There are millions of basketball fans in China now thanks to the trailblazing efforts of Yao Ming.
I was never a fan of Yao Ming.
I couldn’t be. Back in 2002, when the Houston Rockets were making the Chinese center the first overall pick, I was too worried about all the things that could go wrong, all the ways this might not work out.
My eyes had told me this could all go wrong, that Asian-Americans could wind up with an even worse rep on playground courts, if this 7-6 big man failed. I was in college at the time, playing pickup by day and living off a steady diet of NBA games at night, witnessing the likes of Allen Iverson and Shaq and Kobe and Jason Williams and Wally Szczerbiak.
And none of them looked like Yao, so Asians couldn’t be much good at hoops, right? And the lone Asian baller to come before him, Wang Zhi Zhi, had been a punchline. And the last thing I wanted was an even more hyped Asian basketball punchline.
But then Yao Ming went toe-to-toe with Shaquille O’Neal, blocking the first three Shaq shots he ever saw. He developed into a dominant – if underappreciated – offensive force and made eight NBA All-Star games. And it was Yao Ming who placed the finishing touches on David Stern’s globalization of basketball, unlocking the nation of China to the NBA and giving Asians and Asian-Americans a superstar baller around whom they could rally.
And that’s all why Yao is completely worthy of the honor he received this past Monday, when he was named to this year’s Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame class, alongside Shaq and Allen Iverson.
His inclusion in the class has drawn criticism from some, in part because the numbers (an unspectacular 9,247 total points in a too-short nine-year career cut short by injury) don’t seem to measure up to those of other greats. Former NBAer Jalen Rose went the farthest, saying that Yao “absolutely, positively” doesn’t belong in the Hall.
Yao Ming joins Allen Iverson in this year’s Hall of Fame class.
As a numbers guy, I can see the frustration, but the Hall is about more than numbers. And when you realize Yao’s impact on the history of basketball, his presence becomes undeniable. His spot in the Hall is about trailblazing, about how he singlehandedly opened the NBA to China, about how he bred a generation of Asian and Asian-American basketball fans, emerging as a rallying point for a quiet culture.
In 2010, ESPN estimated that 200 million in the nation watched the Rockets play regularly. The nation grew so interested in basketball that it helped vote Yao into the All-Star game as a rookie, ahead of Shaq. In 2005, he received a then-record 2.58 million All-Star game votes, still the second-most in the history of the game.
Yao’s bridge is open both ways, too, with aging NBAers such as Stephon Marbury heading to Chinese pro leagues to revitalize their careers.
Fourteen years later, Yao Ming is no punchline. Instead, he was the perfect emissary for both China and the NBA, a massive Asian who held his own on the court and demonstrated a unique grace when faced with racism and stereotyping off of it.
There’s an awful lot of yelling in today’s race conversations, a lot of screaming and calls for people’s heads. But Yao never did that, even as he routinely battled Asian stereotypes, especially during his early years. It was shortly after he was drafted that he took the first blow, from none other than Shaq, who gave him this greeting in an interview:
“Tell Yao Ming, ‘Ching-chong-yang-way-ah-soh,’” O’Neal told a reporter, mocking the Chinese language.
Yao never let the comments become an issue. Instead, he chose to show O’Neal public empathy, something consistently lacking in today’s racial warring.
“There are a lot of difficulties in two different cultures understanding each other,” Yao said at the time. “Especially two very large countries . . . I believe Shaquille O’Neal was joking, but I think that a lot of Asian people don’t understand that kind of joke.”
Yao Ming is as big as ever in China as he addresses the press in Beijing this week.
He’d do the same thing in December of his rookie year, when the Miami Heat gave away fortune cookies to celebrate his arrival. Another stereotype, another chance for outrage. And again, Yao laughed it off, pointed out that fortune cookies had nothing to do with actual Chinese culture and moved on.
Yao seemed to do handle everything with an understated grace, and perhaps that’s why we forget just how good he truly was on the court. YouTube the clips, and you’ll see a quietly beautiful brand of post-up hoops, with the kind of balletic footwork befitting someone much smaller than 7-6, 310 pounds.
With each elegant turnaround jumper, he defied the stereotype of the clumsy Asian, unathletic thanks to Asian genes, not meant for basketball.
No, Yao didn’t breed a massive Asian takeover of the NBA. But he changed how basketball perceived a culture, and how that culture perceived basketball.
He was anything but a punchline.