The Great Ambassador

There’s a scene in Bruce Lee’s “Fist of Fury” in which his character, Chen Zhen, watches as the Japanese military gives his school a banner with a message representing what they think of the Chinese: “Sick Men of East Asia.”In other words, they think the Chinese are weak. Furious, Chen Zhen not only dispatches the men who bring the banner, but also takes vengeance at the dojo where the soldiers came from to send a message, proving to them just how wrong they were. It is one of the most famous scenes in Hong Kong Cinema and has been redone countless times, most famously by Jet Li.

When Yao Ming became the #1 pick in the 2002 NBA Draft, many were quick to cast him in the same light – weak; a bust. Charles Barkley had even gone on record to say that Yao would never score 19 points in a game. Yao’s career numbers, on the other hand, would tell a different story. The true testament to his career, though, does not lie in his statistics from season to season. Instead, his mark will be felt in how he changed the game – as well as the people who watch it – both domestically and internationally.

Yao was hyped to be a superstar before he ever played a minute in The Association. He’s definitely not the first player to have been given that treatment. Still, his arrival as the first foreign player ever to become the number one pick in the NBA Draft came at a time when the league and its fans weren’t even ready to accept a European-born player as a superstar. Considering that there are less than 15 cities in all of the United States that boast sizeable Asian communities to this day, saying they were far less prepared for a star player of Asian descent is an understatement. This was proven mightily by tacky promotions such as the Miami Heat handing out 8,000 fortune cookies for Yao’s first game in South Beach.

Some might say that Yao Ming’s arrival may have been ahead of his time. Others might say he was simply out of place. He has always played a fundamentally sound game during a time when the SportsCenter highlight reigns supreme. He tries to let his game speak for itself when others are waiting to showboat about theirs. His detractors likened these characteristics to Yao being “soft,” still in disbelief that he could have ever beat out Shaquille O’Neal for a starting nod on the All-Star team.

It’s hard to fault his detractors when Yao Ming has advanced past the first round of the playoffs only once in his career. Although many would also be quick to blame a certain McGrady fellow for this dubious distinction, the question that remains is whether or not he was ever given the opportunity to be even greater. With his obligations to the Chinese National Team, rarely if ever did the 7’ 6” big man find time to rest, playing more games on average over the course of a year than even the most battle-tested playoff veterans. If putting in extra time for obligations such as the Olympics or the FIBA World Championships has been known to take away from a player’s durability during the NBA season, one can only imagine the toll that is taken when playing every summer over the course of multiple seasons.

Despite the heavy workload, he never shied away from the responsibilities to both his country’s team and the Houston Rockets. And while it’s unfortunate that his fans on both sides of the globe will never get a chance to see Yao’s potential as a player fully realized, the growth of the NBA on an international scale continues, thanks to his emergence in the league. Since his arrival, there have been charity games in China hosted alongside Steve Nash. Players such as Baron Davis and Shaquille O’Neal now boast endorsement deals with Chinese sportswear company Li-Ning. Pre-season NBA games are no longer complete without at least a couple games in Taiwan, Shanghai or Macau. Without Yao Ming, this reality becomes harder to imagine.

He’s been called “The Great Wall,” but if anything, he’s been more like The Great Ambassador, taking what Michael Jordan did as a spokesperson for the association and bringing it East. Flag down a taxi in Hong Kong and it’s Yao that proudly stands at the front of ads for the Chinese National Team. Take a walk down Hennessy Road from Wan Chai to Causeway Bay and it’s impossible to miss his endorsements adorned along skyscraper windows. Some may argue his accomplishments as a basketball player, but to others, he’s far surpassed them, reaching the level of icon.

There may never be another player like Yao, and it’s even less likely that another player will arrive that will have the same impact as him. Nonetheless, basketball has forever changed because of him. One doesn’t have to look over at the biggest country in the world to see it. Look for the Asian kid in your town wearing the number 11 Rockets jersey on the basketball court, or the one with a poster of Yao, basketball card, or Fathead. If they’re anything like I was, they grew up admiring the likes of Jordan and Bird, but never had an athlete in the sport that they could connect with – one that made them think, “Hey, he looks just like me. Maybe I could be like him someday.”

Thanks to Yao Ming, we finally do.

Brandon Tomyoy is a writer, podcaster, and occasional China correspondent for The No-Look Pass.

Follow him on Twitter: @dingyu
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