summarize the man, the player, the marketing phenomenon.
To begin with, Staples Center was the first place I ever saw Yao in person. It's a moment that sticks with me like the first time I saw the Eiffel Tower. Some things just need to be witnessed yourself, and Yao is one of them. It was Nov. 17, 2003. (That also happened to be the first time Yao scored more than 19 points in an NBA game, which led to this unusual method of honoring a bet by Charles Barkley.)
A couple of hours before the Rockets played the Lakers, Yao was shooting jumpers on the court, and I stopped in my tracks to marvel at just how tall a human being he was. I covered Gheorghe Muresan on the Washington Bullets before. Muresan was 7-foot-7. But Muresan moved awkwardly, like those stop-motion-animation monsters in the "Jason and the Argonauts" movies. Yao was smoother than Muresan, but thicker than the freakishly thin Shawn Bradley and Manute Bol. He was big, yet normal, if that makes sense, and that's what made him so unusual.
He was so tall that even the 7-foot-2, 300-whatever-pounds Shaquille O'Neal said: "That's a big dude."
Yao brought out the worst and the best in Shaq. The worst was when O'Neal went on television and used a cheesy kung fu movie dialect to issue a challenge to Yao. The best came the first time they squared off in the playoffs (at Staples Center, of course) and O'Neal played the most inspired defense I've ever seen from him. He jumped out on screens, recovered on pick-and-rolls, dedicated himself to preventing Yao from being a factor and held him to 10 points on 4-for-11 shooting. It was actually a sign of respect from Shaq, that he took Yao seriously enough to exert maximum effort.
Shaq respected Yao because Yao was a big man who relied on skill in addition to size, but never to the point he set up shop 20 feet from the basket. The NBA needed more of those players, just as the NBA needed more stars from China. Yao did his part -- more than his part, really -- in establishing the connection between the league and the most populated country in the world.
Which brings us to his legacy. Another notable Yao Ming Staples Center memory came when Yao wasn't even playing. It was about an hour before this year's All-Star Game, and the media interview room was taken over by Sprite's China division. There was Sprite signage everywhere, TV monitors and speakers blaring loud music. There was a crowd of Chinese journalists. Then out came Kobe Bryant, who sat down and took questions from a moderator, all to promote an ad campaign with Taiwanese star Jay Chou.
I can't imagine Kobe doing any other corporate promotion right before the All-Star Game, not even for Nike. But that's how much these players value Chinese endorsements. We've seen players such as Steve Nash and Baron Davis sign deals with Chinese shoe companies. Maybe these things would have happened eventually without Yao. But not as quickly, and not for as much money.
Yao doesn't get credit for taking the NBA overseas. You can thank Detlef Schrempf, Drazen Petrovic, Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoc and the Dream Team's triumphant run through Barcelona for that. But Yao certainly gave the league entrée to Asia. For now there's a trade imbalance, with more Americans heading to China to seek profits than Chinese players entering the NBA for their own benefits. Maybe it will take 19 years after Yao for his influence to come to fruition the way the Dream Team was reflected in the number of foreigners selected in this year's draft.
Yao will always be the precedent. Not only because he was the first foreign player selected with the No. 1 overall pick, but because of the way he blasted through any American cultural ignorance and won a place in our hearts with his sense of humor.
Just as his career was cut short because his body kept breaking down, I'm disappointed we didn't get the full scope of his jokes because of the language barrier, despite his rapid acclimation to English.
I'll leave with one more impression of Yao I picked up at Staples Center, albeit one I found on a quote sheet laying on a table in the media room during the 2004 All-Star Weekend in L.A.
Question: What kind of American music do you listen to?
Yao: I like the National Anthem. I listen to it at least 82 times a year.