About the same time that news of Yao Ming's retirement from the NBA began circulating Friday afternoon, Kevin Durant posted a blog on his website.
“I'm in China!” it was titled.
The Thunder superstar wouldn't have been if not for Yao.
He was the poster child for the globalization of the NBA. Other international players came before the Rockets' center, who decided to hang it up after eight injury-plagued seasons, but no one opened a market bigger than China. Yao made the NBA important to his 1.3 billion countrymen.
That was a game-changer for the NBA.
Ditto for players like Durant.
He made his first foray to the Far East two summers ago when he spent time in Hong Kong as part of a trip set up by the NBA. Then last summer, he went on a three-city tour of China that was part of a brand-expansion excursion set up by Nike.
It set up a pair of basketball courts at the Great Wall of China, where Durant held a clinic. The whole thing was quite the scene. Banners with the KD logo hung from parts of the more than 2,000-year-old landmark as a thick crowd gathered to get a glimpse of Durant.
He got a similar reception everywhere he went.
Those closest to Durant said he was surprised and flattered by the attention.
This summer, he is back in China for a four-city tour with Nike Basketball. He made a quick stop in Hong Kong — “No joke,” Durant wrote on his blog, “I went out to a night club our one night there and guys there had a ping pong table set up in the middle of the club. They were going at it tough too!” — but now, he's on the mainland in Guangzhou. There, he released his newest shoe, the KD III scoring champ.
Not all that long ago, the idea of the NBA's scoring champ going to China for the official release of a shoe would've been lunacy.
Yao changed that.
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.