Saturday, June 26, 2010

June 26, 2002: Chairman Yao

NEW YORK - There is always a risk when making a pick in the NBA draft. The questions can range from whether the player will be able to make the transition to the NBA to whether his body would hold up over a long career. There are questions about whether that player will have the type of superstar career expected of a number 1 pick, or whether a team is actually picking the best player available.

In 2002, a new question was being asked: would Yao Ming be allowed to play in the NBA?

It was a legitimate concern, as it was feared the Chinese Basketball Association would not let its most prized athlete leave to play in the United States. But after receiving assurances the morning of the draft on June 26 that Yao would be allowed to come to America, the Houston Rockets made him the number 1 overall pick. The pick made history, as Yao became the first foreign-born player to be drafted number 1 without having played college basketball in America.

After the pick, more questions arose about Yao. The main one would be how he would adjust to the pace and grind of an NBA season. He dominated the sport in China, but at 7 foot 6, that was easy to do. Would he be able to adjust physically and culturally to the United States?

It took a few years, but Yao was able to establish himself as an NBA star. He started putting up numbers worthy of a number 1 pick, proving to be a force offensively and defensively. He has been named to five all-star teams - with a lot of help from the online voting, where the Chinese fans often put him into the game by themselves - and he has played in the playoffs four times with the Rockets. He has had injury issues, having not played 80 games in a season since his third year, but overall, the Rockets haven't been disappointed by their pick.

More importantly, he has been able to adjust to life in the United States. Despite the media presence always surrounding him as China's most popular athlete, he has kept his off-court life relatively private. He has been involved in charity work in both the U.S. and China, and his mere presence in the NBA has helped the sport grow in the world's most populous country.

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