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Yao Ming relives NBA memories, gets Houston welcome

By May Zhou in Houston | China Daily USA | Updated: 2017-02-06 13:48

Yao Ming, who returned to Houston for the retirement of his No. 11 NBA jersey by the Rockets, told an emotional story about his first Chinese New Year away from home in 2002.

Yao said he was tricked into showing up at what was then the Compaq Center, where his teammates surprised him with traditional red envelopes.

There was only a $2 bill inside each one, but Yao treasured the gesture.

"I still have one of those $2 bills inside my pocket, and I carried it since then," Yao said, as the crowd cheered. "Because I know no matter where I go, as long as that bill's in my pocket, home is with me."

On Friday night, Yao's jersey joined five great Houston Rockets players on the rafters of the Toyota Center.

In a day of reflection and celebration, Rockets' owner Leslie Alexander said he thought Yao's career was cut too short, and that he could have brought the team several more championships.

"Well obviously, we only retire really, great, great players," Alexander said. "Yao was a great, great player. I wanted him to be viewed as more than that, as an ambassador to the world and especially into China, and what a great person and humanitarian he is."

The 7-foot-6 Yao was with the Rockets for eight seasons and averaged 19 points and nine rebounds a game. He was elected to the basketball Hall of Fame in April.

Yao said another of his memorable moments was when he first arrived in Houston as a Rockets player.

"I was taken aback when I saw this jersey with my name and number for the first time and realized it was the start of a special journey," Yao said.

Former Rockets star players Hakeem Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo, Tracy McGrady and Shane Battier attended the ceremony.

Yao's wife, daughter and parents also joined him on the stage.

The ceremony was held during halftime of the Rockets-Chicago Bulls game. To commemorate the occasion, Rockets players wore jerseys with Chinese characters for the team name. Every game-goer got a No. 11 Yao Ming jersey as a souvenir.

When Yao took to the microphone, cheers erupted from the crowd along with shouts of, "Yao Ming, we love you!"

"I remember the first time I watched an NBA game, randomly saw a shot the cameras gave on those 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," he said. "Not just myself, but my teammates, my opponents; we put a story together."

"Thank you for your humility," Battier said as he saluted Yao on behalf of all Rockets players. "Thank you for your work ethic. Thank you for your humor. Thank you for your dominance. You are a Hall of Famer in every sense of the word. Thank you for allowing all of us to be a part of your journey."

Walter Hollows, an IT engineer and season ticket-holder for 25 years, said he watched Yao play from the day he arrived in Houston.

"Yao was the greatest player we had here behind Hakeem Olajuwon. I watched his ups and downs. I watched him first dominated by Shaq [Shaquille O'Neal] then he dominated Shaq. I am very happy and proud to be here for his jersey retirement," Hollows said.

Tiffany Wang in Houston contributed to this story.

mayzhou@chinadailyusa.com

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