As his No.11 white-red Rockets jersey was unveiled high above the basketball court at the Houston Toyota Center on Friday, basketball star Yao Ming became the first Chinese to have his jersey retired by the NBA. This move came almost one year after Yao was elected into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in April 2016.
These tributes are well deserved, not only because of Yao’s prowess as a player, but also because of his role in bringing the NBA to China.
“My motivation for following the NBA should be accredited to Big Yao,” Damien Yang, 26, told the Global Times. Yang explained that the year Yao was selected into the NBA, was the same year he first began playing basketball in junior high school.
Already 183 centimeters tall in junior high school, Yang was taller than any of his peers and so was therefore asked to play center. “And because Big Yao was the most famous Chinese center, I watched a lot of the games he played for the Rockets,” Yang said.
“There was a TV in our classroom. Every time there was a Rockets game, all the boys in my class would turn it on behind the teacher’s back to watch the Yao live during our one-hour afternoon break,” Yang recalled.
“Because Yang joined the Rockets, I got to know other NBA figures like Tracy McGrady and Hakeem Olajuwon. Since Yao retired from the Rockets, I have seldom watched the NBA,” Yang added.
The excitement Yang showed talking about Yao was palpable. For him, Yao is closely tied to his beautiful memories of youth.
A fan of Yao but not the Rockets, Zhang Ning fell in love with the NBA long before Yao became a part of the association.
“They began broadcasting NBA games in the 1990s. In fact, it was Michael Jordan who created the first group of basketball fans in China,” Zhang said. “But as the first overall pick of the NBA for the 2002 draft, Yao did bring enthusiasm toward the NBA to a climax back at home.”
“Especially during the years when Yao partnered with McGrady, the Rockets were like a national team in the eyes of many Chinese,” Zhang explained.
A report on sports.sohu.com describes Yao as “a person who changed the course of history for the NBA and a person who changed the very nature of Chinese basketball.”
Though Yao was not the first Chinese player to enter the NBA – Wang Zhizhi was the first player from China – how this giant from the East rose from an unknown to astonish the basketball world has made him something of a legend.
“The number of Huston Rockets’ fans in China surged after Yao began playing for the team. The biggest thing many Chinese looked forward to was watching Yao Ming play. It didn’t even matter if he played bad or well,” wrote the Sohu report.
“It was a time when the Internet was not that fast and video definition not that high, but a live broadcast of Yao was able to attract dozens of people sitting in front of a single screen. Much of the time, people were just watching updates. Each score Yao made brought huge cheers.”
Yao not only brought fervor for the NBA to a new high in China, but also helped change people’s opinion of China and Chinese people in the US.
“China’s single largest export to the United States” was how former US president Bill Clinton described Yao. US scholar on Sino-US relations Randy Williams saw Yao as “an icon of China” as quoted by china.org.cn.
“Has there been anyone like him? The embodiment of the cultural aspirations of the Chinese society, Yao became an iconic symbol of his native country’s growth and global status,” Williams said.
Along with the retirement of his jersey, February 2 was named “Yao Ming Day” by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.
Cultural influences aside, Yao has helped bring economic benefits to the NBA as well. For example, because of the booming popularity of the NBA in China after Yao joined in 2002, NBA China Games were started in 2004. NBA games in the US also began to see tremendous investment from Chinese enterprises when it came to advertising. Since these games had huge viewership numbers in China, these companies were willing to pay top dollar to have their logos appear during games.
NBA stars, such as Yao’s teammate Shane Battier and rival Shaquille O’Neal, signed contracts with Chinese brands. A number of former NBA players like Stephon Marbury also joined China Basketball Association clubs.
Marbury, who now plays for the Beijing Ducks, was once criticized for playing dirty while in the NBA. Since joining the CBA in 2009, Marbury kept his playing style clean and won the recognition of Chinese basketball fans. He is now considered a role model to many and was officially made an “honorary citizen of Beijing” in 2014. In April 2016, he became one of the first foreign basketball players to receive a Chinese green card.
Of course, Yao’s NBA success owed itself to a number of external factors. Wang Zhizhi more or less paved the way for Chinese basketball players who would come after him. Additionally, at the time when Yao joined the NBA, the relationship between China and the US had begun to improve.
However, Yao’s success is still very much his own. Even though Yao was not the last basketball player from China to play in the NBA, no other Chinese player has managed to have as great an impact on the game. For instance, China’s power forward Yi Jianlian and guard Sun Yue also had stints with NBA franchises, but both failed to reach what Yao achieved with the Rockets.