When Yao Ming retired this summer after an up-and-down nine-year NBA career, I felt as if my heart had been ripped out.
Yao Ming was the reason why I had become a basketball fan.
With his monstrous height, gentle style of play, and all-around popularity, he was supposed to be the NBA's next big thing—like Michael Jordan or Shaquille O'Neal. Unfortunately, he was plagued by foot trouble during his later years, which caused him to miss two seasons and ultimately forced him to stop playing.
To the casual fan who was lucky enough to see Yao play at least once, he was a slow guy who couldn't jump, who played solely because he was tall. Others saw him as a guy who had plenty of potential, a potential that could have been realized had it not been for his injuries. My personal opinion was that he was not a great player, but, rather, a pioneer.
Yao was the third Chinese basketball player who left his home country for the NBA. Additionally, he was the first, and only, Chinese basketball player chosen with the first-overall pick in the NBA draft.
When Yao made his debut as a member of the Houston Rockets, not only was the whole country watching, but all of China was watching, too. Yao became the NBA's most popular player, and his friendly feud with Shaq only escalated his popularity. He was the starting center on the Western Conference All-Star team, and at the end of the year, finished second in the Rookie of the Year award to current Knicks star Amare Stoudemire.
It was Yao's popularity, not his play, that put him on eight NBA All-Star teams, including a streak of seven consecutive nods from 2003-2009. His mere presence helped expand the NBA from a Big Four sport to a global enterprise. During his career, he was a popular spokesperson, appearing in commercials for Apple, Visa and Garmin. Need I say more?
Yao's popularity during his career has translated well into his relatively short post-playing career. After he retired, the NBA Hall of Fame asked him if he would like to be voted in as a contributor, per a request from the Chinese Media. Yao requested that the Hall wait, feeling that the nomination came too soon. As a gesture of respect, the Hall has said that it's Yao's decision to determine when he's ready to be nominated.
What Yao has done to the NBA since making his debut nine years ago is transformed it. What was once a sport with only a few international fans quickly grew into an international marketing success. Yao opened the gates for international talent to play in the NBA, paving the way for players like Yi Jianlan, Danilo Gallinari and others.
Yao may not have been the best international player, but he definitely was one of the most popular in history.
What lies in the future for Yao? When he decides that the time is right, he will be voted in to the Hall of Fame as a contributor to the game. Yao will forever symbolize the growing international presence in the NBA, and will continue to be regarded as one of the most popular players in the NBA.