(Reuters) - Yao Ming, who inspired a generation of NBA fans in his native China, wistfully acknowledged a career that “ended too soon” as he was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday.
“I treasure each and every moment. I’m grateful for my time on court and for your recognition tonight,” Yao said in a speech that was also littered with humorous digs at his fellow inductees.
The towering seven foot, six inch (229 cm) center was joined in the class of 2016 by the likes of center Shaquille O’Neal and guard Allen Iverson.
“My parents were basketball players back to the 1970s,” Yao, the first overall pick in the 2002 NBA draft, said at the ceremony in Springfield, Massachusetts.
“I’m so fortunate to be your son. The gift I get from you, is not only the height but the way you taught me to think, and to make decisions.”
He then joked about how his parents had taught his “soft touch on free throw line” before taking a friendly pot shot at O’Neal, who was notoriously inaccurate from the line during his career.
Yao was not the first player from China — that honor belongs to Wang Zhizhi — but he played a huge role in helping popularize the NBA in his homeland.
An eight-times All-Star, he played 486 games over nine years, all with the Houston Rockets, averaging 19 points and 9.2 rebounds before foot and ankle injuries forced his retirement in 2011.
“We all look older and fatter than when we first met,” Yao, 35, joked as he reminisced about his career.
O’Neal also gave a funny speech that at times was more like a roast, with his former Los Angles Laker teammate Kobe Bryant among those on the receiving end.
He described Bryant as “a guy that would push me to help me win three titles in a row. But also help me get pushed off the team and traded to Miami.”
O’Neal won four NBA championships — three with the Lakers and one with the Miami Heat.
Others inducted on Friday included 11-times All-Star Iverson, the first overall pick in the 1996 NBA draft, as well as Sheryl Swoopes, a three-time gold medalist on the United States women’s Olympic team, and the first player to be signed in the WNBA.
Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina