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Yao Ming, Allen Iverson, and Sheryl Swoopes became cultural symbols just by being themselves

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These three members of the 2016 Basketball Hall of Fame class became heroes in their respective communities beyond what they accomplished on the court.

Sheryl Swoops, Yao Ming and Allen Iverson all changed basketball in many ways off the court. Getty Images

The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame will induct a new class on Friday, including three iconic players, who represented millions of outsiders just by virtue of being themselves.

These honorees — Yao Ming, Sheryl Swoopes, and Allen Iverson — aren’t simply symbols of populations now considered inseparable from the basketball community. They are complicated people, with complicated legacies.

But it’s indisputable that each represents more than just the name on the back of their jerseys.

China's National People's Congress - Opening Ceremony Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Yao Ming wasn’t actually the first Chinese player in the NBA — his eternal rival Wang Zhizhi beat him by more than a year. But, with all due respect to Wang, it was Yao who brought China to the NBA and the NBA to China. The son of two basketball players and a titan at 7’6, Yao was the first pick in the 2002 NBA Draft. He found his feet in shockingly quick order in Houston, despite language issues, and a massive leap in quality of competition from what he’d faced in China.

Yao famously made eight All-Star teams as the Rockets leveraged the online voting power of Chinese fans. He often rubbed off on his Houston teammates, who got marketing bumps as the Rockets became China’s favorite team.

For a sport that always had designs on going global, Yao was the best ambassador possible: gentle, smart, funny, amiable, and really damn good. He averaged better than 20 points per game three times in his NBA career, during an era when big men were slowly being de-emphasized due to the rise of the three-pointer and the onset of the golden era of point guards.

Of course, each of those three 20-point seasons were plagued by foot injuries for Yao, and that’s eventually what claimed his career. His sheer size and routine summer obligations for the Chinese national basketball team — culminating in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing — took their toll.

In Beijing, Yao played host to many of his NBA friends and rivals, including Kobe Bryant, himself now a Chinese icon thanks to Nike’s marketing efforts, and LeBron James, whose global fame continues to grow.

It’s hard to separate Yao’s impact on China’s basketball love affair from the broader Chinese economic boom. Would Chinese shoe brands Li-Ning, PEAK, or ANTA be sponsoring mid-tier NBA players if not for Yao? Would the Chinese Basketball Association have grown in global stature — able to pay fringe NBA players millions — without Yao owning a team? If it was never Yao but just Wang Zhizhi, Yi Jianlian, and Sun Yue, would the NBA be such a big draw in China? It seems wholly unlikely.

David Stern deserves heaps of credit for working tirelessly to globalize the game of basketball. But without Yao, the NBA might have never captured the hearts of the most populated country in the world. For every preseason game played in Shanghai, for every Chinese businessperson who buys a minority stake in an NBA team, for every Kobe tour of China, for every roleplayer hawking Li-Nings, it is impossible not to think of Yao’s effect on the game.

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall Of Fame 2016 Class Announcement Photo by Eric Kayne/Getty Images

As Yao was not the first Chinese player in the NBA, Sheryl Swoopes was not the first WNBA player to come out. Sue Wicks and Michele Van Gorp did so years before. But neither made a splash like Swoopes.

This is because when she came out publicly in ESPN The Magazine in 2005, Swoopes was a living basketball legend. She’d won four WNBA championships with the Houston Comets. She’d been named the WNBA MVP three times — including the just-concluded season a mere month before her announcement. She had three Olympic gold medals and two scoring titles.

Sheryl Swoopes, in the year 2000, is the stuff of storybooks. She won Olympic gold, the WNBA scoring title, WNBA Defensive Player of the Year Award, WNBA MVP Award, and took home the WNBA Championship. All in the same damn year.

Sheryl Swoopes was dope. That’s why she became the first woman to get her own Nike sneaker (the Air Swoopes). And that’s why, when she came out in 2005, it was rightfully a big deal. Hell, Swoopes is still the most accomplished American team sport athlete to come out while in the peak of his or her career.

Soccer heroes like Abby Wambach and Megan Rapinoe, and WNBA stars like Brittney Griner and Elena Delle Donne, have since followed Swoopes to prominence as the most high-profile out athletes in the United States.

These days, a decade after Swoopes, even the brightest women’s basketball stars barely draw a peep when they announce they are in same-sex relationships. See Delle Donne, the reigning WNBA MVP. The world found out she was engaged to her same-sex partner via a throwaway line about her living arrangements in a Vogue profile this summer.

Delle Donne’s orientation — or that of Griner, Seimone Augustus, or Cappie Pondexter — fly wholly under the radar because this is old hat in the WNBA, thanks to Swoopes. We can’t know whether current WNBA stars would be comfortable enough to come out if not for Swoopes’ decision in 2005. Perhaps another star player would have opened that door.

But the fact that no star player in men’s basketball has cleared the way, and that — with respect to Jason Collins, who seriously deserves all the respect due to him — only a fringe player at the end of his career has come out before retiring, there seems to be credence to the power of a trailblazer like Swoopes.

She’s going into the Basketball Hall of Fame because she’s a basketball icon, full stop. She’s one of the WNBA’s foundational pillars, along with Lisa Leslie and Cynthia Cooper. But Sheryl Swoopes is an icon to so many more out athletes because of her actions off the court.

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall Of Fame 2016 On Court Class Announcement Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Unlike Yao or Swoopes, Allen Iverson didn’t open the NBA to a massive new market or clear a fraught path for outsiders. But like the other two icons being inducted into the Hall of Fame on Friday, his legacy off the court is just as big as his considerable presence on it.

Iverson is credited with fusing basketball with the hip-hop culture that grew into the dominant American zeitgeist over the past two decades. A.I.’s braids, his chains, his oversized T-shirt, his ink and baggy jeans — this was not a pioneering uniform for urban America.

Before Iverson wore these items on the NBA’s main stage, they’d been popularized by rappers and worn by millions. Even in the suburbs you could find mall stores catering to this sartorial style.

In actual fashion terms, Iverson was no pioneer. (One exception: the arm sleeve. He is absolutely the arm sleeve pioneer. He opened up an entire new consumer product line for the apparel companies.) Iverson wasn’t the first NBA player to record a rap song, either, though he might have been the first to earn criticism from David Stern based on the content.

Iverson wasn’t so much a pioneer as a symbol. He’s the one who put this all together and brought it to a place no one could ignore: the main stage of the NBA. He brought braids and tattoos to the NBA All-Star Game, to the NBA Finals, to SportsCenter.

For those who embraced the culture Iverson represented, he was a hero. He was a 6-foot-nothing, tough-as-nails whirlwind who would dive into a tornado if it meant a chance at glory. He was an avatar for those who preferred the Reeboks with the straps, who wore hats indoors, who weren’t afraid to challenge authority when they felt that authority was being absurd.

The infamous practice rant is taken as a joke, but really it is a distillation of Iverson’s philosophical stance: met with overblown posturing he finds ridiculous, he refuses to play into it — to fake remorse — to make the issue go away. He shows everyone how ridiculous he finds the situation, which only fuels it further. He cannot not be honest about how he feels.

That’s commendable. Unless Iverson was a different sort of symbol to you, as he was for millions of sports fans, some of whom claim the Iverson era pushed them away from the NBA. Iverson respected no authority, was an inveterate ball hog, made nothing but poor decisions off the court. His fashion sense drove the conservative class crazy. It drove David Stern crazy. The commissioner feared the NBA’s new urbanism would drive away the league’s base.

Hence the league’s decision to legislate its dress code, which prevented Iverson and his cohort from wearing chains, jeans, T-shirts, and snapbacks when on official NBA business. That included arriving at games, sitting behind the bench when injured, and talking to the media at the arena.

Players including Iverson and Jermaine O’Neal spoke out about the racial undertones and sheer silliness of the dress code. Yet, just about everyone complied. And now Dwyane Wade is wearing fashion capris, Russell Westbrook had made T-shirts acceptable again, and the biggest dress code concern is deciphering what the hell Paul George is wearing.

Iverson raged against the conservative corporate structure of the NBA every day, just by being himself. He is a flawed, tragic figure off the court, and there remains considerable debate just how valuable a player he was.

But there’s no question as to how influential he was on the cultural evolution of the NBA, its players, and its fans. He never compromised that, and for that, as much as for his signature crossover, he’ll be remembered fondly decades from now.