September 12, 1980
Towering Chinese basketball player Yao Ming's effortless passing and shooting skills made him a star in America and around the world as a member of the Houston Rockets from 2002 to 2011. Born September 12, 1980 in Shanghai, China, Yao was the only child of former professional basketball players, and due to his prodigious height at a young age - he stood five-feet, seven-inches in the third grade - he was playing basketball at a junior sports school at the age of nine. Though he was initially more interested in military history than basketball, he tried out for the Shanghai Sharks' youth team and graduated to its adult team by his high school years. In his rookie year, he was averaged 10 points and eight rebounds, and by the time he led to the Sharks to their first Chinese Basketball Association victory in 2002, he was averaged more than 38 points a game. Yao's skills naturally attracted the attention of the National Basketball Association, but China was reluctant to let their star player leave; after several years of failed contract negotiations, Yao became the first Chinese player to enter the NBA draft in 2001. He was signed in a first-round draft pick by the Houston Rockets the following year, and despite considerable skepticism on the part of sports analysts, and hazing that bordered on racism by other players, Yao averaged 13.5 points in his rookie season, and became the first rookie to start in an All-Star game since 1995. His sophomore year proved even more successful, with 41 points and 7 assists in a 2004 game against the Atlanta Hawks, and he was instrumental in turning around the Rockets' record to 43-49, after a dismal 28-54 season the previous year. In the next half-decade, Yao would play spectacular basketball for both the NBA and Chinese national teams, earning All-Star status in six consecutive seasons while also leading the Rockets to the play-offs in 2004, 2005 and 2007 to 2009 and averaged 20.7 and 19 points for China in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, respectively. But the wins came at a price: Yao was plagued by injuries throughout his tenure with the Rockets, and a broken foot suffered during the 2008-2009 season sidelined him for the entire following year. He returned briefly in 2010 before suffering a stress fracture that ultimately contributed to his retirement in 2011. He soon devoted himself to numerous charitable causes, including wildlife conservation, while also serving as president of his former Chinese team, the Shanghai Sharks, and pursuing a degree in economics from Shanghai Jiao Tong University. In 2016, Yao was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.