for National Geographic News
On the court and off, Houston Rockets basketball star Yao Ming is a true giant. During his rookie year, the Chinese sensation created a stir in the NBA and across the globe. Battling both Shaq and the skeptics, the seven-foot-five-inch (226-centimeter) center displayed skills that silenced the critics and earned him a trip to the All-Star game.
While Yao could quickly become one of the league's dominant players, his off-court impact is already colossal. At 22, he is a marketing megastar. Like Madonna or Elvis, Yao needs a first name-only referenceas sure a sign of superstardom as any. He's come to symbolize the aspirations of a rapidly changing Chinawhile undergoing some serious life changes of his own.
The business that is the NBA is global, both on and off the court. This spring NBA teams included 65 international players from 34 countries and territories. The diverse product on the court helps attract new audiences around the world.
And perhaps the most important foreign player to suit up is the Rockets' Yao. To understand why, one only need look to China's 1.3 billion residentsand potential basketball fans.
Two other members of the Chinese National Team play in the NBA. Wang Zhizhi plays for the Los Angeles Clippers, while Mengke Bateers suits up for San Antonio Spurs. But Yao is in a class all his own. The National Team star is a towering hero in China and elsewhere in Asia.
Yao has made the NBA a hot proposition in the emerging markets of the Far East. That means major league business opportunities. And Yao may be the ultimate marketing tool for the rapidly growing Chinese market. As China's economy continues to grow larger and more global, multinational companies continue to compete for pieces of the country's enormous consumer market.
Within China, Yao appears ever present, a marketing icon ready to connect China with global markets.
"The Little Giant"
Yao was the first number one NBA draft pick to come from an international basketball league. In the 2002-2003 season, "the Little Giant" proved he was up to the competition, ranking among the league's top 20 players for rebounds and blocked shots.
While those are very solid numbers for a rookie, Yao posts even more impressive stats. "When Yao plays basketball, 300 million people watch him," said Lisa Ling, the Ultimate Explorer television host who recently profiled Yao. "That's more than the population of the United States and only a fraction of the population of China. You can imagine what that means in terms of marketing dollars."
It also means a tremendous amount of pressure on the basketball star. But with the weight of a nation on his shoulders, not to mention that of his team and the NBA, Yao handles the pressure and responsibility with aplomb.
"All of the Chinese people, the Asian people say, 'Oh Yao Ming, you are all the Chinese, all of Asia's hopes,'" Yao told Ultimate Explorer. "That's a lot of pressure," he said. "I'm just a basketball player."
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