John Doleva, the president and CEO of the Hall, said Tuesday that Yao has been nominated by a member of the Chinese media and his credentials will be considered by an international panel. As a contributor, Yao would bypass the usual five-year waiting period for retired players.
The 7-foot-6 Yao retired in July after leg and foot injuries ended his eight-year NBA career. The eight-time All-Star averaged 19 points and 9.2 rebounds in the NBA.
He'll also be remembered for his global impact on the league, almost single-handedly expanding its reach throughout Asia.
Doleva said a panel of seven "experts on the international game" will consider Yao's credentials, and six of the seven will have to approve Yao's election. The panel is only allowed to select one individual, and Doleva said Yao will be facing about 12-15 other candidates for induction next year.
The deadline for nominations is Nov. 1. Doleva says a member of the Chinese media contacted him to ask about the categories available for individuals, and submitted a formal application this week on Yao's behalf.
"It has to go through the process," Doleva said. "There is no guarantee when someone is nominated that they will be elected in their first year. That's kind of what makes the process work. The committee takes a look at the pros and cons."
Yao can certainly make a compelling argument.
His charisma and popularity helped spike merchandise sales and prompted record TV ratings for games after the Rockets made him the top overall pick in the 2002 draft. NBA commissioner David Stern called Yao "a transformational player and a testament to the globalization of our game."
Yao also donated $2 million to set up a foundation to rebuild schools destroyed by the earthquake in Sichuan province in May 2008. He carried the Olympic torch through Tiananmen Square and his country's flag during the opening ceremonies at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Former Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy, now an ESPN analyst, said Yao deserves Hall of Fame consideration, not just for his statistics, but for his unprecedented impact on the game. Van Gundy coached Yao from 2003-07.
"He's been one of the greatest ambassadors to ever set foot on an NBA floor," Van Gundy said. "This guy touched so many people, and really opened doors in China, not only for himself, but for so many others."
Doleva said Yao could make more history if he's inducted as both a contributor and as a player. He'll first be eligible as a player with the class of 2017.
"There are examples of people who have been elected as players, and then elected as coaches," Doleva said. "But there has never been anyone elected as a contributor, and then elected as a player or a coach. That's not to say it can't be done, there are no rules against it. But it would be the first time."