Today marks the end of "The Ming Dynasty" as Yao finally called it quits after nearly a decade in the NBA.
His soul was undoubtedly willing; unfortunately, his body simply couldn't stand the strain any longer.
It's only understandable as he had been carrying so many people for so long.
Beyond the obligations to the Houston Rockets and the China National team, Yao found himself the face of a nation with the herculean task of bridging two vastly different cultures on opposite sides of the world.
Yao embraced this opportunity with class and dignity while being charitable and engaging, not to mention extremely funny.
Yao is not the first big man to succumb to injuries, nor will he be the last. Others can argue what might have been if he stayed healthy, received better support in Houston, played elsewhere, and his Hall of Fame chances.
What I'm here to discuss are a two subtle indirect cultural changes that have occurred over the last decade, thanks to Yao simply being Yao.
Before Yao, most Americans saw Chinese athletes through the narrow prism of the Olympics with China cast as the faceless/soulless enemy taking the place of the former Soviet Union and their Eastern Bloc satellites.
Over the weekend I was reminded how far things have come while watching, of all things, the Women's World Cup.
In the '99 Final against China, the US women were cast as valiant and noble crusaders for not only women, but for all America while on the other end of the spectrum, the Chinese players were at best marginalized and in some cases demonized in a battle of good vs evil.
Fast forward to 2008 where we are instead treated to the proud image of Yao carrying the Chinese flag into the Bird's Nest during the Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing Games with much acclaim and fanfare.
Unfortunately, at the moment, there is no heir apparent to pick up the flag; however with a nation one billion strong, it's hard to believe that another young player won't come along at some point soon.
Wherever the next Chinese superstar may be in China, he's likely to be wearing, eating, or at the very least seeing branded/endorsed products featuring the likes of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade, as the NBA marketing machine has saturated the Chinese market.
These players and countless others have Yao to thank for all of the deals they're making big money on not only in China, but all throughout Asia.
When Dwight Howard says he would consider playing in China if the lockout continues, he understands the potential of a huge opportunity given he's currently the third most popular player based on jersey sales.
Perhaps it's an empty threat, but during the last lockout such an idea would have been unthinkable for just about any legitimate NBA player, let alone a superstar.
While it is a shame we will never see Yao battle the likes of Howard again, he seems to be man at peace with his decision, and I honestly doubt this is the last we will see of him.
When asked where he will live moving forward, he wryly responded, "I will try my best to stay on Earth."
Smart man to keep the door open as one can only hope that he continues to make his presence felt at home in China, in the US, and all parts in between.
China and America are not without their differences, but with Yao, we were all fortunate enough to have a man capable of living up to his impressive stature while understanding the significance of his place in time.
Even when he wasn't trying, he still made a difference.
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