A point on Yao and where he fits
It was the opening night of the men’s basketball tournament at the Beijing Olympics and the atmosphere in the Wukesong Arena was electric.
A galaxy of NBA stars was on the court – Kobe and LeBron and Carmelo and countless others – and the flashbulbs popped and jaws dropped and fans ooh’d and aah’d at every turn.
For a local talent.
A man whose impact on his country and his sport cannot be understated.
Yao Ming, figuratively and literally on one of the giants of the modern basketball era, was such a talisman for the sport and China and the emergence of his nation as a sporting power that he far eclipsed any of the North American icons who shared the court with him.
In that aftermath of that game, a 101-70 United States victory over China that was entirely irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, Kobe Bryant summed it up as well as anyone.
“Yao built the bridge for all of us.”
Yao, the 7-foot-5 Chinese supernova, has retired from the NBA after eight seasons, done in by feet that couldn’t handle the rigours of the sport or the toll his sheer size put on his body.
The game may be worse off on the court – he had sublime talents that even neophyte fans could appreciate – but his impact away from the game went beyond explanation and his legacy will be great regardless of the fact his career was so short.
Yao opened the Chinese market to the NBA, generating billions of dollars in revenue over the course of his career, creating a market previously untapped that helped the league become a true global enterprise.
And he was beloved.
The scene that night in Beijing was only out of the ordinary for its scope and the fact it was the Olympics and the casual sports fans around the world were paying attentlon.
Everywhere Yao went, with the Chinese national team or the Houston Rockets, was an event.
His first appearance on North American soil after the Rockets made him the first overall pick in the 2002 NBA draft was in Vancouver with the Chinese national team for an exhibition against Canada and it was if royalty had descended in the city.
It was the same the night he made his home debut against the Raptors to begin the 2002-03 season; it was the same when he played in Toronto and they had to set up a special interview area to handle the media overflow. He was the most popular interview subject at every all-star game or international event he appeared at.
He is one of the few athletes of contemporary times known by just one name.
But it was forever thus with the man who became an icon at such a young age. He was a touchstone for the game worldwide and despite the fact his body let him down, he will be forever known as the guy who opened avenues for basketball that had been closed.
But it’s only because he had skills and personality that made him comfortable in the spotlight. He loved to play the game but he never shied away from his responsibility of being a representative of his country. He was omnipresent in Beijing and handled everything with aplomb; he knew he was, appreciated it and basked in it.
Yet, one of the things that stands out most about Yao is that he was far more than simply a gargantuan curiosity. He was not Gheorghe Muresan or Manute Bol or even Shawn Bradley, all freakishly big men whose movements were stilted, athletes with little fluidity to their games, players simply players because of the size.
Yao could play.
He was the best free-throw shooter on his Houston teams for his entire career – an unusual skill for someone of his size -- and he had athletic ability that belied his size. He was as smooth-moving as any big man in the game and the “what-if” factor will be forever attached to his too-short career.
But when it comes time to truly assess his career on the court – and it’s too early to do that today – his impact on the sport goes far beyond what he did as a player.
He opened avenues, he made an impact.
He was Yao.