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Before coming to the National Basketball Association, Yao played for the Shanghai Sharks in the Chinese Basketball Association. He also played for the Chinese national team starting in 2000, propelling him to become one of China's richest most well-known celebrities.
In 2002, he entered the NBA Draft and, after negotiations with the CBA and Shanghai Sharks, he was drafted by the Houston Rockets with their first pick. Although many predicted he would fail in the NBA, he finished second in Rookie of the Year voting. In 2003, he started to achieve career-high point totals due to the arrival of new coach Jeff Van Gundy. He was voted as the starting center for the Western Conference during the 2003 All-Star Game, and helped the Rockets into the playoffs, where they were eliminated in the first round by the Los Angeles Lakers. After the arrival of Tracy McGrady in 2004, the Rockets once again made the playoffs (in the process winning the most All-Star votes in NBA history), but the team fell short of advancing to the second round, this time to the Dallas Mavericks.
Since 2005, Yao has missed parts of or entire seasons due to several injuries he has sustained to his feet, including broken bones and stress fractures. He played off and on until 2008, where he played a full season and lifted the Rockets to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in Yao's career and the first for the team since 1997. During the series with the Lakers, Yao sustained a hairline fracture in his foot; the Rockets went on to lose the series 4-3.