Yao Ming was always funny. Despite an obvious language barrier, interviews with an 18-year-old Yao revealed him to be charming, intuitive and affable in a way so many physical giants rarely are.
When you are at least a head or two above the crowd, you tend to duck to avoid the limelight. But not Yao. He embraced his height and because of that no one has ever stood taller.
Still, it was a quantum leap of faith for anyone to believe that this precocious teenager would not only be the first Asian player inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame some 17 years later, but that he would deliver a hilarious, touching and inspiring acceptance speech entirely in English.
Inducted along with fellow giant Shaquille O’Neal and mercurial guard Allen Iverson, Yao brought down the house with a dig at Iverson, who had once gone on a famous rant about practice being useless.
“When I heard that I was speaking first tonight, I thought that someone made a mistake,” said Yao. “The first speaker should be the great Allen Iverson. I need practice more than he does.”
After a stellar career in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) with the Shanghai Sharks, Yao was the first pick in the 2002 NBA draft by the Houston Rockets. His rookie season began slowly before he settled in and became not only an all-star on court, but an international phenomenon off it.
Watch: Yao Ming’s Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Speech
His popularity knew no borders and in the summer of 2003 as Hong Kong was desperately looking to relaunch itself after the deadly Sars outbreak, the Chinese national team came to town to play an exhibition game with the wildly popular Yao as the focal point.
He was no longer a teenager and insisted on doing a one-on-one interview in English. Minus the requisite entourage or handlers, he spoke of the obvious transition from the CBA to the NBA and after a few minutes there was an uncontainable commotion outside in the hallway as the swelling pack of Chinese media were getting restless waiting their turn.
“Do you mind if they come in a bit early,” he asked and after I agreed it became madness within seconds. “It doesn’t bother me,” he said with a smile. “I’m used to it.”
And it was true, despite the absolute chaos the calmest person in the room by far was Yao. You can’t teach that; you can’t coach it either.
It turned out to be a fantastic event against the Melbourne Tigers with Yao playing the entire game in what would prove to be a somewhat portentous moment.
Watch: Yao Ming Career Retrospective
The national team always made sure that Yao never missed an event, regardless of how insignificant.
Combined with a gruelling NBA schedule, his career would be cut short by chronic injuries and despite playing only eight seasons and having very good but not great statistics, Yao was inducted into the Hall of Fame as much for his global impact on the game as his on-court play.
Admitting that Yao probably didn’t achieve everything he wanted in his brief career, NBA commissioner Adam Silver added that his achievements were far from done.
“I have no doubt,” Silver said, “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.”
Actually, he already has. Yao was pivotal in humanising the face of a new China to a sceptical and somewhat frightened world.
He is a free thinking mind in a country whose government routinely espouses the virtues of group think.
Yao’s activism against the inhumane consumption of shark fin soup is rare indeed and has resulted in a drastic drop in domestic consumption.
And while he is too enlightened to publicly beat the nationalistic drum, his patriotic credentials are so firmly intact that he is beyond reproach.
Yao has been unfailingly generous as well in using his time and profile for a number of charitable causes both in China and abroad.
A shrewd businessman, apparently he even makes a damn good Napa Valley Reserve wine. But at over US$200 a bottle, most of us will have to take Robert Parker’s word for it.
Still, despite the absurdly inflated TV numbers on the mainland that his career inspired, despite all the merchandise he sold, the billions he made for the NBA and the millions he made for himself, and despite the endless and effusive gushing over him from social commentators and certain sectors of the media (ahem), the reason behind his massive popularity is ridiculously simple.
He is good people. If you don’t like Yao Ming, you don’t like people.