ONLY now – with reports from the United States suggesting the Houston Rockets could become the most expensive franchise in National Basketball Association (NBA) history – is Yao Ming’s true legacy being put into context.
The 7ft 6in superstar spent his entire eight-year NBA career with the Rockets, driving up the popularity of both the team and the league in China and throughout Asia.
If the Rockets end up being sold for more than the US$2 billion former Microsoft boss Steve Ballmer paid for the Los Angeles Clippers, much of it will be down to the role Yao played in building the team’s profile in Asia.
Owner Leslie Alexander this week put the Texas franchise up for sale – having earlier this month tied superstar guard James Harden to a four-year, US$228-million contract extension and traded for nine-time All-Star Chris Paul.
The future of the franchise looks incredibly secure but a large amount of that must be attributed to its past.
At the heart of that past – certainly since the turn of the century – is Yao.
China’s first basketball superstar was selected first overall in the 2002 NBA draft and was an All-Star eight times before injuries ended his career in 2011, aged 30.
His status transcended basketball, with then-NBA commissioner David Stern acknowledging upon his retirement Yao had provided “a bridge between Chinese and American fans”.
Forbes has estimated the Rockets franchise is worth US$1.65 billion, although as The New York Times has noted, Forbes valued the Clippers at US$575 million only 10 months before Ballmer bought the franchise for a record US$2 billion.
Yao should buy the Rockets.
— Mike Prada (@MikePradaSBN) July 17, 2017
While making a case for why the Rockets may end up being sold for more than the Clippers fetched, The New York Times highlighted how they “have a huge toehold in China” as a key factor.
Yao’s time in Houston opened up the Rockets to an entirely new audience, which in turn became the NBA’s largest market outside the US.
Tracy McGrady, a seven-time NBA All Star and another long-serving former Rocket, also contributed to the team’s popularity in Asia during a stint with the Qingdao DoubleStar Eagles in 2012-13.
Former Rockets president George Postolos, who now runs a sports consultancy business, said:
“With the Rockets’ history, having had Yao Ming and the team’s high profile in Asia, James Harden, Chris Paul and the high profile they have on the current roster, all the other attributes of the franchise, they’re gonna be very attractive.”
Interest in the future ownership of the Rockets will be ramped up if, as has been speculated in some quarters, Yao becomes firmly linked to a bid for the franchise.
There is already a Chinese presence at boardroom level in the NBA. Lizhang Jiang, general manager of Shanghai-based Double-Edged Sports, last year bought a minority stake in the Minnesota Timberwolves, and Yao is well placed to become the figurehead of any Chinese bid for the Rockets.
Yao has shown a willingness to embrace basketball ownership and politics, having bought Shanghai Sharks – the team that developed him as a young player – in 2009. He also serves as Chinese Basketball Association president, having been appointed earlier this year in a progressive move by the association.