The NBA’s popularity in China has grown by leaps and bounds over the past two decades, and Yao Ming is undoubtedly a big reason for that.
The 7’6″ center was selected by the Houston Rockets first overall in the 2002 NBA draft, living out the dream of many young Chinese basketball players today. But, for a young Yao, reaching the NBA wasn’t exactly on his radar.
While talking with Bleacher Report’s Ric Bucher, Ming opened up about the lack of NBA coverage in China when he was growing up.
“I am asked all the time, ‘Who did you follow? Who did you want to play like growing up?'” Yao recalled just a few days ago in a phone call from his hometown, Shanghai. “No one outside of China ever heard of those players for me. I didn’t dream of playing in the NBA. I had different dreams.”
Before his knees and feet eventually gave out on him, Ming managed to make eight All-Star teams (always earning the top vote thanks to enthusiastic Chinese fans), two All-NBA Second teams, and three All-NBA third teams.
Now, as Yao enters the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame alongside superstars like Shaquille O’Neal and Allen Iverson, the culture of basketball in China is far beyond anything Ming possibly could’ve imagined.
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“The NBA was light-years from us and me when I was young,” he said. “Now the NBA has become a dream for a lot of teenage Chinese players. The world has shrunk.”