BEIJING: Basketball Hall of Famer, business mogul, cultural ambassador – no Chinese athlete is more legendary than Yao Ming, who broke into the NBA 20 years ago at 2.29 million.
Drafted by the Houston Rockets on June 26, 2002, the center launched a stellar career that earned him a string of individual accolades and made Shanghai-born Yao Ming a household name in both China and the United States.
A languid but seemingly agile player, Yao Ming’s gentle off-court personality and witty humour cemented him as a fan favorite and boosted the NBA’s profile in his home country.
No Chinese player has matched his achievements since he emerged, and with the league mired in rising tensions between Beijing and Washington, that prospect seems even more unlikely.
In 2002, Yao Ming was the face of an increasingly confident and open China whose economic rise was matched by global sports prowess.
“He brought the NBA into China, and he brought China into the NBA,” said Gao Dabao, a 30-year-old fan, outside a basketball court in Beijing.
“That was when the NBA had the biggest impact on China, and we all used to watch it on TV,” he added.
The son of two former basketball pros, Yao Ming mingled with the Shanghai Sharks before being selected by the Rockets with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft.
He averaged 19 points and 9 rebounds per game during his nearly decade on the Texas team known as the “Ming Dynasty.”
Yao Ming made eight All-Star appearances and was named to the All-NBA team five times, but injuries forced him to retire at the age of 30 in 2011.
“Yao Ming is the only Chinese player who has truly become an NBA star,” said Chinese basketball writer Wang Meng.
“He grew into one of the best players on the Rockets, something other Chinese players couldn’t do,” he told AFP.
Yao Ming was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016 along with Shaquille O’Neal and Allen Iverson.
Yao Ming is now the chairman of the Chinese Basketball Association.
Despite his wealth, he kept a relatively low profile, dabbling in winemaking, conservation and charity work.