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Yao Ming: NBA's towering presence looks to his future

By Jaime FlorCruz, CNN
Jaime FlorCruz, left, with Yao Ming and his fans in the Beijing bureau after Yao was drafted into the NBA.
Jaime FlorCruz, left, with Yao Ming and his fans in the Beijing bureau after Yao was drafted into the NBA.
  • China's Yao Ming to announce on July 20 his "future personal development plans"
  • Yao Ming was drafted to the NBA No. 1 pick in 2003
  • Yao Ming was voted an All-Star player in the NBA league eight times
  • Admirers say Yao has done more for China's image overseas than any politician or diplomat

(CNN) -- It was the most neck-breaking assignment I've ever covered.

For 15 long minutes I strained my neck looking upwards as I interviewed the seven-foot-six Yao Ming just after he was drafted to the North American National Basketball Association's (NBA) No. 1 pick in 2003.

Yao was the first ever NBA No. 1 from overseas.

"I'm happy to join the Houston rockets," he told me. "Hi, Houston. I'm coming." That was all he could say when I asked him to say something in English on camera.

As an NBA rookie, he was then about to sign a four-year contract with the Rockets worth about $9 million, a mind-boggling bonanza considering the average yearly income per person in China then was less than $1,000.

The Shanghai phenomenon confessed to feeling the pressure of representing one billion Chinese in the NBA.

Yao Ming's lost legacy

But he had other pressing matters in mind.

"I have to learn to drive," he said.

Not everyone believed Yao could make the grade in the NBA.

Future for NBA's Yao?
  • China
  • NBA Basketball
  • Yao Ming

Charles Barkley, a retired NBA star and a TV commentator, was so skeptical he promised to kiss a donkey's behind if Yao scored more than 19 points in a game in his debut season.

Yao did and Barkley kissed a donkey's rear end.

"There are very few people that skilled at that size," basketball commentator P.J. Carlesimo, observed then. "He has a lot of things you can't teach."

I quickly became a Yao fan. I watched every Yao game I could catch on TV.

But I, too, wondered: Could Yao adapt to the rough-and-tumble world of the NBA? Is he tough enough to play against chest-thumping superstars like Shaquille O'Neal? And how long before he will be talking trash, shoving referees and snubbing fans?

Yao turned out to be a real giant in every way.

Yao was such a towering presence he could easily dunk the ball unless he is double or triple-teamed. You cannot teach height, as they say in basketball.

But he was also equipped with a soft shooting touch that enabled him to score from the outside.

"For a big guy, Yao had excellent basketball IQ," says Ma Jian, 41, a retired national team player who played for Utah in the NCAA in the 1990s. "He worked the hardest, too."

In the nine years he played in the NBA, Yao averaged 19 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks. His field-goal average: 52.4%. He was voted an All-Star player in the league eight times.

I also admired Yao for his maturity and modesty.

On court, Yao was pugnacious but never repugnant.

Off court he was witty but never smart-alecky.

When the Shanghai Sharks, his former basketball team in China, retired his number, Yao took out a full page thank you ad in Chinese newspapers that said: "How does a single blade of grass thank the sun?"

Next to the giant panda perhaps, Yao is the most recognizable -- and likable -- Chinese face. "He's just such an affable person with a great sense of humor," recalls Colin Pine, who served as Yao's personal translator during his first few years at Houston.

Often described as the "Smiling Giant," his wholesome image helped change some of the stereotypical images of China overseas.

Admirers say Yao has done more for improving China's image overseas than any modern-day politician or diplomat.

"Yao has become a cultural ambassador who promotes Chinese culture to the world," writes the Chinese-language paper Basketball Pioneer. "To quote Kobe Bryant, he has 'built a bridge between each of us.'"

Yao, 31, is scheduled to meet the press on July 20 to talk about his "future personal development plans".

If he retires this summer, Yao would leave behind a giant void. "He is the core of China's basketball," says Ma Jian, who often works as a sports commentator. "He is the face of basketball and the NBA in China."

Will Yao Ming's departure endanger the NBA in China?

He is also one of the richest men in China, having made millions of dollars in NBA salaries and commercial endorsements.

He endorses Chinese brands like China Unicom and China Life Insurance, and global brands like Pepsi, Visa and McDonald's. He has even bought ownership of his old team, the Shanghai Sharks, a title-contender in China's local basketball league.

What kind of legacy will Yao leave behind?

"Too soon to tell," says Jiang Yi, managing editor of Sports Illustrated China, a bimonthly Chinese-language magazine. "He's just starting to make greater things happen."

Observers here say Yao can make a huge impact even in retirement.

"He can use his experience, resources and influence to do many things," says Ma Jian, who works as a sports newscaster and promotes a high school-level league. "We need a lot of good coaches, teachers, grassroots programs -- just some of things he can support. We need a lot of Yao Mings who have the passion for basketball."

We in the media have dubbed the Yao years the "Ming dynasty." To the Chinese he has indeed been a regal presence. They just wish the dynasty wasn't ending so soon.