This past weekend, former NBA great Yao Ming was inducted in the hall of fame along with all-time greats Sheryl Swoopes, Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson and Tom Izzo.
Yao’s election to the hall had less to do with his impact on the court, though he did average 19 points and 9 rebounds over the course of his career, which is really good by any metric, and more to do with his status as an ambassador on behalf of the game, especially in his home country of China, where it is the most popular sport.
Yao’s status as international ambassador for the game was all but cemented when he was taken number 1 overall in the 2001 draft, a landmark moment in the history of basketball affirming it as a truly global sport. But what about the moment that served as the catalyst towards basketball’s ascent to global sport status? Is basketball going to recognize it?
The moment in question happened almost two decades earlier when Bahamian Mychal Thompson was taken with the first pick of the 1978 NBA draft, becoming the first foreign born NBA player ever taken with the first overall draft pick.
If we’re picking nits here it can be argued that Thompson should be in the hall of fame based entirely on his standout college career where he averaged 20.9 points and 10 rebounds during a 4 year stint at the University of Minnesota including a ridiculous sophomore year where he put up almost 26 and 13. He’s still The Gophers‘all-time leader in points and rebounds by the way.
Sure Thompson went to high school and college in the US while Yao spent his entire life in China up to the point that he went to the league, but Thompson’s journey to the NBA was probably even a more unlikely one.
Yao Ming’s existence was no accident, his parents union was the result of a decades-long Chinese government program that “highly encouraged” basketball players like his parents to get married and have children with the end goal of producing great basketball players to raise the national morale. Yao’s grandfather and father both participated in this program. Yao Ming’s career in basketball was determined generations before his birth. Credit goes to him for having the talent and drive to see it through and make the NBA, but if he didn’t someone else from that same program would have, that was the point of the whole thing.
Thompson, on the other hand, was a lanky kid hanging around The Bahamas who didn’t even decide to pursue basketball seriously until he was 17 years old when his father sent him to Miami Jackson High school. Two years later he was the most dominant force in college, 2 more years later he was the number 1 overall NBA pick. No half-century long communist conspiracies, no selective breeding, just a tall kid from a small country trying to be someone in life. In this era where NBA teams have global scouting offices, 8 year old AAU players are being rated by scouts, and high school kids end up on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the fact that a kid from The Bahamas can pick up organized basketball towards the end of high school, and become the top player in college so quickly is utterly insane.
Thompson would go on to have a highly productive NBA career, both as a go-to scorer during his first seven seasons in Portland where he never averaged less than 15 points a game, as well as his later years in LA where he helped the Magic Johnson led “Showtime” teams to championships in 1987 and 1988, as a rotation guy off the bench. He was a consistent, efficient and durable player never missing more than 12 games in a season except for his sophomore year which was lost to injury while shooting 50% from the field over the course of his 13 year career.
I’m not taking anything away from Yao Ming. He’s been more than gracious as a global ambassador for basketball, playing a big part in it becoming the world’s second most popular sport, and he was a really great player. But Yao was building on something that Mychal Thompson started as a 17 year old boy who went to Miami to finish high school.
The Basketball Hall of Fame is doing itself a disservice by not recognizing this.