SINGAPORE (AFP) - Basketball legend Dikembe Mutombo on Tuesday hailed the induction of "best friend" Yao Ming into the NBA Hall of Fame and urged more Asians to follow the Chinese star's lead.
Mutombo said more Asian players should leave their comfort zone and take risks just like Yao, who is among 10 members of the class of 2016 to be enshrined in basketball's Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in September.
"Regarding my colleague and best friend Yao Ming - I call him Big Yao - I'm very excited," the National Basketball Association's global ambassador told reporters in Singapore, where he was attending a meeting on promoting the sport among Asian children.
"He deserves it... I salute him so much and I take my hat off for everything he gave to us. I can't wait to give him a big hug," Mutombo, 49, added.
But Mutombo believes culture remains the biggest hurdle holding back Asian players from following Yao's footsteps in the world's top professional basketball league.
"In Asian culture, people are much (more) reserved about opening up," the Congolese told AFP.
"I would love to see more Asian players coming to the NBA. These are some things that Yao and I have been discussing a lot, but for some reason so many of them are just hesitant."
"It took a lot of people to convince Yao Ming to get out of China. Yao just didn't come on his own. It was tough," Mutombo said.
Former Houston Rockets star Yao was the number one pick in the NBA draft in 2002 after leading the Shanghai Sharks to the Chinese title that same year.
He was an eight-time NBA All-Star (2003-2009, 2011) and broke the record for most All-Star votes, previously held by Michael Jordan in 2005.
Despite the dearth of Asian players in the NBA, Mutombo said there are still many "great talents" who could join.
"The sky's the limit," he said.
Mutombo, an eight-time NBA All-Star and four-time NBA Defensive Player of the year, led the league in blocked shots for five seasons in a row from 1993-94 to 1997-98.
His sideways finger wag after blocks became a trademark.
In an NBA career that spanned 18 seasons from 1991 to 2009, Mutombo scored 11,729 points, grabbed 12,359 rebounds and blocked 3,289 shots.
Since his retirement he has travelled the world as the NBA's global ambassador. He was on transit at the airport in Brussels when Islamic State group militants bombed it on March 22 but escaped unscathed.
"Even before I came to Singapore, I had so many emails from friends, colleagues and family members who were saying 'Why are you still travelling? You just had a bad experience two weeks ago,'" he said.
But he added: "Life has to go on, just because one thing happens in your life today doesn't mean that tomorrow you can't live your life like you used to."