The Yao Ming project began decades before the player’s birth. Yao Zhiyuan and Fang Fengdi, national basketball giants standing at 208 centimeters and 188 centimeters respectively, were arranged to be married — the result of which was the birth of a five-kilogram newborn on September 12, 1980.
The basketball indoctrination began early as Yao, the 201-centimeter 13-year-old, was separated from his parents to attend a full-time basketball academy against his wishes. Yao says he didn’t develop a passion for basketball until his late teenage years. He began playing professionally for the Shanghai Sharks club in the ninth grade and was selected to represent the national team at the age of 17.
When he was chosen by the Houston Rockets in the first overall pick in the 2002 National Basketball Association Draft, Yao Ming became symbolically larger than even his then 229-centimeter frame could suggest. Here was an athlete carrying a burden unlike any before him: the hope and pride of a nation of billions; the physical representation of a nation’s investment in ambition.
Yao’s transition from communist China to urban America was hardly a smooth one. In addition to the large linguistic and cultural barriers he had to overcome, pundits and players — former Most Valuable Player Charles Barkley and Laker superstar Shaquille O’Neal most vocal among them — were hardly welcoming, publicly voicing their doubts about the oversized, untested Chinese star who had no experience playing American-brand basketball. The league’s targeted, perhaps racially influenced, disrespect added to Yao’s burden.
There was a sporting transition to be made, too. The American basketball game allows for more individual freedom and flashiness compared to the team-oriented style of the Chinese leagues. This led to several wake-up moments for Yao, including a now-famous slam-dunk during his rookie season by Kobe Bryant that sent Yao collapsing to the floor — dunking was not allowed in the Chinese Basketball Association.
Yet after finishing runner-up for the Rookie of the Year award, it didn’t take long for Yao to solidify his status as a premier player in the NBA and begin to exceed the lofty expectations bestowed upon him. He established himself as one of the most skilled players in the league, boasting a disciplined low-post game and a shooting touch and play-making ability rarely found in big-bodied players. He had become a legitimate franchise player and a match-up nightmare for opposing teams.
But Yao led a double basketball life of sorts. There never was an off-season for him, as commitments to the Chinese national team kept him on the court almost as soon as the NBA season ended. This meant his body suffered wear and tear each year without rest, a stressful trial for any world-class athlete. This demanding schedule led to recurring injuries that would cut drastically short almost every one of his following NBA seasons and, ultimately, his career.
Despite the physical setbacks, Yao’s role as an ambassador of the game had been cemented. The event that perhaps best demonstrated the magnitude of Yao’s impact on basketball was the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Despite questions over whether he was healthy enough to play, Yao carried the Olympic Flame into Tiananmen Square and bore the Chinese flag as part of the opening ceremony in front of his home crowd, one that had learned to love the sport he had introduced to them. Fittingly, China’s first game of the tournament was against the United States. In storybook fashion, Yao hit the first shot of the game, a three-pointer, in front of an optimistically projected worldwide audience of one billion viewers. This was Yao’s influence, poignantly represented in a basketball game. In an interview with Yahoo Sports after the game, Kobe Bryant said, “Yao built the bridge for all of us.”
When Yao announced his retirement earlier this summer, the basketball world was quick to mourn the premature end to what would have been a historic individual career. A Houston Chronicle article took quotes from those who knew him best over his playing career: “There’s no doubt if he stayed healthy, we’d be talking about one of the top centers to ever play the game,” said his former coach, Rick Adelman. “He was so dominant.” A former teammate and one of Yao’s closest friends, Shane Battier lamented the league’s loss: “That’s the tragedy from a basketball sense. We were not able to see what could have been, basketball-wise.”
When Yao was first confronted with the reality of early retirement last summer, an ESPN reporter asked what his plans were. Displaying the sense of humor and perspective that have made him the ideal ambassador for the sport, Yao replied, “I haven’t died. Right now, I’m drinking a beer and eating fried chicken. What were you expecting — a funeral?”
Perhaps the more telling quote was that from the Twitter account of one of Yao’s most outspoken critics earlier in his career and his fellow retiree, Shaquille O’Neal: “Let’s go on vacation bro, me and you.” Yao had won the respect of one of his harshest critics.
Yao’s legacy spans continents, not just painted stripes on a basketball court. Yao will one day be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, not because of a stat sheet, but because of his role as the most influential basketball player since Michael Jordan. There will always be the threat of scoring records being beaten and there will be many Kobe Bryant and LeBron James-like players to come, but in the story of the history of basketball, Yao Ming will have his chapter written in ink.