NEW YORK -- Patrick Ewing won't ever forget the first time he saw Yao Ming.
"His size... This. Is. A. Big. Man," the 7-foot Ewing clearly stressed about what he remembered when he first saw Yao as an assistant with the Washington Wizards. "Oh my goodness, this man really is huge."
Nets center Brook Lopez's first encounter with Yao in a 2008 game still has him in awe today.
"I think that was the smallest that I've ever felt," the 7-foot, 275-pound Lopez says. "Going up for the jump ball and then I do my first hook and he blocked it so easily. It was like nothing to him. It was really really a unique experience. I can't compare it to anything else."
Like Lopez, I couldn't compare my first vivid memory of Yao because he was something I had never seen before. And it wasn't because of his enormous 7-6, 310-pound frame.
What blew me away was seeing someone with eyes, skin tone and hair like mine not only playing in the NBA, but holding his own.
As a Thai-American raised outside Washington D.C., I grew up a huge NBA fan in the golden era of basketball. I watched Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson and fell in love with the NBA like so many others during that magical time.
And even though I am an Asian-American, it never mattered to me if there wasn't an Asian to cheer for or watch in the NBA. That was, until Yao arrived in 2002.
Like millions in the United States and China, I watched Yao face Shaquille O'Neal for the first time on Jan. 17, 2003. Seeing Yao stand taller than Shaq and actually block the first three shots by one of the NBA's most physically dominant players ever was something I'll never forget.
I won't ever know what it is like to be taller than 5-8 so I can't relate to what it's like to be Yao. And he was born in China, I was born here in the States. But for the first time, I felt there was finally an NBA player who was of the same race, who looked like me and my relatives and competed at an elite, All-Star level.
Sure, you could say he made it because of his sheer size. There have been other 7-6 centers but none who were an eight-time All-Star and five-time All-NBA (second team twice, third team three times) selection with the kind of skill that could post career-high per game averages of 25 points, 10.8 rebounds and 2.0 blocks.
Honestly, before Yao, it never mattered to me whether there were Asians in the NBA. But now, as Yao enters the Hall of Fame, I realize he was a global ambassador both for the game and for Asians.
Indeed, Yao's impact on basketball globally, specifically on fans in China, is well documented. His first meeting against Shaq drew a reported 200 million viewers in China -- more than the Super Bowl attracts. You see today how superstars often have endorsement deals with the country and make trips there every summer. Just last month, the NBA announced the Houston Rockets and New Orleans Pelicans will face off in two preseason games in China next season as part of the NBA's Global Games China series. The first game will be held Oct. 9 in Shanghai. The follow-up takes place Oct. 12 in Beijing.
"They know everything about the game," says Lopez, who has visited China several times already either with the Nets or sponsors. "It is incredible. It is definitely not crazy to say that they are even crazier about basketball than we are here. It is amazing. There are so many different media publications, so many people following it. They really do love the game."
Initiated racial sensitivity
Yao carried the hopes and dreams of an entire nation of Chinese people on his broad shoulders. While his impact here on Asian Americans in the United States might not be something you can quantify in profits or television ratings, it was nonetheless as valuable.
For the first time, there was an Asian star picked first overall in the NBA draft. Perhaps even rarer was the fact Yao was an Asian seen in Nike, Reebok, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Apple and Visa commercials.
Being in the spotlight, he brought an increased awareness and sensitivity about not just Asians but Asian Americans for all other cultures, ethnicities and backgrounds.
Remember when the light-hearted O'Neal cracked, "Tell Yao Ming, 'Ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-so.'" This has long been the type of offensive racial slur most Asians have heard at some point in their lives. While Shaq meant it as a joke, it reinforced how some non-Asians think something like that is not hurtful for many Asians.
The former Lakers center -- who did apologize for mocking the Chinese language and Asians -- brought attention to this being unacceptable for the first time for many.
Steve Kerr, then a TNT analyst, learned something new and brought awareness to another historically derogatory term to Asians when he had to apologize for referring to Yao as "Chinaman."
"I apologize for my ignorance," Kerr said back in 2004. "I was thinking of the term Frenchman and Dutchman, and I had no idea it was used as a demeaning term in any way. I feel terrible about it, and I apologize to anybody who was offended."
There was also the time the Miami Heat held a Fortune Cookie Night -- another Asian stereotype -- for Yao's first trip to Miami in 2002. Never mind that Yao had never seen a fortune cookie in China.
"If you sit down and talk about Chinese people, nobody talks about someone being that tall," Dikembe Mutombo, who has had to try to shatter African stereotypes during his career, said in 2003 of what he learned about Chinese culture from Yao's arrival. "I think myself, I have been trying to study and ask people questions about which part of China is he from.
"Not everybody in China is short. It is like an education process that we are going through, the more we discover people, the more we learn about the culture, the language and their countries. And I think that is something Yao Ming is doing to all of us, especially the NBA players."
"You can't judge a book by its cover or by his nationality. You can't make one blanket statement like 'white men can't jump.' You can never use one statement to depict a whole race." Patrick Ewing
Besides unintentionally helping educate many who weren't sensitive to or understood Asian slurs, Yao also chipped away at a stereotype that still exists today and one that Jeremy Lin has to battle -- that Asians aren't legitimate basketball players and can't make it at the highest level of the sport.
"Yao was a point of pride for Chinese Americans," says Brian Yang, a Chinese-American actor and producer of the documentary "Linsanity." "I remember [Yao]'s first year, I think we were all like, 'will this guy really be able to hang?' And when we saw improvement, we got excited, jumping up and down and going, 'Yeah, that's right, boy!' That's why Asian-Americans started going out and buying his jersey."
Yang, 42, is a hoops junkie who was a Sixers and Charles Barkley fan while growing up in Ohio and California. Around the country, there are recreational Asian-American basketball leagues and Yang used to play in several along with running a league at one point.
Most Asians who play basketball at any level know what others automatically might think about how good they are before they even launch a shot.
"There are all these ethnic enclaves that wanted to find a way (to overcome) where they weren't getting picked on the playground when they started playing with the non-Asian dudes," said Yang, who also was on the cast of Hawaii Five-O for five seasons. "You really would have to stand out or noticed to get picked. It was easier to play (in an Asian league) with people who wouldn't question you because of the color of your skin, and that just happens to be people who are like you with about the same height and athleticism."
While it's safe to say none of the Asians in these leagues stand 7-6, they all could relate some way or another to Yao.
"My grandparents, my parents, they all came from China," Yang said. "I felt like I was vicariously living through Yao. I thought I could relate to what this guy is going through on the inside because this is what my parents and grandparents went through when they first came here. I definitely felt pride beyond the fact that he was Chinese."
Ewing says by the time Yao retired in 2011 due to injury, "he was more American than anybody else." Ewing, who remains friends with Yao, said Yao loves American culture and that he came a bit out of his reserved shell by the time he retired.
Along the way, he broke stereotypes and shattered preconceptions of Asians. If anyone ever needed proof, all they had to do was hear Shaq congratulate Yao with a Chinese greeting on Monday when the two were announced as two of the newest members to be elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.
"First time I met him, he blocked my shots like seven times," O'Neal said. "I didn't know who he was. He was actually the first guy to just turn around and look me in the eye and shoot a jumper right in my face. Yao, I want to say congratulations to you, to the nation of China, you definitely deserve it.
"You are a great player, a great ambassador to the game, a great friend. Ni Hao. Congratulations brother."
This would surely make Ewing smile.
"You can't judge a book by its cover or by his nationality," said Ewing, who learned about and experienced racial stereotypes coming from Jamaica and playing for John Thompson at Georgetown. "You can't make one blanket statement like 'white men can't jump.' You can never use one statement to depict a whole race."