Yao Ming stands at a towering 7 ft. 6in (2.3m), but his impact on the National Basketball Association and the game’s growth in his home nation of China dwarfs his skyscraper-like stature.
Yao, who retired from the NBA at 30 years old in 2011 following a slew of injuries, was the first international player to be selected first overall in the NBA Draft (2002) without having played college basketball in the United States. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in September 2016 as a global ambassador of basketball for his efforts on the court and off it in helping promote the game. The Houston Rockets retired his No. 11 jersey on February 3.
“Yao Ming’s been a global symbol of basketball and had a phenomenal influence on NBA expansion in China,” said 19-year-old China youth national team player Xining He. “He is not just someone I look up to, but also a great idol for those who love this game.”
Yao’s retirement followed an impressive but abbreviated eight-year career that included eight NBA All-Star selections, 9,247 points (19.0 points per game), 4,494 rebounds (9.2 rebounds per game) and 920 blocked shots (1.9 blocks per game). His popularity soared in the United States while leading Houston to the playoffs in four seasons, as well as back home in China as he became the country’s flag bearer in the sport.
“Walking around China with Yao Ming is like walking through New York with The Beatles,” former Rockets general manager Carroll Dawson said in Yao’s jersey retirement video.
Not surprisingly, the NBA utilized Yao’s presence and status to grow the league and sport in China. In 2004, two years after Yao joined the league, the NBA became the first American professional sports league to play in China with a pair of Rockets’ preseason games. The NBA has played 12 preseason games in the country in four cities, and announced in October 2016 that it will open academies in Urumqi, Jinan and Hangzhou. Each elite training center will be staffed with NBA-trained coaches to develop male and female prospects both on and off the court.
Errick McCollum, from Canton, Ohio, has played professional basketball in Turkey, Greece and China. Currently a guard for the Beikong Fly Dragons in Beijing, McCollum has noticed the growth of the sport as more kids are playing in parks, the NBA expands its brand and the Chinese Basketball Association (the country’s top basketball league) increases its popularity.
“It’s big, it’s not just a basketball game, it’s a business. There is so much money to be made off the court, too, with merchandise, TV and player appearances,” said McCollum, who scored a CBA single-game record 82 points in January 2015. “What better place to go than China? This is a market that needs to be tapped into and it’s wise to spend money in and invest in, and the NBA knows that. They’re putting guys on a 16-hour flight to play a preseason game. These are all calculated thoughts.
“China is the ideal place to go and they made a very smart decision. They have NBA League Pass out here. I can see my brother (Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum) on ESPN or NBA League Pass. It’s a nice little experience and I know the Chinese people are big into basketball and it’s continuing to grow.”
While Yao Ming was the trailblazer for merging the United States and China in the basketball world, he hasn’t been the only influencer from the East to bridge the gap with the West. Like Yao, Yi Jianlian made a name for himself in the CBA before transitioning to the NBA. Jianlian, a 7 ft. center, was the sixth pick in the 2007 NBA Draft by the Milwaukee Bucks. He played in the league from 2007-12. Sung Tao was the first Asian player drafted to the NBA, selected in the third round of the 1987 draft by the Atlanta Hawks. Wang Zhizhi was the first player from China to play in an NBA game, representing the Dallas Mavericks five times in 1999. Mengke Bateer joined the Denver Nuggets in 2002.
“The motivation is great to me,” [Xining] He said. “Seeing more and more Chinese players going overseas to play in the NBA makes you want to work harder, because the more talents they bring, the more competitive the game is, and surely you want to keep it up.”