On Friday, Yahoo Sports and the Houston Chronicle reported that Rockets center Yao Ming was calling it quits and retiring from the NBA. This, after a career that began with limitless promise and dominating performances before ultimately being cut short due to injuries.
In eight seasons with the Rockets, the 7'3" big man from China shot 52.4 percent from the floor, averaged 19 points and 9.2 rebounds per game, numbers which suggest that Yao was headed towards Springfield, Massachusetts and numbers that leave many of us wondering what if?
However, it's truly a disservice to focus on what could have been with Yao Ming when you consider that this gentle giant had perhaps the biggest cultural impact of any player of his generation.
Yao was truly one of the game's greatest ambassadors and his impact extended far beyond the surprisingly smooth game he brought onto the court for a man of his size. In fact, his cultural impact on the game is comparable to that of the 1992 Dream Team, a squad which made NBA basketball popular and relevant across the globe.
Thanks to Yao, the NBA was embraced by the most populated country in the world once he was selected first overall in the 2002 draft. Because of Yao, China now had an investment in this American sport and it opened the gates for other Chinese basketball players to follow Yao's large footsteps to the NBA.
Consequently, it also allowed American basketball players to expand their personal brands into China and financially capitalize on the ever-growing popularity of their sport. Players such as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Steve Nash—to name a few—all have established endorsement deals with numerous Chinese companies, reinforcing the fact the the NBA's popularity is not solely confined within the boundaries of the United States. They have Yao to thank for that.
So even though Yao won't be headed to the Hall of Fame, the NBA should remain forever grateful to the immeasurable contributions he has made off the court since he first arrived in the States back in 2002. Aside from Michael Jordan, probably no one has done more to enhance the popularity of the NBA than the transcendent, gentle giant that is Yao Ming.