Global Ambassador Yao Ming Continues To Grow The Game in Springfield

SPRINGFIELD, Mass.– Perhaps it was only fitting that three of the NBA’s greatest living centers– Bill Russell, Dikembe Mutombo and Bill Walton– were here this past weekend to present physical imposing 7-6, 310-pound big man Yao Ming of China for induction into the Naismith Hall of Fame at Symphony Hall.

Yao is a legendary figure in Chinese basketball history and he wanted to acknowledge the help he received from those icons when he first came to this country in 2002 as the No. 1 pick of the Houston Rockets in the NBA draft. Russell invited Yao to his home during Yao’s rookie season and offered advice that stayed with him. Walton was there to offer support following his first foot surgery, having gone through the same brutal injury himself when he played for the Portland Trailblazers. Mutombo, his former roommate with the Rockets, helped him grow as a player. “Nothing can break the bond between us — not even all those elbows you gave me in practice,” Yao said.

Yao’s acceptance speech was touching and offered a look into his playful personality. As the first speaker of the night, Yao opened by cracking a joke at Allen Iverson, the former Philadelphia 76ers star who was also inducted, in reference to a May 2002 press conference where he said the word practice more than 20 times. Yao said: “When I heard that I would be the first speaker, I think that maybe somebody made a mistake.”

The crowd chuckled.

“Don’t laugh, because I think this spot belongs to the great Allen Iverson .You know why? Because I need more practice than him,” Yao said as the crowd and Iverson broke into laughter.

Yao didn’t spare fellow inductee Shaquille O’Neal, either, poking fun of the former Los Angeles Lakers star’s well-documented struggles at the free throw line.

Then he laughed when the 7-0 O’Neal, his biggest rival, told the audience he didn’t speak with Yao for three years because he thought Yao couldn’t speak English.

Yao averaged 19 points, 9.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in eight years with the Rockets, who reportedly will retire his XXXL jersey close to the Lunar New Year Jan. 20.

He made the NBA All Star game five times in six years during his prime but suffered through a series of foot and ankle injuries that sidelined him for all but five games in his final season before he retired at the age of 30. His numbers were good, but not great when compared to past Hall of Fame members and his team only advanced past the first round of the NBA playoffs once. But Yao was selected for induction by the International Committee because he fit into the same category as Hall of Famer Maurice Stokes, who had his career undermined by injuries but were recognized as having been so important to the sport that the injuries did not matter.

It was a wise decision by everyone involved.

Yao has been a beloved ambassador for the sport.

When Yao became the first international player to be selected with the first overall pick in the draft without having played college basketball, he was originally seen as a marketing gimmick. The Miami Heat gave out fortune cookies the first time his Rockets played there. But Yao eventually overcame racial stereotypes and his popularity quickly soared when his skill become evident, expanding the NBA’s global impact to his home country of China.

Yao opened the Chinese market to the NBA and its advertising partners Anheuser-Busch, Kodak, the Coca-Cola Company, Reebok and the Walt Disney Company, parent company of NBA broadcast partners ABC and ESPN. Yao himself endorsed Nike, Reebok. Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Visa, Apple, Garmin and McDonald’s.

Two years after Yao entered the league, the NBA became the first American professional sports league to compete in China, where Yao and the Rockets played two pre-season games against the Sacramento Kings in Beijing and Shanghai. Twelve years later, the 10th anniversary of the NBA Global Games China is coming with the Rockets scheduled to play New Orleans in early October in both Shanghai and Beijing.

Following this year’s games, 13 NBA teams will have played 22 games in China since 2004.

China has gone wild for the NBA. LeBron James and Kobe Bryant have become cultural icons whose faces were all over Nike billboards in Beijing during the 2008 Olympic games. Some 90 American players have found their way into the Chinese Basketball Association.

Yao participated in charity events during his career, including the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders. In the NBA off-season in 2002, Yao hosted a telethon that raised $300,000 to help stop the spread of SARS. In 2007, he held an auction that raised $950,000 and competed in a charity basketball game along with Steve Nash, Carmelo Anthony to raise money for underprivileged children in China. After the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Yao donated $2 million in relief work and created a foundation to help rebuild schools that were destroyed by the 8.0 blast.

Yao has also been a dedicated supporter of Special Olympics and serves as Global Ambassador and member of the International Board of Directors. In July 16, 2009, Yao bought his former club team, the Shanghai Sharks, which were on the verge of bankruptcy. In August 2012, Yao started filming a documentary about the northern white rhinoceros. He is also an ambassador elephant conservation. He has filmed a number of public service announcements for elephant and rhino conservation with partners African Wildlife Foundation and Wild Aid.

It is nice to see the Hall recognize humanitarians and pioneers like Yao and Mutombo and the late John McLendon Jr., who have given so much to their countries and communities. Mutombo started the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation to improve living conditions in his native Democratic Republic of Congo in 1997. He personally donated $18.5 million for the construction and completion of a modern $29 million, 300-bed hospital near the outskirts of the Congolese capitol of Kinshasa, where a quarter of the citizens live in poverty. He also received the Goodermote Humanitarian Award from the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health for his efforts to reduce polio globally by bolstering vaccination efforts and bringing treatment to victims of the disease.

McLendon did more than any coach in history to use basketball as a force for achieving breakthroughs in American race relations. McLendon, the first African-American to earn a physical education degree at the Kansas University in 1936. His mentor was Dr. James Naismith himself. McLendon made history when he leveraged the NAIA to racially integrate whites-only establishments in Kansas City. He won 744 games in 34 years and coached Tennessee A & I to three consecutive NAIA championships in 1957, 1958 and 1959 before becoming the first black coach at a predominately white institution when he took the Cleveland State job in 1961. He was an assistant on the Olympic team in 1968 and 1972 and was enshrined in the Hall at a contributor in 1978 and again as a coach this year. He revolutionized the sport with his fast break offense, traveled to 56 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and South America after retirement, giving clinics and teaching the fundamentals of the game.

In the summer of 1980, McLendon was invited to Nanking, China, by the Chinese government for a series of clinics to teach Chinese basketball coaches how to coach the game. They videotaped all the sessions and produced a nationally distributed coaching manual. According to Milton Katz, who wrote McLendon’s biography, the People’s Commissioner of Basketball in China told Coach Mac that the sport “will flower in China because of what you are doing.”

Two months later, in September 1980, Yao Ming was born and became the engine that fueled the growth of the sport in his country, which was started 80 years ago by Mr. Mou Zouyun, a basketball legend. Mr. Mou came here to Springfield to study basketball. He went back to China and dedicated his life to Chinese basketball. “Today, the CBA Championship Cup is named after him,” Yao said. “This cup is the life goal that every CBA player can dream of.”

Yao’s basketball journey began on the back of coach Li Zhangmin’s bicycle when he hitched a ride to my very first practice on the basketball court. He became an international sensation when he played for Li Qiuping who prepared Yao to make the quantum leap to the NBA when he led the Sharks to the CBA championship.

Yao lived in two worlds when he played for the Rockets.

“I will always consider you my family,” he said to Houston fans. “I am a Texan and a Houston Rocket for life.”

But Yao belongs to the world. In 2012, he announced a youth basketball partnership with NBA China and two years later, Yao and NBA China opened the first-ever NBA Yao School in Beijing, providing after-school basketball training and fitness programs for children.

“His career was cut short, and I think he didn’t achieve everything he wanted to on the floor,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said. “But I have no doubt that over a long life, he’s going to end up probably having as great an impact on this game as anyone who has ever played.”

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Dick Weiss

Dick Weiss

Writer/Columnist who has covered college hoops scene for Philly, NY Daily News. He is a member of the College Basketball writers' Hall of Fame.