He was larger than life in so many ways. The 7-foot-6 center became a star in his homeland before he ever played a minute in the NBA. Playing for the Shanghai Sharks, he averaged 38 points and 20 rebounds in his last season in the Chinese Basketball Association.
His last game in the playoffs, he hit every shot he took — all 21 of them.
The frenzy over Yao only intensified when he headed to the NBA. Suddenly, he was playing against the likes of Shaquille O'Neal and David Robinson every night, and people in China couldn't get enough of it. Television viewership went through the roof.
Thing is, they were not only watching Yao but also the rest of the NBA's stars.
That's why a guy like Kevin Durant, who plays in one of the league's smallest markets, can go to the Great Wall of China and nearly cause a stampede.
In truth, Oklahoma City owes Yao a debt of gratitude. By opening up Asia and globalizing the NBA, he helped make international stars out of the NBA's best regardless of where they play. NYC. MIA. OKC. Doesn't matter.
And that's good news for Thunder fans. Durant can grow his brand while playing here in Oklahoma City. Granted, being a big brand isn't the be all, end all for players — being able to contend for championships is a big deal, too — but it's one thing that Oklahoma City doesn't have to worry about when it comes to the face of the franchise. He doesn't have to be in one of those major cities to be known all across the globe.
Durant has Yao to thank for that.
OKC has the big man to thank for that, too.