On Basketball: Yao did much in little time
Those beat-up legs that cut short seasons, and eventually a
career, would never have sat still for China’s greatest moment.
Yao Ming knew the Chinese needed to be successful as the hosts
of the 2008 Olympics, and he knew they couldn’t do it without him.
So when he was injured that February, just six months before the
opening ceremony, he threw himself into a rehab that ensured he’d
be on the floor, though sadly not for much longer.
And with Yao set to retire from the NBA, it’s easy to focus on
how much he lost during an injury-plagued final few seasons.
It’s better to think about how much the 7-foot-6 star
accomplished in the time he did play.
”People forget how good he is, because he’s been out of the
picture for a few years, because of injuries. This guy was the best
center of his generation, his timeframe. They also forget the
intangibles – the grace, the humility, the humor, the wit, the
selflessness, which he conducted himself with every day, despite
enormous pressures,” former Houston Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy
So much would have been different without Yao, both for the NBA
that has made millions in basketball-crazed China, to the
superstars who found endorsement dollars there that never existed
previously. Kevin Durant spent the last week there, Kobe Bryant,
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade all are expected this summer.
Think that would be the case if it turned out Yao couldn’t
That was the pressure Yao faced as the No. 1 pick in the 2002
draft. He not only had the usual scrutiny on the floor of a top
pick, he had to show he had personality off it, that along with
that work ethic the Chinese were known for was a sense of humor
good enough to land him opposite Yogi Berra in a comical Visa
commercial on Super Bowl Sunday of his rookie season.
He quickly won over Shaquille O’Neal, one of the many NBA
players to post his appreciation of Yao on Twitter over the
weekend, and every other big man he battled. His numbers were
solid: 19 points and 9.3 rebounds per game, but he started getting
hurt just as he was getting better. After playing at least 80 games
each of his first three seasons, he lasted more than 60 only once
the rest of his nine-year career.
””Yao Ming has had an extraordinary impact on the growth of
basketball, worldwide. We consider that he only played,
effectively, five seasons,” Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based
consultancy SportsCorp. ”He opened up the most populated nation in
the world, at a time when it was going through its greatest growth,
in a way that will never be duplicated.”
But all those extra summers playing for China were going to
catch up to Yao. He should have sat out in 2006 after missing four
months because of a broken foot, but instead rushed back for the
world basketball championship, guaranteed beforehand the Chinese
would advance out of pool play, and carried them to that goal.
Opponents who knew how much it meant for Yao and the Chinese
were worried he wouldn’t be able to play two years later in Beijing
after surgery that March to repair a stress fracture in his left
foot. Somehow, that foot was strong enough to carry his nation’s
flag into the games, strong enough to make a 3-pointer for the
first basket of the game in China’s opener against the gold
medal-winning Americans, setting off as raucous an ovation as can
ever be heard inside an arena.
”I was just really happy to make that shot,” Yao said after
the Americans’ 101-70 victory. ”It was the first score in our
Olympic campaign here at home and I’ll always remember it. It
represents that we can keep our heads up in the face of really
Yao struggled to make it through the game, exhausted after
making his return to competitive play against the most athletic
team in the world. But he gutted his way through the competition,
leading the Chinese to a stirring victory over Dirk Nowitzki and
Germany days later to ensure the hosts would reach the medal
His career was rarely the same afterward. He broke his left foot
in the second round of the 2009 playoffs, right after Houston’s
lone playoff victory with Yao, and missed the entire next season.
He made it just five games in 2010-11 before realizing he just
didn’t want to put himself through another difficult rehab, knowing
his feet simply couldn’t hold his huge frame any longer.
He’ll stay active with the team he owns in the Chinese league,
though at just 30 it seems he should still have more time on the
court. But he gave so much to the Rockets, and especially the
Chinese – ”team first, team last, team always,” Van Gundy said –
that it subtracted from what could have been a greater individual
His first major injury came in the 2005-06 season, his first
with averages of 20 points and 10 rebounds. Instead of a full
summer off, he went to Japan for the worlds. So fatigued in China’s
final group stage game that he couldn’t even cross halfcourt on
some possessions, he summoned the energy to play all 40 minutes,
scoring 36 points against NBA centers Rasho Nesterovic and Primoz
Brezec to will the Chinese to a 78-77 victory over Slovenia,
pumping his fists after a spot in the knockout round had been
”Maybe only he can do those things,” China coach Jonas
It’s a shame he can’t do them anymore.
AP Sports Writer Chris Duncan in Houston contributed to this
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