No points and two rebounds. There have certainly been more illustrious introductions to the NBA than Yao Ming’s debut, which came against the Indiana Pacers on October 30, 2002. “I learned that I still have a lot to learn, and I’m just a rookie,’’ Yao said through an interpreter after the game. “It’s a very long road and it’s difficult.’’ His first basket came days later in game two as the Houston Rockets beat the Nuggets 83-74 in Denver’s home opener. Yao had already made history when he became the first international player to go first in the NBA draft. That draft had been a long time coming – Yao had been touted for the NBA for several years but the Chinese Basketball Association and Shanghai Sharks stood in his way – and it went down to the wire, with approval coming just 15 hours before the draft and after three days of intense negotiations. “The assurances we gave each other was that it’s a win-win situation,” Rockets legal counsel Michael Goldberg told Associated Press. “They know with training in the US, Yao Ming will become a much better player and help their national team.” Owner who made Yao Ming a star sells Houston Rockets as NBA pays tribute Even then Yao would have to play for China rather than jetting in to join his new teammates in their preseason training camp. Come draft day, NBA commissioner David Stern described Yao’s draft as “a great and marvellous moment for the Rockets, for the NBA and for the whole world, and especially for China”. “Yao Ming is a skilled player, and he becomes the first international to be picked up with the overall first pick, but he will not be the last Chinese player to join in the NBA.” The 7-foot-6-inch centre’s reputation had preceded him, though some analysts had been less than convinced about the Chinese star. Bill Simmons, writing for ESPN, was among the most vocal. “Years from now, we will remember ‘Yao Ming over Jay Williams’ the same way we remember ‘Bowie over Jordan’, ‘Traylor for Nowitzki’, ‘Carroll for McHale and Parish’, ‘Aguirre over Thomas’ and every other great draft day blunder in NBA history. I’m not just predicting it, I’m guaranteeing it.” NBA-China: one year on from Daryl Morey’s Hong Kong tweet “This is a disaster waiting to happen. Repeat: This is a disaster waiting to happen,” he concluded. Others were more forgiving by draft day. “Yao Ming will face enormous expectations in the NBA and it will be tough for the kid,” retired NBA star Charles Barkley said. “I have the best wishes for him as he has overcome so many obstacles.” Sports Illustrated called Yao “The Next Big Thing” on the cover of its 2002-03 NBA season preview issue. Barkley would play another role in Yao’s debut season, one in which he played all 82 regular season games beginning with that debut against Indiana. In mid-November, Barkley – by then an analyst on TNT’s basketball coverage – told co-host Kenny Smith he would “kiss his ass if Yao scored 19 points in a game” after Smith called Yao the Rockets’ best player. Yao stepped up three games after the bet was made in a November 17 win over the Los Angeles Lakers – a game that was meant to see Yao’s first battle with MVP Shaquille O’Neal – by dropping a career-high 20 points in a 93-89 road win. Barkley technically made good on his wager by puckering up to a donkey brought in for the occasion, to the delight of fans. The Lakers big man was another who would feature in Yao’s first season, built up by Simmons in that ESPN draft preview: “Can’t you picture Shaq rubbing his hands together and saying, ‘I’m going to dunk on that Chinese guy as much as humanly possible next season’?” ‘James Harden changed my life,’ says ex-Houston Rockets GM Morey It never quite worked out like that – and O’Neal and Yao would enter the Basketball Hall of Fame together in 2016. O’Neal, who sat the game out, had made some off-colour remarks about Yao earlier in the season but he congratulated the rookie. “Congratulations to Mr Ming,” O‘Neal said of the victory. “He’s done a lot for his country. He shall be ‘The Man’ in a few years to come. But for a rookie he’s doing A-plus work. However, whenever you have a guy who comes in like that you must take it to him before he takes it to you. That will be my job.” O’Neal got a chance to do that when the pair finally met in January. It ended with the Rockets beating the Lakers – in front of Yao’s parents – and the rookie nailing an overtime dunk to help seal the win. “I knew this was a basket that could decide the game,” Yao told NBA.com after the January 17 win. “We had very good timing on that play. Steve [Francis] was very hot tonight and we knew if he got double-teamed, he would get the ball to someone else.” Francis said: “I knew they would try to jump out at me and when that happened, I knew Yao had to be open. It happened so slow watching him dunk the ball. I was so excited for Yao when he dunked it.” Rockets return for Lin can fire Houston back into Chinese hearts By then, Yao’s stardom was clear as it was midway through voting for the NBA All-Star Game, the first year when the ballot was conducted in Mandarin. “The Chinese vote has not overwhelmed the trend,” The New York Times wrote. “About 15 per cent of all traffic to the website comes from Asia, and 11 to 12 per cent of the ballots come back in Chinese. “Yao leads Shaq in Asian voting, but he also leads him in North America by roughly the same proportion. Through Thursday, Yao was leading Shaq 1,015,018 to 784,920 in the last published count until the starters are announced January 23.” As the newspaper pointed out, the rookie was having a better season than O’Neal, who had missed much of it through injury. ‘’Shaq is a great player who has proven his domination of the game,’’ Yao said of the vote when asked after the Rockets lost to the Hawks in Atlanta on January 10. ‘’Of course, it makes me very happy to have the support of my country. That people in China can vote for the NBA All-Star Game on the internet is another example of how small the world is becoming.’’ Who will be NBA’s next Yao Ming and foreign stars set to light up CBA? Yao won the vote and became the first rookie to start an All-Star Game since Grant Hill in 1995. He won the opening tip from Ben Wallace after being reluctant to go up for it. He would play in another seven All-Star Games in his nine NBA seasons. Yao played all 82 games in his second season and 80 in his third season before injuries started to take their toll. These may have been exacerbated by a workload that saw him play for China every summer, rather than taking three months off. By the time he retired in 2010, Yao had missed 250 games in his last three seasons, but he had more impact on basketball than it had taken on his ailing body. “Almost certainly, Yao Ming has introduced more people to professional basketball, surely the NBA brand, than any one man in the history of the sport,” Pardon the Interruption co-host Michael Wilbon wrote on ESPN.com in December 2010. “While it’s difficult to get exact ratings of the 39 NBA games broadcast in a season in China on CCTV (China Central television), the best available evidence is that approximately 200 million have frequently watched when the Rockets play, which is about one-third of the time. Despite everything, ‘Chinese dream’ of next Yao Ming lives on in the West “That’s 195 million more than watch an NBA play-off game, on average. It’s nearly two Super Bowls worth of eyeballs on any game.” Yao turned the Rockets into China’s team, which lasted until Houston general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of Hong Kong’s anti-government protesters in October, 2019. China’s greatest NBA star was embroiled in the fallout in his role as head of the Chinese Basketball Association, while O’Neal had his say. Shaq on Daryl Morey/China "One of our best values here in America is free speech we're allowed to say what we want to say and we are allowed to speak out on injustices and that's just how it goes. and if people don't understand that that's something they have to deal with. pic.twitter.com/vefcHSPlMD — gifdsports (@gifdsports) October 22, 2019 “Daryl Morey was right. Whenever you see something wrong going on anywhere in the world, you should have the right to say ‘that’s not right’ and that’s what [Morey] did,” O’Neal said in his role as a TNT analyst. Barkley, too, spoke out, but in support of LeBron James keeping quiet. “Why should LeBron sacrifice his money because of some tweet this fool put out?,” he too said on TNT. “Why should the NBA sacrifice their billions? … When you work for a company, you speak for the entire company. … We’re not going to change China.” Shaquille O’Neal says ‘Morey was right’ as China issue mars NBA openers The farrago rumbles on but with the NBA returning to Chinese screens during the last finals – won by James and the Los Angeles Lakers – it looks like things are returning to normal. However, the Rockets – who disappeared from all coverage – and their status in China remains to be seen. How they miss the Yao factor.