Yao Ming, the 'emperor' of Houston and Chinese basketball

Yao Ming was much more than just a leading big man for the Rockets. Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

HOUSTON -- Inside the Chinese Community Center, located on the outskirts of Chinatown in one of America's largest cities, there's a subtle reminder of the impact of one man to this town -- and maybe even this country.

On a side wall behind a pair of teenage girls selling Girl Scout cookies is a sign of a financial commitment from donors for a building campaign. The names read like a who's who of Houston, from Texans owner Bob McNair and his wife Janice to major banks such as JP Morgan Chase and Washington Mutual. And one athlete. In fact, only one basketball player: Yao Ming.

The pledges range from $10,000 to $49,000.

Yao, who was voted into the Basketball Hall of Fame on Monday, is so much more than stats on a basketball court.

"He has a lot of fans back in China," said Ray Xia, who moved to the United States from China 10 years ago. "He's a successful business man, and a lot of people in China and here regard him as an emperor."


Xia, who is standing outside a nearby childcare center, is asked to repeat the word.

"Yes, emperor," he said.

Yao spent nine seasons in Houston after becoming the Rockets' No. 1 overall pick in the 2001 NBA draft. His impact was not only felt as yet another of a long line of elite big men to lead the Rockets, but Yao also created a bridge between the NBA and China. The Rockets are China's most popular NBA team and when Yao played in Houston, attendance increased in each of his first three seasons.

"I don't think people cared about the Rockets before he came here. After he became an NBA player we started covering the games and more people went. The Asian community embraced the Rockets and supported Yao." Wea Lee, publisher, Southern Chinese Daily News

Some of it can be attributed to the new Toyota Center, which opened in 2003, but there's little doubt how Yao was able to bring fans of Asian descent to watch NBA basketball.

"I don't think people cared about the Rockets before he came here," said Wea Lee, 67, a publisher of the Southern Chinese Daily News, who's office is based in Houston. "After he became an NBA player we started covering the games and more people went. The Asian community embraced the Rockets and supported Yao."

Lee estimates the population of Rockets fans increased mainly because of Asian fans migrating to the Houston area for other businesses. Based on U.S. Census Bureau numbers, Houston has a five percent Asian population. And while some weren't basketball fans, they knew who Yao was.

"Yao made Houston famous around the world," Lee said. "I think it gradually happened, people remember him for basketball but he was so much more."

Yao conducted visits not only to Chinatown while he played, but other areas of the city, as well for numerous charity events. He always attended with a smile and a humble attitude.

"His outreach to Asian people was so impactful," said Nine-Min Cheng, a former director of a community outreach program that worked with the Rockets. "He had endorsements nationally, locally and internationally. He was a very humble person and people related to that. They liked that. It didn't matter what was going on, Yao Ming was respectful and people gravitated to that."

The Rockets have a strong global impact for the league. The team will play for the fourth time in China when it takes on the New Orleans Pelicans in the preseason next October. Houston is one of several NBA teams that celebrate Chinese New Year.

"I'm not a basketball fan," Xia said. "But I know who Yao Ming is and what he meant to so many people."

Yao hasn't forgotten the city of Houston. In June 2010, Yao, while recovering from foot surgeries, attended a ceremony to open a playground.

In the back of the facility, Yao helped plant a tree.

"I want to thank everybody who volunteered with helping us build this play ground," he said at the ceremony. "It's for all the kids and maybe in the future maybe our kids will play here in the future and hopefully this is just the beginning for us."