Kobe Bryant

As I write this, Los Angeles Lakers basketball star Kobe Bryant is on a five-city Asian tour that will take him to China, the world’s most populous country, and home to eight-time NBA All-Star Yao Ming. I’m sure Kobe will pay tribute to the Chinese giant, who’s expected to announce his retirement from the NBA July 20th in his birthplace of Shanghai. It’ll be a bittersweet moment for NBA fans, who have seen Yao hobbled by a series of leg and foot injuries the past six seasons.

Speaking in Manila earlier this week, Bryant praised Yao’s role in helping popularize basketball in China and throughout Asia. “I think his contribution to the NBA cannot be overstated,” said Bryant. “You know, I mean what he did for the game and opening up the doors, the influence that he had … it’s such a huge magnitude.”

Yao Ming at the free throw line

The huge magnitude of Yao Ming in opening up new Asian doors to basketball has been closely watched by the NBA, which saw its merchandise sales and TV ratings for games soar in China and other Asian countries after the Houston Rockets made him the top overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft.

But the retirement of Yao must also worry NBA marketing executives who push their product in Asia. Some Chinese say they will stop watching NBA games with the league’s tallest player no longer on the court.

When he was on the court, Yao brought out the best in Kobe Bryant and other NBA players. I like to think Kobe jumped just a little higher when he saw Yao in the paint. Check out Kobe’s moves against the Chinese star in this video: