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Houston Rockets: 20 Years and Counting: The 5 Greatest Moments In The Les Alexander Era

By Michael Ma
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4. Rockets Draft Yao Ming

Feb 15, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets former player Yao Ming poses with youngsters during the 2013 NBA Cares day of service at the Fifth Ward Community. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

In 2002, a 7’6, 22-year-old center from China entered the NBA Draft. His name was Yao Ming and people were intrigued by him, but not so much for his basketball skills. There were so many questions concerning him: can he actually play? How would he translate to the American game?  Would the Chinese government even let him come overseas?

The CBA (Chinese Basketball Association), who were Yao’s employer at the time, and the Chinese government stated that they would not let Yao go overseas unless he was taken first overall by the Houston Rockets.  The Rockets agreed to take him, making Yao the first international player ever to be drafted no. 1.

America got their first glimpse of Yao at the 2002 NBA Draft, in what was a rather awkward and uncomfortable interview at the time:

Yao had the bust label tagged on him the moment the Rockets drafted him.  Many experts and analysts predicted that he would fail in the NBA, but he quietly found himself about a month into his rookie season. His early success created a path for the NBA into China, a country that had not had much interaction with the West at that time.

While his career was derailed by injuries for the most part, Yao was one of the best centers in the game when he was healthy, averaging 19 points and 9.2 rebounds for his career. The Rockets had championship aspirations during Yao’s time, as he was paired up with superstar Tracy McGrady, but both players struggled with injuries during that span and the Rockets were never able to put together a consistent line-up. But Yao’s contributions on the court were just a shadow of what he meant to the game.

Yao is seen as the catalyst for globalizing the game of basketball, and set the standard for NBA stars today to market themselves on an international level. He is also the main reason that the Rockets are dubbed “Team China” now.

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