How Yao Ming broke into the NBA and created a lasting legacy

A week of training camp, two practices and an exhibition game were all Yao Ming and the Houston Rockets had to prepare for his debut. To call it a tall order would be a huge understatement.

Over a period of five years, Yao had only played basketball for the Chinese national team and the Shanghai Sharks of the Chinese Basketball Association. So when the 7-foot-6 phenom was taken with the No. 1 pick in the 2002 NBA Draft, he became the first international player selected with the No. 1 pick who had never played college basketball in the United States. United States.

As a result, Houston brought Yao into the league. He didn’t score but grabbed two rebounds coming off the bench and playing the team’s second shortest minutes – just under 11 – in the Rockets’ season opener 91-82 loss. against the Indiana Pacers on October 30, 2002. .

Even though Yao handled it well, former Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich said Athleticism it was a tough ask for any rookie, let alone Yao.

“It wasn’t the ideal situation for a new player coming into the NBA to come into training camp so late,” said Tomjanovich, a 2021 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee who coached Houston from 1992-2003. “We always worry about that with an injury, especially when you’re a young player. Sometimes it sets you back a whole year. And then the pressure starts to hit that player, and he doesn’t go into the thick of it. of the topic until much later. But he came with all this attention, and here he’s playing against (athletes like) Shaq (O’Neal), and we didn’t know how it was going to be because we were just training against I don’t even remember how many exhibition games (he played) – if he played any – or what happened there, but it wasn’t an ideal situation, and I found he handled it fantastically.

“That’s the most important thing – especially for a young player – because you’re going to hear different things than what you heard in college or in an international team. There are different ways to perform the different techniques , the offenses and the defenses you would use. Then also getting to know the individuals, where they like the ball and how they get used to you… that’s very important and something. He did it brilliantly.


A Yao Ming rookie in the 2002-03 season with coach Rudy Tomjanovich. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

There was only pressure around the then 21-year-old during the draft process. It caught the eye in the United States. The year it was written, new regulations in China required that any NBA basketball player had to give up half of their income – salary, endorsements, etc. – to the government and the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA).

After that, the ABC demanded that Yao return home to play for the national team, and he wasn’t cleared to play in the NBA until the morning of the draft after his team of advisors and the Rockets assured to the league that he would be the team’s choice. .

His delayed arrival was anticipated, as he joined Houston after playing for China at the 2002 FIBA ​​World Championships. The additional hurdles the Rockets and Yao had to overcome, aside from being a rookie, also opened the door to a slew of scathing reviews. Several basketball pundits predicted he would be a bust and even made bets on how poorly he would play.

Charles Barkley was so convinced Yao would fail that his bet was to kiss Kenny Smith’s ass if the rookie scored 19 or more points in his first season. Eight games later at Staples Center against the Los Angeles Lakers, Yao went 9 for 9 from the field and was down 20 points.

Opposite the skepticism were those who believed Yao could eventually help Houston regain the prominence it had in the 1990s when another big man, Hakeem Olajuwon, helped steer the franchise to NBA championships. consecutive.

Tomjanovich, who coached those title teams, had unrivaled confidence in the newcomer. The Rockets were interested in Yao, even if it meant it took time for him to reach his potential, as his talent and tools weren’t like they had seen before.

“(He was) a guy who we think is a once-in-a-lifetime type player,” Tomjanovich said. “With that size, with that amount of skill, and then the other thing to learn how smart he was with his approach to the game.”

The biggest hurdle Tomjanovich and his team faced was preparing Yao for elite players night after night in the NBA. While the CBA groomed Yao for it, its talent pool paled in comparison to the NBA, but Tomjanovich and Yao worked together to close the gap.

“Preparing for the different types of players he would face (was the main challenge),” Tomjanovich said. “They would probably be stronger and more athletic than a lot of the players he had faced before. And he was ready for double teams and things like that. He’s a very advanced passer for a young big man, and he could see over the defense, of course.

“He was so selfless. My philosophy was to let emotion come into play with the players. When someone makes a good game, I would call a game and say, ‘Let’s do it again’. Give him the ball back. And if a guy keeps making good plays, I keep going to him. I mean, that’s how I did things, and that was kind of my built-in motivation. (Yao) says, ‘Oh, coach, I couldn’t do that. I would be embarrassed. He says, ‘I wouldn’t want the ball that many times in a row, you know?’ I say, “Well, you’re a rare person, you know?”

This came into play the first time Yao and O’Neal fought for the position. Veteran O’Neal finished with a better stat line — 31 points and 13 rebounds — but the rookie got the last laugh with a dunk with 10 seconds remaining to secure a 108-104 overtime victory for the Rockets. Two of Yao’s six blocks in the game came against O’Neal in the opening minutes of the game, and six of his 10 points came during that streak. He also added 10 rebounds to his final numbers.

In an ironic twist of fate, after all the criticism and jokes at Yao’s expense to start his career — which O’Neal, for his part, has said he’s since regretted — the two ended up in the same class. of the 2016 Hall of Fame.

“One time he got me on the post, and he turned around to pull a fadeaway, and I jumped as high as I could, and he still had about 3 feet left,” O’Neal said. on NBATV. “I was like, ‘Dang, this guy is tall.’ And the first time I played him, I was like, OK, you know what, he’s a big guy. You gotta take it to his head, and I went with a little finger roll oopsie -doop, and he blocked my first three shots.

At a 2011 press conference in Shanghai, Yao announced his retirement from the NBA. Multiple ankle and foot injuries cut short his playing career, and dozens of people around basketball lamented his brief stint in the game as he missed 250 games in his final six seasons in the league.

Tomjanovich has yet to hear from his former player, who is now the CBA’s sixth president.

“Let me say that I’m very grateful to have been a part of his life,” Tomjanovich said. “Once in a while, I get calls from him. He is so grateful. He is so humble. It was one of the joys of my life. I wish I could have continued training him, but I got sick. What a joy it was to have him on my team.

Yao was a member of eight NBA All-Star teams, as well as five All-NBA teams, and in 2009 helped the Rockets win their first playoff series since 1997. He also had his No. 11 jersey retired in 2017. O ‘Neal, who grew to have a friendship with Yao in the years following his first season, went a step further, saying that if Yao hadn’t been hampered by his injuries, he could have ended up like the one of the greatest centers of all time the league had ever seen.

“He was very nimble,” O’Neal said on NBA TV. “He could play inside, he could play outside, and if he hadn’t had those injuries he could have been up there in the top five centers to play the game.”

(Shaquille O’Neal and Yao Ming top photo: Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)

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