A look back at the history between the Houston Rockets and China

Houston Rockets - Yao Ming (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)
Houston Rockets - Yao Ming (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images) /

With the recent events surrounding Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey, now is a good time to revisit how popular the Rockets are in China.

The history between the Houston Rockets and China actually goes back to before Yao Ming was selected as the number one draft pick in 2002. In the late 70s, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s trip to the United States in 1979 featured a stop at a rodeo. The simple wearing of a 10-gallon hat sent the signal to China that Houston was a safe place.

While the Michael Jordan era in the 90s began the overall explosion of international interest in the NBA, Yao mania is what eventually swung the doors wide open for the Houston Rockets to become China’s favorite team for many years.

The start of the Ming Dynasty in Houston

The 7 foot 6 inch Yao Ming was drafted by the Houston Rockets in the 2002 NBA draft after a dreadful 28-54 season that featured players like Walt Williams, Kelvin Cato and an aging Glen Rice. The arrival of Yao instantly made the team an international sensation, especially in China, of course. Millions in China would wake up at the crack of dawn to watch Rockets games since there’s a time difference upwards of ten hours between them and Houston.

Former Houston Sports Writer Fran Blinebury recalls a conversation he had with Jeff Van Gundy about a trip he took with Yao in China.

While stopped at a traffic light, Van Gundy asked his young center what might happen if Yao got out of the van and simply walked through a nearby public park. “Do you me to play for the Rockets this season?” Yao asked with a grin. “Do you want to ever see me again? Because if I start to walk down the street, I might get swallowed up.”

Yao’s popularity not only grew for himself but extended to every teammate he had during his time with the Rockets.

Houston Rockets: China’s Team

With Yao playing all eight of his seasons for the Houston Rockets, it catapulted the team into becoming the number one team in China. Players like Steve Francis and Tracy McGrady signed deals mainly due to being teammates of Yao. Even lesser-known teammates Shane Battier, Kyle Lowry, Patrick Patterson and Carl Landry signed with the Chinese sportswear brand Peak. Luis Scola signed with Anta. Even Chuck Hayes signed with Qiaodan.

Of course, Yao’s reach made deals with businesses in China a no-brainer. The NBA was the first major sports league to play a game in China, which was undoubtedly made possible due to the influence of Yao Ming playing in the states. With Yao Ming’s influence, the NBA has gotten nearly 20 brands as official marketing partners in China over the years.

Even eight years after Ming’s last season, the Rockets are still hugely popular in China. James Harden went on a promotional tour recently in China and held basketball training clinics featuring Chinese youths wearing fake beards in his honor. The Rockets even adopted alternate uniforms with Chinese lettering to commemorate Luna New Year.


The popularity of Yao Ming and the Houston Rockets was a big part of the 2015 TV deal with the NBA and online business giant Tencent, a deal worth a reported $500 million at the time, and the NBA is currently the number one followed league in China online.

The NBA’s effect in China

For a long time, sports like table tennis and badminton were the most popular sports in China. That slowly started to change in the 90s with more access to watch players like Michael Jordan and continued to rise when one of their own in Yao Ming joined the Houston Rockets.

Currently, basketball, if not the biggest sport in China, is definitely number one among the four professional sports. “If there’s a second center of the basketball universe, it’s China,” Scott O’Neil, CEO of the 76ers told CNBC.

Players like Stephen Marbury and Gilbert Arenas turn to China at the end of their NBA careers, and especially in the case of Marbury, became national icons while playing in the CBA. Marbury was so popular they even built a statue in front of the home arena of the Beijing Ducks in honor of him.

Yao Ming became the owner of the Shanghai Sharks in 2009, whom the Rockets competed against in their first preseason game a few days ago. All of this can be traced back to Yao Ming entering the NBA and the Houston Rockets, who helped expand basketball into a new world.

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One thing is for sure: the Houston Rockets and Yao Ming have forever changed the way the NBA is not only seen in China but across the world.