Global ambassador: Yao Ming’s Hall of Fame honour goes beyond the basketball court

The giant Chinese has become an icon for the game and is continuing to make an impact long after retiring from the NBA

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 September, 2016, 2:09pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 September, 2016, 8:56pm

His career averages – though an impressive 19.0 points, 9.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks – didn’t put him in the same category as some of the greats who came before him. And his eight-year career wasn’t overflowing with awards and championship rings.

But when Yao Ming was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame yesterday morning (HK time), it was well deserved.

At 2.29m, 141kg, it’s no secret that he was one of the most physically imposing players the NBA has ever seen. And if it weren’t for a slew of injuries that forced him to be sidelined for all but five games over the course of his final two seasons, there’s no telling what his NBA career could have been.

WATCH: Yao Ming and fellow Hall of Famers receive their jackets

But even though he hung up his triple-XL, No 11 Houston Rockets jersey for good at just 30 years old, the most beloved Chinese athlete in American sports history wasn’t finished making an impact.

Off the court, he’s been just as colossal.

After becoming the first international player to ever be selected with the first overall pick in the draft without having played college basketball in the US, Yao’s popularity quickly soared, expanding the NBA’s global impact to his home country of China. From massive television audiences (an estimated 200 million people watched his regular season showdown with fellow Chinese player Yi Jianlian in 2007) to millions in merchandise revenue to a far-reaching interest among the youth – Yao emerged as much more than just a basketball player. He became an international basketball icon.

Two years after Yao entered the league, the NBA became the first American professional sports league to compete in China, where Yao and the Rockets played two preseason games against the Sacramento Kings in Beijing and Shanghai. Twelve years later, we’re just a month away from the 10th edition of NBA Global Games China, with the Rockets scheduled to take on the New Orleans Pelicans in early October, also in Shanghai and Beijing.

Following this year’s games, 13 NBA teams will have played 22 games in China since 2004.

“The game of basketball has been so good to me, and while I have left the court, I will never leave the game.” Yao said in a statement announcing a youth basketball partnership with NBA China in 2012. “I look forward to working with the NBA to give more youth the opportunity to play basketball at an elite level and help more people in need. I would love to see the next generation of Chinese players surpass the accomplishments of my generation.”

In 2014, Yao and NBA China opened the first-ever NBA Yao School in Beijing, providing after-school basketball training and fitness programmes for children. It’s just one of the many programmes Yao uses to spread his love of basketball to China’s youth, and there will likely be many more to come.

“[Yao’s] career was cut short, and I think he didn’t achieve everything he wanted to on the floor,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said at last year’s All-Star Weekend. “But I have no doubt that over a long life, he’s going to end up probably having as great an impact on this game as anyone who has ever played.”

Yao himself wistfully acknowledged a career that “ended too soon” as he was inducted.

“I treasure each and every moment. I’m grateful for my time on court and for your recognition tonight,” Yao said in a speech that was also littered with humorous digs at his fellow inductees.

The towering centre was joined in the class of 2016 by the likes of center Shaquille O’Neal and guard Allen Iverson.

“My parents were basketball players back to the 1970s,” Yao, the first overall pick in the 2002 NBA draft, said at the ceremony in Springfield, Massachusetts.

“I’m so fortunate to be your son. The gift I get from you, is not only the height but the way you taught me to think, and to make decisions.”

He then joked about how his parents had taught his “soft touch on free throw line” before taking a friendly pot shot at O’Neal, who was notoriously inaccurate from the line during his career.

Yao was not the first player from China – that honour belongs to Wang Zhizhi – but he played a huge role in helping popularise the NBA in his homeland.

An eight-times All-Star, he played 486 games over nine years, all with the Houston Rockets, averaging 19 points and 9.2 rebounds before foot and ankle injuries forced his retirement in 2011.

“We all look older and fatter than when we first met,” Yao, 35, joked as he reminisced about his career.

Yao’s was the first inductee of the ceremony, which gave the Chinese star an opportunity to take a friendly dig at Iverson, who he said should have been given the honour.

“You know why? Because I need more practice than him,” Yao said to applause from the crowd and a laugh from Iverson.

Yao also thanked his early mentors in China, former NBA cCommissioner David Stern for his vision in wanting Yao to play in the league, as well his first teammates on the Houston Rockets. He also singled his former NBA coaches, including Rudy Tomjonavich and Jeff Van Gundy.

“I will always consider you my family,” Yao said. “I am Texan and Houston Rocket for life.”

Associated Press and Reuters