His long, powerful arms stopped many basketballers' foolhardy drives to the basket, and his signature finger wag after his blocks has been mimicked by athletes from other sports and even politicians.
But National Basketball Association (NBA) Hall-of-Famer Dikembe Mutombo, 49, has only open arms and raised thumbs for his former team-mate Yao Ming, who is set to join him in that elite fraternity.
It was announced on Monday that, together with former stars Shaquille O'Neal and Allen Iverson, the 2.29m-tall Yao - one of China's best-known athletes - will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in September.
Mutombo, who was a reserve behind Yao for the Houston Rockets from 2004 until his retirement in 2009, did not hide his delight at the latter's induction.
During a media interview at Marina Bay Sands yesterday, the 2.18m-tall American of Congolese descent calls the Chinese "Big Yao" and said: "There's no doubt about what he brought to the table, and his accomplishments on and off the court. I can't wait to give him a big hug.
"I remember trying to guard him during training. I blocked his path to the basket, he moved back and shot three-pointers. Amazing."
There's no doubt about what he brought to the table, and his accomplishment on and off the court. I can't wait to give him a big hug.
DIKEMBE MUTOMBO, on Yao Ming's induction into the NBA Hall of Fame.
An eight-time All-Star and four-time Defensive Player of the Year during a successful 18-year NBA career, Mutombo credits foreign stars like Yao and the Dallas Mavericks' German sharpshooter Dirk Nowitzki for expanding the playing styles of the big men.
Ironically, NBA teams nowadays are finding success with small-sized, speedier line-ups that eschew tall centres such as Yao or Mutombo. The league-leading Golden State Warriors and two-time champions Miami Heat, for instance, have often played without conventional centres in key moments of their games.
Mutombo, however, believes that big men still have an important role in the game. He said: "As the season moves into the play-offs, everything becomes an inside game. To win a championship you need a big man to give you that lift, that big support from inside.
"Don't forget, Golden State have three big men (Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli and Marrese Speights) who are helping them defensively, but nobody talks about them. They only talk about the two little kids (All-Star guards Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson)."
Just as Yao has been a popular sporting ambassador for China, Mutombo has also been active in humanitarian work in Africa as well as promoting the league worldwide.
The NBA global ambassador is in town for a meeting of the Jr NBA Asia Advisory Council, which was formed in January.
He aims to help spread the game and promote healthy lifestyles among the South-east Asia youth via the Jr NBA initiative, and will be holding a clinic at Dunman Secondary School today.
He said: "Our game has one language that unifies all of us, and that is the ball that we love so much. We will continue to unify this world, to bring people to watch, play and love our game."
Mutombo highlighted his biggest inspiration - fellow NBA Hall-of-Fame centre Hakeem Olajuwon, who also became an American citizen after moving from Nigeria in his teens.
Said Mutombo: "Olajuwon opened the door for so many youth who have been told that, 'You have no place in the NBA.'
"He opened the door for the African kids like myself, the late Manute Bol, Bismark Biyombo. We all dreamt of following his footsteps."
As the gentle giant continues to contribute tirelessly back to the sport, it is clear that, while Olajuwon may have unlocked the "doors", Mutombo has kept them wide open.