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Save a spot for Yao Ming in basketball Hall of Fame

By Dave Reardon

LAST UPDATED: 10:24 p.m. HST, Aug 5, 2011

Many of my friends maintain very high standards when it comes to fitness for enshrinement in sports halls of fame.

Some of them think Craig Biggio, who made the 3,000-hit club while spending his entire career with the Houston Astros (and playing three key positions, catcher, second base and centerfield) shouldn't get in. You know, the anti-compiler argument. I look at it differently; I'm pro-consistency.

I also think Biggio should get in upon eligibility in 2013 because I'm a sucker for good people and good stories. Biggio is both, even though the Astros didn't win all that much during his time there.

That brings us to another Houston professional sports star with extremely debatable Hall of Fame creds: Yao Ming, who is reportedly retiring at age 30 due to injuries.

A lot of folks who watch basketball and the NBA closely say there's no debate at all. They say I'm joking or drunk or crazy when I suggest Yao is a Hall of Famer. They say he didn't play long enough and his Rockets teams didn't win anything. They say you don't get in on what you might have done if you weren't injured so much. They say being a good guy and an ambassador of the sport doesn't make you Hall of Fame worthy.

My answer is these guys should step back a bit and get a wider view of the picture. Also, take a look at who's already enshrined.

Now is also a good time to remember that it's the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, named after the guy who invented the game. It's not the NBA Basketball Hall of Fame. That's why there are plenty of people enshrined who didn't play in the NBA ... or who got in for more than what they did in the NBA.

Drazen Petrovic is an inductee to look at when trying to decide if Yao is Hall-worthy.

"The Croatian Sensation" was a huge international star before playing three NBA seasons. He appeared to be on his way to becoming one of the league's best players and possibly leading the New Jersey Nets out of the doldrums.

But we'll never know how good Petrovic would have been. He died in a car accident after the 1993 season, age 28.

In 2002, Petrovic entered the Hall of Fame. While his European and Olympic on-court accomplishments surely factored in, I can't help but believe that his status as a positive symbol for war-torn Yugoslavia got him some votes.

And that's not wrong.

Greatness and fame should not be measured only by stats and championships. As important, or even more, is how someone connects to people and affects the sport as a whole.

And, again, that brings us back to Yao.

He averaged 19.0 points and 9.2 points per game, was selected for the All-Star Game eight times and, when healthy, he routinely dominated on both ends of the floor.

But that doesn't begin to measure Yao's impact on the sport of basketball.

You want a number? How about 1.2 billion, as in the people in China.

Yes, of course not all Chinese became basketball fans because of Yao's success in the NBA. But enough of them did to make him "the most recognizable figure from China since Mao Zedong," according to a plot summary for "The Year of the Yao," a 2004 documentary about his rookie season.

I didn't realize what a hero Yao was in China until I saw this film a few years ago. While much of it is about his adapting to life in America and the NBA, there's also plenty about his rise to iconic status in his home country.

Maybe Yao -- despite his good-natured and humble persona -- represents something feared by a segment of Americans, and for a long time. He's symbolic of China's power and its potential to usurp the U.S. as the world's dominant nation, if that hasn't happened already.

The enlightened view is that globalization of basketball is a positive for the sport, right? Players like Dirk Nowitzki and Yao make the NBA better and more interesting, right?

"The Big Man built a bridge where none had existed and introduced millions in two countries to cultures they didn't really know," reads a China Daily article.

Jeff Van Gundy, who coached him, says Yao is a Hall of Fame slam dunk.

"I don't care if you put him in as a player, as a contributor or put him in with his own heading," Van Gundy said in a Houston Chronicle article. "This guy definitely gets in for the greatness as a player when healthy or what he did as an ambassador."

I agree, just substitute "or" with "and."

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