
The next referendum on Yao will come in five years, when the Basketball Hall of Fame will likely put his name on a ballot. On paper, Yao’s numbers (19.0 points, 9.2 rebounds per game in eight seasons) don’t measure up. Spencer Haywood, Bernard King and Mel Daniels have credentials as good or better than Yao’s and they are still on the outside looking in. But what Yao has done for the game cannot be quantified, cannot be judged on a piece of paper. Yao wasn’t the first Chinese citizen to play in the NBA, but he was unquestionably it’s most important. There should be a place in the Hall to recognize that.