Chinese basketball fans began watching NBA games in 1987, the year in which China Central Television (CCTV) began broadcasting NBA games. Megastars such as Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson instantly became household names. Then along came more transformational American talents like Kobe Bryant, LeBron Jamesand Stephen Curry
Yao Ming, however, always has a special place in Chinese fans' hearts.
The 7-foot-6 center from Shanghai isn't flashy. Unlike Allen Iverson, Yao's image is so clean that it borders on boring. The color of Yao's Reebok sneakers is so dull that for many years in China it lagged far behind Nike's glamour shoes.
He's too tall -- basically no Chinese person can relate to or emulate his playing style. Generation after generation, Chinese teenagers have worn baggy pants like Iverson or Under Armour sneakers like Curry, mimicking the look and moves of their idols. And they simply don't practice Yao's post moves.
But Yao is one of us. His experience is our experience; his time is our time.
A generational symbol
In China, those who were born in the 1980s are called "post-80ers." They are part of the first generation that started to enjoy the benefits of China's economic reforms of the late '70s that allowed a more open market. Yao was born in 1980. His parents' generation emerged hungry from the suffering and political turmoil they grew up in. They were able to provide for their children. When Yao was growing up, millions of Chinese people started to see the world beyond their own windows.
Former NBA commissioner David Stern's tireless efforts to globalize the NBA took root in China in 1987, that same year, the American fast food restaurant chain Kentucky Fried Chicken opened its first store in Beijing. Two years later, the first Shanghai KFC outlet opened, and some time later, a 10-year-old Yao waited two hours in line to get his first taste of American food.
Fifteen years after that the Houston Rockets drafted Yao as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 NBA draft. The NBA's popularity in China boomed. His first game against Shaquille O'Neal and the Lakers attracted more than 200 million viewers in China. The Rockets instantly became "China's team." Former U.S. President Bill Clinton described Yao Ming as "China's single largest export to the United States."
Yao's emergence on an elite world sports stage was followed by two fellow post-80ers: Liu Xiang, Yao's fellow Shanghai native, a gold-medal-winning 110-meter hurdler from the 2004 Olympics and world-record holder. And then came Li Na, at one time the world's No. 2-ranked women's tennis player and two-time Grand Slam winner.
By no small coincidence the trio's success paralleled China's. The country's gross domestic product per capita in 1987 was $302. It rose to $1,149 by 2002. That same year, KFC opened China's 700th restaurant.
Yao retired in 2011 because of persistent injury issues. Liu was next in 2012, and Li finished her career in 2014. In China, this big three enjoyed "once-in-a-lifetime" status, not only because each had world-class achievements, but also because they crafted a brand-new kind of Chinese athlete. They spoke English; they had a unique sense of humor; and their charisma was incomparable and, most importantly, authentic. After he finished his NBA career, Yao decided to go back to China. In a 2014 interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, he said: "There is more opportunity [in China]. We have a lot that can be developed."
He was correct. Now back in China, he has made himself a professional basketball club owner (in 2009, he bought the Shanghai Sharks, his former CBA team), a successful businessman (he owns his own wine label), a congressman and an ambassador for wildlife protection.
In 2015, China's per capita GDP was $8,027. KFC has more than 5,000 outlets all over the country.
Yao is the product of his era. Fortunately for him and for most Chinese people, it has been a very good era.
On Friday in Springfield, Massachusetts, an entire country will celebrate Yao Ming's Hall of Fame entry. Undoubtedly his speech will thank everybody important to him. But it is the Chinese fans who will also thank him, for being the country's best export -- and import -- between United States and China.