Yao Ming stands on the verge of basketball immortality.
The retired 7-foot-6 center, who spent his entire nine-year NBA career with the Houston Rockets, has been elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. An induction ceremony will be held Sept. 9 in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Yao is an undeniably pivotal figure in the globalization of basketball, having catapulted the NBA's popularity in his native China.
In a nod to Yao's jersey number with the Rockets, we present 11 things to know about the eight-time NBA All-Star and Hall of Famer:
When the Rockets selected Yao with the first pick of the 2002 NBA draft, it marked the fifth time in franchise history that the team made the No. 1 overall selection. Elvin Hayes (1968), Ralph Sampson (1983) and Hakeem Olajuwon (1984) preceded Yao into the Hall of Fame. The Rockets also selected John Lucas with the No. 1 overall selection in 1976.
First game, first start
In his NBA debut, Yao played 11 minutes off the bench in a season-opening 91-82 road loss to the Indiana Pacers on Oct. 30, 2002. He grabbed two rebounds but didn't score, missing his only field-goal attempt. "I learned that I still have a lot to learn, and I'm just a rookie,'' Yao said through an interpreter. "It's a very long road. ... I didn't feel good to sit on the bench and watch my teammates losing. Of course, I want to contribute."
Yao made his first career start on Nov. 22, 2002, racking up 18 points, 8 rebounds and 4 blocks in 32 minutes as the Rockets beat the visiting Washington Wizards 93-86. "He's getting better and better,'' Wizards guard Michael Jordan said afterward. "I think his footwork is better than people thought. He's going to get even better as he gets used to playing in the NBA and this type of competition."
Most points in regular season: 41 versus Atlanta, Feb. 22, 2002.
Most points in postseason: 33 versus Dallas, April 25, 2005, and May 7, 2005.
Most rebounds in regular season: 22 versus Phoenix, March 11, 2005.
Most rebounds in postseason: 15 versus Utah, April 30, 2007.
Most blocks: 8 versus Los Angeles Lakers, Dec. 15, 2006.
Most assists: 7 versus Atlanta, Feb. 22, 2002.
Yao vs. Shaq
The first meeting between Yao and Shaquille O'Neal -- No. 1 overall picks drafted 10 years apart -- stands as one of the most eagerly anticipated individual matchups in NBA history. Yao stood 7-foot-6 and weighed 310 pounds. O'Neal was 7-foot-1 and about 360 pounds. Each big man had been hearing about the other for years, and they finally squared off when the Lakers visited the Rockets on Jan. 17, 2003.
Yao blocked O'Neal's first three shots and totaled 10 points, 10 rebounds and 6 blocks, as Houston earned a 108-104 overtime win. O'Neal racked up 31 points and 13 rebounds. Steve Francis scored 44 points for Houston. Kobe Bryant fell one assist shy of a triple-double but shot 5-for-21 from the field.
"We beat the Lakers today, but Shaq is still Shaq," Yao said through an interpreter. "He's like a truck. ... It wore me out. I don't know how to describe it, because I've never encountered somebody that strong before."
Said O'Neal, "He's a classy guy. I was looking forward to playing him. He's a great player. It's another challenge for me."
Yao began his professional career at age 17 with Shanghai of the Chinese Basketball Association and won a championship in 2001-02, his final season in that league. He also led the Sharks to championship series appearances in 2000 and 2001. Years after moving on to the NBA, Yao rescued his former team from financial peril by purchasing the franchise in 2009.
Yao emerged as the top player in the Chinese league in 2000-01, averaging 27.1 points, 19.4 rebounds and 5.5 blocks per game. That season, the Sharks lost the championship to the Bayi Rockets, who were led by another future NBA center, Wang Zhizhi. When the Sharks won their first title the following season, Yao averaged 32.4 points, 19.0 rebounds and 4.8 blocks per game.
A sneak preview
Yao began raising his profile internationally when Nike brought him to a camp in Paris in 1997. Del Harris, head coach of the Lakers at the time, was among the spectators who saw the young star and predicted a bright future.
Yao came to the United States in 1998, also courtesy of Nike, to practice and play summer tournaments across the country. He was 17 and measured 7-foot-5, 252 pounds. He told reporters his favorite player was Olajuwon, and he matched up against a 16-year-old Tyson Chandler at a camp in San Diego. He attended the Nike All-America Camp in Indianapolis and the Michael Jordan Flight School in Santa Barbara.
Scouts quickly became familiar with Yao. It wasn't a matter of whether the NBA wanted him, but how soon he could be pried from the Sharks and China's national team.
Mom and dad played, too
Yao is the son of former pro basketball players Yao Zhiyuan and Fang Fengdi. The elder Yao is described as anywhere from 6-foot-7 to 6-foot-10, depending on the source. Fang, 6-foot-2, once captained the China women's national team. Yao married Ye Li, a 6-foot-3 former basketball player, on Aug. 6, 2007, in Shanghai. The couple has a daughter, Yao Qinlei, who was born in Houston in 2010 and goes by her American name, Amy.
Yao played for China's national team in the 2000, 2004 and 2008 Olympics. In 2008, he carried the Olympic torch out of Beijing's famed Tiananmen Gate below the iconic portrait of Mao Zedong. He was China's flagbearer at the Opening Ceremonies in both 2004 and 2008. Ye played for the Chinese women's team at the 2004 Olympics.
The Yao Ming Foundation was founded to provide relief following a massive earthquake in the Sichuan province of China in 2008. Yao serves as a global ambassador for Special Olympics. He has campaigned for environmental causes and against AIDS-related discrimination. He's a spokesman for WildAid, which decries the killing of sharks for their fins and the poaching of elephants and rhinos for their tusks and horns.
How his career ended
Yao began his NBA career in strong form, missing only two games in his first three seasons. Injuries then began to take a toll, and he played in fewer than half of the Rockets' games over the next six seasons.
Yao played his last game on Nov. 10, 2010, in Washington. He played six scoreless minutes, with one rebound and one block, before leaving the game with what was first reported as a strained leg tendon. The injury turned out to be a stress fracture, however, and he was unable to return to the court that season. Yao announced his retirement at age 30 in a Shanghai news conference on July 20, 2011.
He retired with NBA career totals of 9,247 points, 920 blocked shots and 4,494 rebounds.
A grape investment
Shortly after retiring from the NBA, Yao entered the wine business. Yao Family Wines launched its inaugural brand in December 2011 and recently opened a tasting room in St. Helena, California. The company produces two Cabernet Sauvignon varieties and a red blend, all of which are vinted from Napa Valley grapes.
Hall of Fame
Yao will be the first China native inducted into the Hall of Fame. He will also be the first person born in the 1980s to be so honored. This year's induction ceremony will take place three days before Yao turns 36, but he won't be the youngest Hall of Famer in history. That honor belongs to Cheryl Miller, who was 31 when she was inducted in 1995.