Injuries cut short former Houston Rockets center Yao Ming’s career, as he played just eight seasons in the NBA. However, he will reportedly be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this year. Ming was a dominant force with Houston, averaging 19.0 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per game while earning an All-Star selection in each season as well as five All-NBA Team nods. When he retired, he was sixth in Rockets history in points (9,247) and rebounds (4,494), trailing only Hakeem Olajuwon in blocks. With Ming expected to be enshrined into basketball immortality in a few months, here are four of his best moments in the NBA.
4. Becoming the first international player to be drafted with the first overall pick
Prior to the 2002 NBA Draft, plenty of hype surrounded Ming, who had developed into an extremely productive player playing for the Shanghai Sharks of the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA). He won the CBA Finals MVP while also leading the league in rebounding and blocks for three straight seasons. When the Rockets won the draft lottery to get the first overall selection, Ming immediately became the player who they had their eye on.
Houston’s decision to take him with the first pick made NBA history, as the 22-year-old became the first international player to be selected first overall without having previously played U.S. college basketball. Ming’s entrance into the league expanded the NBA’s horizon to China, a country that has become one of the biggest supporters of the game abroad since then.
3. Game 1 of 2009 Playoff Series against the Lakers
In his final full season in the NBA, Ming helped the Rockets reach the second round of the playoffs for the first and only time during his tenure. Houston had a prime matchup against the defending Western Conference champion Los Angeles Lakers, who were coming off a 4-1 first-round series win over the Utah Jazz. The momentum was on the Lakers’ side, given their home-court advantage in the series, but the Rockets — led by Ming — took charge in Game 1 of the semifinals.
Although Houston was undermanned, losing Tracy McGrady to a season-ending knee injury, they still remained a formidable team. Ming set the tone in the series’ opener, posting a double-double with 28 points, 10 rebounds, and two blocks in the 100-92 win over the Lakers. His steady production helped keep LA at bay in the second half of the game, helping take home-court advantage away.
The Rockets’ title chances seemingly disappeared when the Chinese center suffered a broken foot in Game 3 of the series, but the team was able to force the series to seven games. This often begs the question had Ming not been injured, could they have advanced to the Western Conference Finals and possibly further with him on the court?
However, what was more important — and unfortunate — was the fact that Ming was never the same player following the injury. He missed all of the following season due to his foot surgery and then he missed all but five games the next year because of a stress fracture in his left ankle, which was related to a previous injury. All of these issues forced him to retire prematurely.
2. Game 2 of 2005 Playoff Series against the Mavericks
With McGrady in the fold, he and Ming helped form one of the league’s most dynamic duos with the Rockets. Heading into the playoffs, the star center had a prime matchup against another international star in Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki in the first round.
The two seven-footers had their most competitive meeting of the series in Game 2, with the Rockets edging the Mavericks 113-111 to give them a 2-0 lead in the series. Ming had a nearly perfect offensive performance, notching a game-high 33 points on 13-of-14 shooting, including nailing all seven of his free-throw attempts and recording eight rebounds and two blocks.
Yao played a critical role in the tightly contested game, scoring the go-ahead bucket that put the Rockets up 111-109 and setting the screen that helped free McGrady up to hit the game-winning jumper with just over two seconds left in the fourth quarter. What was most impressive about Ming’s performance was that he had this type of game in the playoffs and on the road — against a formidable team in the Mavericks.
1. Yao scores 41 points against the Hawks
In his second season in the NBA, Ming became one of the main offensive weapons for the Rockets, playing alongside Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley. With a matchup against the Atlanta Hawks on February 22, 2004, the 7-foot-6 center had the best individual performance of his career, notching a career-high 41 points along with 16 rebounds and seven assists in 50 minutes played while leading his team to a thrilling 123-121 three-overtime win.
Ming constantly caused absolute havoc for the Hawks’ big men, Joel Przybilla and Zeljko Rebraca, who both fouled out trying to guard him. He did most of his work in the low post, going 15-of-21 from the field while knocking down 11-of-13 free-throw attempts in the game. Yao was at his best in the final overtime, scoring his last eight points including a fadeaway in the key with 23.4 seconds left — putting the Rockets ahead 122-121.
Ming followed it up by contending Jason Terry’s shot, forcing him to adjust mid-air. He then sealed the win by altering Bob Sura’s layup at the buzzer. In this game, Ming was dominant on both ends of the floor, clearly exemplifying the type of special talent he was during his NBA career.