Chairman Yao vs. Freaky Deeky Mutombo. How the hall of fame hype train is distorting reality.

Fair Warning, this is a really long article, if you don’t care about basketball you won’t enjoy it at all. Luckily, theres a convenient youtube video that essentially sums up everything I’m about to say.

Yes, Yao hatched from a basketball egg and flew a rocket around Houston to celebrate getting drafted number 1. Afterwards he was presented with his game jersey by David Stern, who at the time looked like a Goomba from Mario. Now Yao is enjoying his retirement riding a shark around the Pacific Ocean.

Anyway, Yao Ming made his retirement official last wednesday in Shanghai, announcing the conclusion of his career surrounded by his family. For those of you who don’t care about the NBA, Yao entered the league during the 2002-2003 season after being drafted number 1 by the Houston Rockets. He was the first international player to be drafted number one in the NBA draft, although that fact is a bit dubious because the only way the Chinese Basketball Association would allow Yao to enter the NBA was if he had been selected with the number one overall pick. Yao’s legacy is one that is a bit muddled, given that his impact on basketball off the court has surpassed his on court accomplishments to the point that the two have become intrinsically linked in the minds of several NBA analysts. But what is Yao’s legacy, and how does it really compare to another prominent international big man known more for his work off the court than his game on it?

I, like many NBA analysts at the time, looked to the other player in the league who was around the same size as Yao, Shawn Bradley, as a general outline for how Yao would function in the NBA when he first entered. Bradley was, for the most part, a stiff. Bradley was an offensive liability who seemed to inspire the highest flying players in the NBA to new heights whenever the opportunity to dunk on his lanky, 7 foot 6 frame presented itself. Even major sports media outlets such as ESPN picked up on this trend and began to practically encourage it with their coverage. For example:

Sadly, sports coverage wasn’t as comprehensive (some would say oppressive) as it is now, so there wasn’t a shred of evidence that would contradict the assumption that Yao would fail. Surprising his detractors, Yao vastly exceeded expectations, emerging as one of the marquee Centers in the league before a series of injuries led to him missing 168 of a potential 410 regular season games in his final five seasons. (Thats slightly more than 2 full seasons, if you didn’t feel like doing math.)

With the news of Yao’s retirement the ESPN hype machine has started operating at full capacity, churning out multiple articles debating whether or not Yao deserves to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. It is surprising, however, that a majority of the articles I’ve read have essentially argued that although Yao’s on court career was not Hall of Fame caliber, his work off the court made him worthy of inclusion with the greatest basketball players of all time.

The logic behind that statement is particularly ludicrous to me, as it seems to undermine the very purpose of the Hall of Fame. For hyperbole’s sake, it’s like admitting an average player because he was a particularly nice person. It seems that the discussion of Yao Ming as a Hall of Famer is driven more by his race and origin than any other factors. As an example, I’ll compare Yao to one of my personal favorite players in the NBA, Dikembe Mutombo, another international player known better for his work off the court than his achievements on it (although they were many)

Taking a page from Bill Simmons, lets do a running side by side of each players achievements over the course of their career.

Yao-

  • Career Stats: 19.2 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 1.9 bpg (9 Seasons)
  • 8 time NBA all-star (this should be taken with a grain of salt because of the public voting process used to determine all star starters, which was constantly skewed in Yao’s favor by the Chinese basketball fanbase.)
  • 2 time All-NBA Second Team
  • 3 time All-NBA Third Team
  • 3 time FIBA Asian Championship MVP

Mutombo-

  • Career Stats: 9.8 ppg, 10.3 rpb, 2.8 bpg (18 seasons)
  • 8 time NBA all-star
  • 4 time NBA defensive player of the year
  • All-NBA second team (2001)
  • 2 time All-NBA third team
  • 3 time All-Defensive first team
  • 3 time All-Defensive second team
  • 2nd All Time in Blocked Shots

Although Mutombo was nowhere near as offensively capable as Yao, he is considered to be one of the greatest defenders of all time, whereas Yao was never considered to be a defensive dynamo, relying more on his size to defend players than fundamentals (For those of you who poo-poo the “size matters” argument when it comes to defense. Shawn Bradley has the 13th most Blocked Shots by an NBA player all time and was never elected to an All-Defense team, nor was he ever considered to be a particularly effective defender.) Statistically Yao had a far greater offensive impact for a shorter period of time, but Mutombo was a consistently effective defensive piece who played for twice as many seasons as Yao did despite also suffering from injuries for the latter portion of his career.

To further reinforce my point, the only major statistical category in which Yao surpasses Dikembe is points per game. Yao rests at number 67 all time in points per game (behind such superstars as Stephon Marbury, Glenn Robinson, and Mitch Richmond), whereas Dikembe is number 35 all time in rebounding (Yao is between number 66 and 67) and number 7 all time in blocks per game (Yao would be number 26)*

*All of these statistics include active players. I figured it out afterwards, there are 17 active players ahead of Yao in scoring, 4 ahead of Mutombo in rebounding, and none ahead of Mutombo in blocks.

I think that, because scoring is a significantly less precious resource than defense and rebounding, Dikembe Mutombo has a more impressive statistical and career resume on the court. With that point in mind, if we’re judging players purely by their on-court achievements Dikembe Mutombo is more worthy of inclusion in the Hall of Fame than Yao Ming based on his on-court career.

But statistics are not the most commonly mentioned subject when discussing Yao’s hall of fame eligibility. His humanitarian work and the contributions he made in providing the NBA with the global exposure it so desperately needed far surpass any achievements he gathered on the court.

At several points in Yao’s career he made significant philanthropic contributions to his home country of China, organizing and participating in a telethon for the benefit of victims of the SARS outbreak, and contributing 2 million dollars to the relief effort after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Although his philanthropic work is nothing to look down on, I believe that the primary reason there is a serious argument for Yao’s inclusion in the Hall of Fame is the international fervor for basketball he stirred by simply existing.

Yao is still the first and only Chinese basketball player to achieve any level of success in the NBA and his presence in the NBA drastically raised interest and enthusiasm for Basketball in China. Although they never received the expected level of international success in the Olympics (reaching the quarterfinals twice) or the FIBA world championships (never making it past the round of 16) while Yao played on the national team, the attention Yao garnered from China and the surrounding Asian nations drastically increased the international fan base for basketball, allowing the NBA to expand the possibilities for international exhibition games, opening (admittedly ludicrous) discussions about internationally based teams, and drastically increasing support for international basketball leagues.

A mistake that sportswriters continue to make (and I also initially made) is crediting Yao completely with the meteoric success of international basketball during his career. (International basketball did explode during his career, largely in part to the fact that the United States screwed around and sent glorified all-star teams of selfish individual players to the World Championships and the Olympics. When those teams underperformed in the face of drastically improved international teams and got embarrassed, the U.S. basketball federation began to spend more time trying to gather players that would form an ideal team, which was wonderful for me because it allowed my burgeoning mancrush on Kevin Durant to continue to grow throughout the summer months) The NBA had dedicated a ton of resources to expanding international basketball, using international stars and their shitloads of money (because this was also the peak of absurdly lucrative contracts in the NBA) to increase exposure and establish basketball academies and camps throughout Europe. Those camps led to increased attention for the European leagues that had been established for decades, drastically increasing the quality of European and South American Basketball. Although Yao was the biggest face in the growing international basketball community, he was more of a product of the system than the trendsetter that initiated it.

By comparison, Dikembe Mutombo’s emergence in the NBA came at a time when international basketball was still growing into the presence that it is now, so he made little impact on the awareness or growth of the international community. His humanitarian contributions, however, are incredible. A two time winner of the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award (The NBA’s award for off-court contributions) and one of 20 winners of the President’s Service Awards in 1999, Mutombo established the Dikembe Mutombo foundation in 1997, focusing the efforts of the organization on improving the living conditions in his native Congo. Mutombo later dedicated 10 years and 15 million dollars working to build a modern medical facility outside of the Congolese Capital of Kinshasa, the first in the area in nearly 40 years.

The argument for Yao’s inclusion in the Hall of Fame has been based around his work outside of the game ever since his retirement, but it’s time we call it for what it is, a move to include the first successful Chinese basketball player in the Hall of Fame. To argue that Yao’s contributions off the court make him more deserving of inclusion than Dikembe Mutombo is absurd. Mutombo has emerged as one of the more respected humanitarians to ever play in the NBA, investing his own money and time in his efforts to improve the situation in his home country. If the precedent for entering the Hall of Fame based on off-court work is established Dikembe Mutombo should be the first man to walk through the door.

That being said, I disagree with the very basis of that precedent. The Basketball Hall of Fame has included owners, contributors, referees, and coaches. There is little to no reason for the Hall to go out of their way to qualify their reasoning for Yao’s inclusion, but as an NBA fan I find myself wanting them to include Yao not for his NBA career, but for the  magnanimous personality he became in the face of transforming into the most publicized player on the planet.

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