We weren't quite sure if we understood the premise of SB Nations"#MostHyped" theme for this week. Are we talking most hyped that lived up to it? Most hyped that failed to live up to it... or are we talking about just hype in general and all of the connotations it stirs when you think of the word?
The Rockets have had more than their fair share of stars that arrived with great pomp and circumstance. There was a lot of buzz around the Rockets when Ralph Sampson and Hakeem were drafted back to back in the 80s, there was the forming of the aging big three when the Rockets traded for Charles Barkley to join Hakeem and Clyde Drexler. None of these moves produced a championship, then of course there's the sad awful tale of Eddie Griffin.
All of these guys came with hype and you could make a case that some worked out ok and others were... well what can you really say about Eddie Griffin? But my vote for most the most hyped Houston Rocket goes to the obvious choice: Yao Ming.
In fact, we'd go further as to say that no other player in NBA history has faced the level of scrutiny that Yao faced when he entered the league in 2002. In The Year of the Yao, an illuminating documentary that chronicled Ming's first year in the NBA, David Stern postulated that there are perhaps 270 million basketball fans in China. That's almost the entire population of the United States. It's one thing to be the first overall pick in the NBA it's quite another when that selection makes you the symbol of hope and aspiration of the most populous nation in the world.
Year of the Yao - Yao Ming Documentary (via SportHistoryUniverse)
Yao was in the league nine seasons but only played more than 60 games in four of those seasons. In that time he made the All NBA team five times and was voted to the All Star game eight times. But for Yao, the significance of those All Star appearances means something else entirely. We know that Yao's performance in the playoffs leaves a lot desired. We know that everyone was expecting a championship for the gentle center, and by those standards, you can say that Yao never lived up to the hype. But you have to ask yourself what those titles and awards truly mean.
We immortalize and revered the old legends of the game that wowed us with their brilliant play. Yes, you're really good at playing this game. Here, have some money and a nice trophy. For Yao, there was also another much more important game taking place.
Yao was an ambassador that just happened to play basketball. His personal mission may have been for excellence on the court, but make no mistake, the Chinese government was very aware of the type of national icon Yao turned out to be. He was plucked from the public schools at age eleven and placed in a special government-run sports academy. By age 14 he was already a member of the Shanghai Sharks of the professional Chinese Basketball Association. By age 19 he was a national star and the hero of every boy in every schoolyard with a ball and a hoop. The Chinese people have followed Yao and worshiped him at every stage of his career always expecting more of him at every turn. That he only played five games in the 2011 season and still received over 900,000 votes, mostly from his fans from China, only underscores how important Yao is to Chinese Pride.
Visa Superbowl Commercial with Yao (via kaijunky)
The Chinese have such strong sense of national isolationism, a deeply ingrained view that modesty is the best virtue of a human being, that they do not have a celebrity culture. Every article for public consumption is closely monitored and manipulated to bolster the image of China, not the individual.
But basketball is a game where the individual almost matters more than the team. We should know, we've spent the last five years looking to acquire that missing link that ties it all together. The NBA is a star player's league. And of the five major sports leagues it's the one where one player can change an identify and entire franchise more than any other league. Even for a man of such absurd height, it is astounding that Yao was able to stand atop these two worlds with poise and grace and a seemingly unending supply of patience.
Hype is exacerbated by the masses not the individual. The masses also to decide what matters about your career, the masses decide if you were great and loved and immortal. Mythmaking is strange in this way. When you think of the game, and Yao's place in it, from this perspective, the championships seem less important. Yao served as a bridge between two countries. Through Yao we have been exposed to aspects of the Chinese culture that an average NBA fan had not seen before, through Yao we opened a dialogue with an old world of fantastic history and mystery. I'd say that this is much more valuable than blocks and rebounds.