The other two, part of China's "Walking Great Wall" trio, are already in the NBA. But Dallas' Wang Zhizhi and Denver's Menk Bateer are somewhat shorter and older, no comparison to Yao in potential drawing or earning power.
To make sure the 9-year-old Yao didn't skip training, coach Li picked the boy up from school every day and rode his bicycle beside him to the gym. While other kids paid 70 cents for a school meal, a high price in the 1980s, Yao got a free lunch.
Government scouts considered him such a rare find, they wanted to keep an eye on him 24 hours a day. So they persuaded his parents to enroll him in Shanghai's elite sports academy as early as possible.
"He was only 12 but already 6-5," coach Wang said. "We knew he would keep growing. We didn't trust the lower-level sports schools. We wanted him here so our specialists could make sure he got enough to eat and sleep and that his bones were growing properly."
Food was a big part of his royal treatment.
"Everybody else ate in the cafeteria, but Yao ate in a special kitchen reserved for champions," Wang said. "Only Olympics and world competition winners could eat there."
Ask him if he would make his own children play basketball, Yao grimaced and said, "Basketball is too bitter." Then he doubled back to add, "That's too far down the road to think about. I'm still a child myself."
Yao won't blame the sport for robbing him of a normal childhood. But he has plenty of sympathizers back at his old sports school.
"I was picked out of a lineup in second grade," said Ji Bing, 14, who is 6 feet 1. "I didn't even know what basketball was."
Like other tall Chinese children, Bing has been shooting hoops every day, including Saturdays and summer vacations, since he was a small boy.
"Even during our day off, we have to jump rope at home and get our parents' signature to prove it," Bing said. "But none of us will ever be as tall as Yao Ming."
Legions of young fans across the country can't wait to see their idol conquer the NBA. They believe there is no question that he will.
"He is so tall and so handsome, he is our Prince Charming," Chen Chen, 16, gushed during the game here against the New Zealanders. "If he goes to the NBA, he'll be in basketball heaven."
Otherwise, there's still a roommate and an extra long cot waiting for him back at the Sharks' third-floor dorm.
"If we don't approve, he doesn't go," said Li, the Sharks' boss.
No one knows better than Yao how delicate the situation is. But he's pro enough to hide his true emotions.
Just ask him how he feels about wearing the No. 13 on his national team jersey. Not every Chinese knows about its spooky connotation. Yao clearly does.
"It doesn't bother me," Yao said just before the game here started. "Haven't I been pretty lucky so far?"