"I don't think anybody was more of global icon in the NBA than Michael Jordan. But Yao is different. He's Chinese, and he is an icon for the globalization of our game. He is a symbol of this Chinese renaissance and their determination to compete on a world stage," said NBA Commissioner David Stern.
Stern sent a message to Yao's farewell conference, held in a five-star hotel in Shanghai on Wednesday afternoon, hailing the celebrity player as a "bridge between basketball fans" in the two countries.
"Yao Ming has been a transformational player and a testament to the globalization of our game," he said.
"His dominant play and endearing demeanor along with his extensive humanitarian efforts have made him an international fan favorite and provided an extraordinary bridge between basketball fans in the United States and China."
Thanks to Yao, the NBA saw its popularity soar in China and throughout Asia. A number of NBA stars, including his Rockets teammates and his arch rival O'Neal, earned hefty commercial contracts in China. Former NBA players like Stephon Marbury and Smush Parker joined Chinese CBA clubs. More and more Chinese enterprises choose to throw big money in the NBA to have their slogans and logos seen on broadcasts during NBA games, which usually earn high ratings in Chinese TV channels and on-line broadcasts.
Yao is not the first Chinese to play in the NBA, but he is the most important for sure. He proved that Chinese can well adapt to the high-pressured playing style. He also conquered various difficulties and accumulated plenty of experience for his followers who want to live and play basketball in the United States.
Most overseas-based Chinese athletes consider local language as a major barrier when they move abroad, and so did Yao. Back in 2002, Yao could hardly tell the difference between "What day is today?" and "What's the date today?". Two years later Yao could poke fun in English.
Once queried by media about his English skill, Yao quipped: "I have learned how to say 'Next question'."
Yao's influence went far beyond sports.
The video in which he taught Rockets teammate Tracy Mcgrady how to handle chopsticks was widely watched on the Internet. He served Dikembe Mutombo and Patrick Ewing with traditional Chinese food in his Yao Restaurant where the doorway is nine feet high, the table and chairs are super-sized, and large plush recliners are specially designed for him and his craft brothers.
Yao, labeled as China's biggest export to the United States, built a bridge that introduced millions in the two countries to cultures they didn't really know.
"America is learning things about the People's Republic of China," the NBA Commissioner once said. "And a lot of people in China are learning about America through him."
Yao Ming has a big heart.
When a deadly earthquake hit China's Sichuan province, Yao donated two million yuan to victims and helped to raise money for quake relief efforts.
"When I was an elementary student, I was taught to help people when they are in need," said Yao, who launched the Yao Foundation in 2008 that helps Chinese children in poor areas.
Yao also dedicated himself to awakening the public's awareness of social welfare and green issues.
"As one of the most high-profile athletes in these Games and with a fan base of millions across the world, I am sure he can help us raise public awareness on the environment and Climate Change issues," said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner when Yao became the first-ever Environment Champion of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in 2008.