For better or for worse, the Yao Ming story has been about far more than what the seven-foot-six square-jawed center did on the court. That puts him right at home in a city that has always celebrated unique sports heroes -- from Nolan Ryan to George Foreman to a certain other foreign-born Rockets big man. Three years after Houston made Yao the top NBA draft pick, even his toughest critics would probably concede he's the best center in basketball this side of Shaquille O'Neal.
But Yao's measuring stick has a cultural component as well. Sports-marketing gurus look at him and see 1.3 billion potential fans and consumers. Ric Bucher, a senior writer with ESPN The Magazine who helped co-author Yao's memoir, says it goes beyond even that:
"Based on his general popularity, his demeanor, his approach to the game, his personality that transcends language -- I think more than just opening up the global attraction to the NBA, Yao has sort of reinspired people that have been turned off by the attitude and approach of NBA players.
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"He's old-school. And he's self-deprecating and he's unselfish and he's humble. And I think those elements have attracted or brought back fans."