Recently announced for induction in this year’s Hall of Fame ceremony, it’s easy to forget just how groundbreaking it was when Yao Ming joined the NBA, being only 22 years old when he was drafted by the Houston Rockets. That was in 2002, and from that moment on, the world of basketball would change forever.
In Yao’s rookie NBA season, he was an instant spectacle. How could he not be, standing 7’6” and towering over everyone else in the league? When he first arrived, many were wondered if the big man from China had the skill to go with the size to compete with the NBA’s best. However, Yao was quick to silence all doubters, proving himself on the hardwood and beyond.
Throughout Yao’s 8-year career, he averaged around 19 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks a game. He was an All-Star each year and was twice selected to be part of the All-NBA Second Team, and three times for the All-NBA Third Team. Although his statistics weren’t jaw-dropping, Yao improved year after year as he held his own against the NBA’s most dominant big men, such as Los Angeles’ Shaquille O’Neal in his prime.
Before his body succumbed to injuries and ultimately ended his career, Yao was considered one of the biggest game-changers to have played in the NBA. However, beyond the statistics and accolades, Yao’s greatest contribution was serving as the gateway for billions of people around the world embrace basketball and the NBA.
“Let’s just say for the sake of arguing, its 50 million people,” former Rockets guard Sam Cassel was quoted as saying. “That means Yao attracts a major market all by himself. Actually, that’s five major markets. And we all know it’s a lot more people than that. It’s hundreds of millions watching games for the whole time he’s been in the league.”
Indeed, so phenomenal was Yao’s influence, that the NBA had to change how it did business in order to accommodate the massive boost of interest generated by his participation. Yao did more than introduce the NBA to billions of people in Asia – he busted the door wide open. And even as more Asian players found their way to the NBA, players from the USA began taking an interest in the the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA).
“I think about guys who don’t like the pressure of having to carry a city,” said Cassel. “Yao had to carry a country all the time, during his NBA season and the Olympics or the World Championships.”
Other legends to be inducted this year include Allen Iverson, and Yao’s biggest (literally and figuratively) rival, Shaquille O’Neal. For a man who changed the landscape of basketball forever, it’s safe for everyone to agree that the Hall of Fame is where Yao rightfully belongs.