Thirty-three years ago today, a man-child was born in Shanghai, China. Yao Ming, arguably one of the most dominant centers (during his relatively short career), celebrates his birthday today. Though his career ended rather quickly (the stress of being a 7-6 big man took its toll on his feet in particular), he helped change the NBA landscape and opened the NBA to a brand new fanbase in China.
Yes, China loved Jordan and Kobe, but Yao was the first Chinese player to be relevant in the NBA. His career averages may not scream “wow!” (19.0 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 1.9 bpg), but during his 8-year career, Yao Ming was the first (and probably last) of his kind. Will we ever see another 7-6, 310-pounder with a soft shooting touch and above average passing ability in our lifetime?
Jeff Van Gundy, Yao’s former coach, once told Grantland’s Jonathan Abrams the following about Yao: “People are saying he was pretty good. No, he was dominant. He could play. You could make the case he didn’t do it for long enough to be considered an all-time great. But this guy was dominant when he played. In his age group, he was the best center — when healthy.”
With all that considered, it felt necessary to take a look back at some of the best moments of his career in honor of the big man’s birthday.
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10. 2005 NBA ALL-STAR GAME
This has to be one of the top moments of his career not because of his in-game statistics (11 points and eight rebounds), but because in his third year in the NBA, Yao, with the help of his significant Chinese fanbase, broke the All-Star votes record previously held by someone by the name of Michael Jordan. He would be voted into the game every year after.
9. 2009 NBA PLAYOFFS VS. PORTLAND – GAME 1
In what would be the beginning of his last playoff run, Yao started the series off with this dominating Game 1 performance. Yao was simply unstoppable; no really, he didn’t miss from the field (or the free throw line), finishing with 24 points and nine rebounds.
8. 2002 HOUSTON VS. DALLAS
In only his 10th career game, Yao went up against another international superstar (Dirk Nowitzki) and showcased his ability to take over a game for the first time. Yao, whose rookie year started a little rough (Yao started his rookie year with some serious duds before this game. He only got into double-figures twice and featured games with such statistical duds of: zero, two, zero and three points.), shushed the critics with a 30-point, 16-rebound and 2-block performance. Yao had officially arrived.
7. 2002 NBA DRAFT
In what would be the Year of the International Player (a record 19 international players were drafted), Yao became the first international-born player to be drafted No. 1 without first an American university (Olajuwon and Ewing both went to college). Not only was this a remarkable moment for the NBA and China, in particular, but it provided fans with this awkward/hilarious satellite feed that should live on forever!
THE JOY, THE HAPPINESS! Wait, why doesn’t anyone seem excited? This was the first of what would end up being many awkward draft moments for the NBA. Yao was at the forefront for awkward draft encounters.
6. 2002, HOUSTON VS. SAN ANTONIO
In Yao Ming’s first battle versus the Big Fundamental (Tim Duncan), Yao Ming came out on top with a tremendous stat line of 27 points, 18 rebounds and three blocks, all the while helping to hold San Antonio’s two Hall of Fame big men (Duncan and the legendary David Robinson) to a combined 10-for-29 shooting. This was the first time Ming showed how his game-altering size could cause serious problems versus the cream of the crop NBA big men.
5. 2006, HOUSTON VS. ORLANDO
Dwight Howard was coming into his own in his second year in Orlando (remember when he was a dominant, fun-loving player everyone loved?). One of my favorite things about Yao is that he reportedly always liked to judge himself against his greatest competition, and in the post-Shaq NBA nobody presented themselves as a bigger threat than Howard. Yao typically came out on top, and this game was no different as he posted a monster 29-point, 11-rebound performance while holding Howard to just seven points on 1-for-5 shooting.
4. 2005, HOUSTON VS. PHOENIX
Going up against the toughest competition from his draft class, and another superstar whose career was altered by injuries (Amar’e Stoudemire. Remember, at one point, Stoudemire was once considered an MVP candidate and one of the top five players in the NBA… And then his knees said is enough is enough and he became the poster boy for terrible and inexcusably bad contracts.). Oh how things have changed. Yao delivered a signature performance (27 points, 22 rebounds, five blocks) while forcing Stoudemire to go 9-for-23 from the field. At this point the Rockets were on a roll, and Yao looked like an MVP candidate.
3. 2009 NBA PLAYOFFS VS. L.A. Lakers, GAME 1
Coming back from numerous injuries, Yao had one of his best performances as the Rockets looked like they were on their way to the top of the Western Conference (before Yao was injured in Game 3). Game 1 featured a monster performance from “The Great Wall” as he dropped the stat line of 28 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks (and no missed free throws, by the way) as Pau Gasol looked like a benchwarmer and Andrew Bynum looked like Kwame Brown. (Underrated note on Yao: he had one of the most crucial traits for a big man: the ability to make free throws. This prevented defenses from following the “Hack a Shaq” or now as its called “Just foul Dwight Howard as he walks up the floor.”)
2. 2005 NBA PLAYOFFS VS. DALLAS, GAME 2
This is another battle between Dirk and Yao, the international superstars of our generation. Dirk and Yao went back and forth in this game and Yao pulled together this impressive performance: 33 points, eight rebounds, two blocks and only missed one shot! This was one made for ESPN Classic, as both teams fought before the T-Mac/Yao combo closed it out in the waning moments with Yao freeing McGrady up for the game-winning shot.
1. 2004, HOUSTON VS. ATLANTA
We end this list with Yao’s career-high scoring game, a game in which he looked simply unstoppable against the smaller Hawks frontcourt. Yao finished with 41 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists and two blocks (while playing 50 minutes) in this overtime thriller.
As we look back on the short, yet possible Hall of Fame career of Yao, there are plenty of memorable moments and highlights that cross my mind. Does he deserve to be in the Hall of Fame (I say yes… but later)? Was he a real superstar? Remember he came from China and a totally different culture and adjusted perfectly. (For a fun time, search Yao Ming learns to trash talk. The stories some of his teammates tell about Yao adjusting to a predominately African American culture, and learning the slang his teammates used is one of the funnier NBA stories.) Yet at the same time, the two things I remember most about Yao are his proneness to injury and 5-9 Nate Robinson blocking him, which is never how a Hall of Famer should be remembered. But on his birthday, let’s look back at all Yao brought to the NBA, the good clearly outweighing the bad.
Where does Yao rank among the greatest centers ever? Should he be in the conversation?
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