The game of basketball was primarily a North American sport. This was also true of the National Basketball Association. Then, the 1992 Olympics Games allowed professional basketball players to participate.
The “Dream Team” took the entire world by storm. They were led by stars Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird. These players quickly became global icons, and it paved the way for basketball to become one of the most popular sports in the world.
Today, there are many star NBA players that were born outside of North America. This includes this year's (and last year's) MVP, Nikola Jokić, and this year's scoring champion, Joel Embiid.
The game has seen a more global change, but before we saw Jokić or Embiid, one of the most popular players in the entire world hailed from China and his name was Yao Ming.
China's Basketball Star: Yao Ming
Yao Ming was born to parents Yao Zhiyuan and Fang Fengdi. They were both former professional basketball players in China.
When Yao was born, he weighed twice as much as the average newborn Chinese baby. This extra size that Yao was blessed with would serve him well later in life in particular, for the game of basketball.
At the tender age of 13, Yao became a professional basketball player when he was accepted to join the Shanghai Sharks junior team of the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA).
Yao played for the junior team for four years and then he joined the senior team of the Shanghai Sharks. On the senior team, Yao led the Sharks to the Finals in three straight seasons.
Yao's Sharks lost their first two Finals appearances, but the third time proved to be the charm. The Sharks won their first and only title while Yao led the way. He averaged 38.9 points and 20.2 rebounds per game in the playoffs and he had an incredible 21-21 shooting game in the Finals.
Yao Ming was officially a champion in the game of basketball. After years of pressure to join the NBA by the general manager of the Sharks, Yao finally made the leap in 2002.
Welcome To The NBA, Yao Ming
The Houston Rockets held the first pick in the 2002-03 NBA Draft and they wisely used their pick to select the 7'6" prospect from China, Yao Ming. Yao's entry into the NBA opened a whole new door for the NBA in the global popularity department.
Fans sprung up all around in China, and this was shown to be true when the fans voted for the 2002-03 NBA All-Star Game starters. As a rookie, Yao led all centers in votes with 1,286,324. This beat out Shaquille O'Neal for the starting position, as O'Neal only accumulated 1,049,081 votes.
Despite this popularity, Yao struggled to adapt to the NBA's pace and physicality. In his first NBA game, Yao was held scoreless while only grabbing two rebounds.
Many analysts figured Yao's career wouldn't get much better, and he'd fade away, back to the CBA. Then, in a game against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, Yao finally broke out of his slump.
Yao scored a then career-high, 20 points on a perfect 9-9 shooting. He also grabbed 6 rebounds in the game. It has to be noted that Shaquille O'Neal did not play because he was out from having surgery on his big toe.
Yao went on to finish his rookie season with averages of 13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks per game. He was named to the NBA All-Rookie First Team, and he was second in votes for Rookie of the Year, behind the Phoenix Suns Amar'e Stoudemire.
Stereotypes Follow Yao To The NBA
The NBA hasn't seen many Asian star players in its history. When they have, fans, media, and unfortunately, some players alike, have fed into stereotypes.
In a game against the Miami Heat in Miami, the staff for the Heat passed out 8,000 fortune cookies to the crowd. This was an obvious stereotype of Yao's Chinese ethnicity.
Yao wasn't upset at the Heat for this gesture. In fact, Yao didn't understand the meaning behind it. In China, they don't have fortune cookies, so Yao figured it was an American tradition.
One of the most notable moments of a bad stereotype aimed at Yao came from fellow big man, Shaquille O'Neal. Before the first game between the two players, O'Neal told a reporter to “tell Yao” and he followed with some racist, stereotypical Chinese talk.
O'Neal denied that he was being racist toward Yao and that he was only joking. Yao said he thought O'Neal was joking, but he wasn't too amused with it.
After the talk died down, the game had to be played and the entire world was watching, ready to see the “Shaq vs Yao” matchup:
Yao made his presence known right from the start by blocking O'Neal twice early on. He'd go on to record six blocks in the game and four of the blocks were on O'Neal.
Yao wasn't finished. With 10 seconds remaining in overtime, Yao made a dunk that sealed the Rockets 108-104 victory. Yao finished with 10 points on 5-14 shooting and 10 rebounds to go along with those 6 blocks.
“How should I put it? We beat the Lakers today, but Shaq is still Shaq,” Yao said in the post-game interview. “He's like a truck.”
After a rocky start to their relationship, O'Neal and Yao became friends. O'Neal has even said he regretted how he acted toward Yao early on.
Yao Reaches New Heights Before Injuries Tore Him Down
Yao's sophomore season saw an improvement in his overall game, this includes scoring. Yao increased his scoring average by four, from 13.5 to 17.5. He also scored his career-high of 41 in a game against the Atlanta Hawks.
By his fifth season, Yao averaged a career-high 25.0 points per game. Yao's game looked to be blooming, but the unfortunate injury bug would quickly pop up to chop him down.
Yao missed two games through his first three seasons, but injuries to his feet, toes, and knees slowed him down. After only missing two games in three years, Yao missed 91 games over the next four years.
Things would get worse for Yao, as he missed the entire 2009-10 season due to a broken bone in his left foot. The 2010-11 season would be Yao's last in the NBA.
Yao only played five games in the 2010-11 season due to him having ankle surgery. He officially retired on July 20, 2011, citing his injuries to his feet and his ankles.
This was a bittersweet end for Yao, as he only played eight seasons and only 486 games. Yet, when healthy, Yao was an exciting player that brought an entire country of new fans to the game of basketball.
Yao Ming: Post Retirement
After retiring from the game of basketball, Yao has kept himself busy. For starters, he went back to his roots by stepping in to buy the Shanghai Sharks in 2009 when they were having financial problems.
Yao's also big on saving wildlife, as he's become the ambassador for elephant conservation and he has filmed a documentary on the northern white rhinoceros, to bring awareness to their declining numbers.
On September 9, 2016, Yao was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, alongside his former rival and friend, Shaquille O'Neal. The Houston Rockets honored Yao on February 3, 2017, when they retired his jersey number:
Yao Ming's NBA career was cut short due to injuries. This didn't stop him from being a global icon that helped to bring millions of new basketball fans from the far East. For this, Yao Ming will go down in basketball lore.