HOUSTON – The first time Yao Ming ever watched an NBA game as a young boy in China, he wondered why there were jerseys hanging in the rafters.
“The cameras randomly gave a shot of the retired jerseys,” Yao said. “I slowly realized over time that’s the highest honor a player can achieve for themselves and for the team. I will always ask myself, ‘What is the story behind it?’ I hope people see the jersey there and remember the story. Not just myself, but my teammates, my opponents, we put a story together.”
The Rockets are set to retire Yao’s No. 11 jersey in a halftime ceremony Friday night when they host the Chicago Bulls.
A 7-foot-6 center from Shanghai, Yao was the top overall draft pick in 2002 and was an eight-time All-Star, playing nine seasons in Houston before retiring in 2011 because of mounting issues with injuries. He averaged 19.0 points, 9.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks a game and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in September.
“It was really sad for me that his career was cut so short because I think if he had been able to stay on, we would have been able to win a couple of championships,” Rockets owner Les Alexander said. “He’s a great human being and a great basketball player.”
Yao will become the sixth Rocket to have his number retired, joining Hakeem Olajuwon (No. 34), Clyde Drexler (No. 22), Moses Malone (No. 24), Calvin Murphy (No. 23) and Rudy Tomjanovich (No. 45).
Yao recalled his first home game in Houston in November 2002 when the Rockets retired Olajuwon’s jersey.
“We were sitting in the locker room and watching his speech and hearing people cheer for him, we were very motivated to hear that,” Yao said.
Reminiscing on his own times as a player, Yao said his favorite moment was when he first walked into the Compaq Center, the former home of the Rockets. He said he was taken aback when he saw his jersey with his name and number for the first time and realized it was the start of a special journey.
Along with other former Rockets standouts Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo and Shane Battier, Yao attended Thursday night’s game against Atlanta and received a standing ovation when he was introduced.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner declared Feb. 2 “Yao Ming Day” and welcomed Yao as the city’s goodwill ambassador, an appointment he received from former Mayor Annise Parker in 2013.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and other league officials were to attend the ceremony at the Toyota Center, which will be broadcast on NBA TV and in China on Tencent and CCTV.
“Thinking back on the years I spent here, I just think of the entire team, organization and the city as a big family,” Yao said. “I feel so welcome here, and tonight is very special to me.”