Yao Ming (姚明, pinyin:Yáo Míng, born September 12, 1980 in Shanghai, China) is a popular basketball player. He currently plays center for the Houston Rockets in the National Basketball Association.
Among basketball's tallest players at a listed height of 7 feet, 6 inches (2.29 m), Yao debuted in the Chinese Basketball Association as a presumably shorter 17-year old. He put together a solid year for a young player, scoring 10 points and grabbing 9 rebounds a game in 1997-98. Missing a lot of the following season to injury, he returned in 1999-2000 with 21 points per game and a league best 14 rebounds per game, adding 5+ blocks per to boot. The 2000-01 season proved highly fruitful for Yao, as the 20-year old was MVP of the league with a fantastic year, scoring 27 a game, and grabbing an exceptional 19 rebounds per.
He had experience in the Sydney 2000 Summer Olympics and was a veteran of international competition for a few years prior but the 2001 season definitively put him in the minds of NBA scouts. However, he chose not to enter the NBA draft in 2001 as an international player, with the CBA assuring him he would not get released from their league if he went. His choice not to go may have elevated his stock, as he scored 32 points a game in 2001-02, doing so with a 72% field goal percentage, with 19 more rebounds a game, second in the league in both. He won a sportsmanship award and more importantly led his team, the Shanghai Sharks, to a CBA title. He was even more dominant in the playoffs and had a game where he made all 21 shots he attempted.
Yao was draft eligible in 2002, with international players being eligible if they were 22 at the start of the NBA season. Widely considered a hot prospect, he allegedly wowed scouts with a terrific exhibition at a draft camp. It would catch the eyes of the team with the #1 pick, the Houston Rockets. The Rockets had needed a center after the departure of Hakeem Olajuwon a year before, so Houston drafted Yao with the first selection, the team seeing him as the perfect man to replace Hakeem.
During the 2002 preseason, Yao played with the Chinese national team at the FIBA World Championships in Indianapolis. He made the all-tournament team in Indianapolis, alongside fellow NBA rookie-to-be Manu Ginobili and established NBA stars Dirk Nowitzki and Peja Stojakovic.
Yao's preseason performances, however, were questionable, and left many wondering why he was the 1st pick. He started the regular season on the bench, and still left a lot to be desired. He began to turn things around in mid-November in a game against the Los Angeles Lakers by scoring 20 points in a game where he made all of his shots (9 field goals and two free throws). This performance led to a memorable televised incident where TNT basketball analyst Charles Barkley, having lost a bet in which he stated Yao would never score 20 in a game for the season, was supposed to literally kiss the buttocks of TNT co-analyst Kenny Smith, but was forced to fulfill the bet on a donkey brought onto the TV set by Smith. Two games later, against the Rockets' in-state rival Dallas Mavericks, he deposited 30 points and grabbed 16 rebounds in a game that showed that Yao could contribute to his team's cause. By the end of the month, Yao was firmly entrenched in the starting lineup.
By December and January, Yao was proving to be a highly consistent starter. He put up few big games, largely because he didn't play lots of minutes in games, but he helped his team when he did take the court. He was becoming a marquee name, and eventually he was perceived as a rival of the Lakers' star center Shaquille O'Neal's, turning Rockets/Lakers games into Yao vs. Shaq. Shaquille would be criticized for comments he made before one of these matchups, as he told a reporter to leave Yao a message, a "message" which mimicked the Chinese language. Yao took it in stride, and eased the situation by joking that "Chinese is a hard language to learn."
That sort of good humour and light-heartedness off the court, plus his reputation for being very personable, made him extremely popular among fans. His likability inspired a catchy song in the Houston area (based on the popular "Olé" chants you would hear at a European football game), and, despite being just a rookie, Yao quickly became one of the league's most marketable players. Featured in advertisements of Apple, Gatorade, and a popular Super Bowl ad for Visa, it did not take long for Yao to be a household name.
Following the All-Star break, Yao continued the consistency he showed in the first half of the year, as he helped the Rockets battle for the playoffs, although in the end they missed out. Yao had still proved to be very productive, and his first year was still a qualified success. Despite his success, he finished only 2nd in rookie of the year voting, losing out to high schooler Amare Stoudemire of the Phoenix Suns after the Rockets failed to make the NBA playoffs.
During the NBA's offseason in 2003, Yao has spent a lot of time helping the prevention of SARS in his home country. Among his efforts was hosting a telethon, which would raise $300,000 US dollars to help stop the disease.