The obvious reasoning is that teams are not likely to sign a player who’s going to fall apart before the ink dries on his contract. Beyond that, though, professional athletes require a phenomenal amount of confidence to play at the highest level of their sport. It’s the rung between talent and discipline on the giant ladder that separates them from pedestrians like us. Any chip to that confidence is like denting the armor that a warrior wears into battle.
Then again, Yao Ming has never been a typical professional athlete. After missing all of last season due to foot surgery (his third in the NBA, fifth overall), Houston Rockets fans have been hyped to see what last year’s scrappy team could do with their 7-foot-6 seven-time All-Star center returning to the court. If any fans harbored championship aspirations, however, Yao quickly put those thoughts to rest.
“Talk about recovering my form is nothing but nonsense and will only be realized if I can get through the next season smoothly,” he told China Daily two weeks ago. “Then you will see results after that season.”
That statement was not nearly as shocking as the one he released last week to Chinese state media. “If the foot injury does not heal next season, I might choose to call it quits.”
Yao Ming retire? Can it be possible? The face of Chinese basketball for the last eight years added a poignant remark for his 1.6 billion fans in China and the legions of Chinese diaspora around the world to consider:
“I'm 30. As an athlete, I am not the future of China basketball anymore.”
Yao Ming Becomes an All-Star, Later Actually Deserves It
It could have been very ugly. Following unprecedented hype from being selected first overall in the 2002 NBA draft (quickly eclipsed by the 2003 hype around some other No. 1 pick named LeBron James), Yao Ming struggled early in his rookie season. This prompted the infamous promise by TNT analyst Charles Barkley that he would kiss colleague Kenny Smith’s ass if Yao ever scored more than 19 points in a game during his rookie season.
Of course, Barkley kissed that ass (ultimately a donkey Kenny rented to save himself the embarrassment) when Yao scored 20 on a perfect 9 for 9 from the field and 2 for 2 from the line on November 17, 2002 against the Shaq-less Lakers.
What people generally don’t remember is that Yao followed that up four nights later with a whopping 30 points and 16 rebounds against Dallas, then averaged 17 and 10 in December to claim his first Western Conference Rookie of the Month award. That made it official: Yao Ming was not Mengke Bateer or Wang Zhizhi, his Chinese predecessors in the NBA. Yao Ming could play ball.
Yet the controversy continued. With hundreds of millions of fervent Chinese supporters, Yao Ming has been voted a starter in the NBA All-Star game every year that he’s played in the league. It was a ridiculous affront to Shaquille O’Neal during Yao’s first two seasons, back when Shaq could still keep a few fingers around his self-assigned “Most Dominant Ever” title.
As Shaq declined and Yao improved, however, the criticisms about Yao’s All-Star selections faded (Shaq moving to the Eastern Conference helped of course). Yao had his first 20/10 season, averaging 22.3 points and 10.2 rebounds, and picked up his second All-NBA third-team selection in 2005-06. Then, in 2006-07, Yao asserted himself as the most dominant center in the league, putting up a line of 25.0 points, 9.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 2.0 blocks on 51.6% shooting from the field and 86.2 percent from the line.
Yao’s Achilles Heel … And Toe, And Foot, And Knee
Anyone who reads Yao Ming’s resume will notice two All-NBA second-team and three third-team selections, but no first-team honors. How could someone be the best center in 2006-07 but not make first-team All-NBA? It wasn’t due to his often-maligned defense, as the even more defensively criticized Amar’e Stoudemire was first-team that season.
No, Yao missed his opportunity that season by missing 34 games due to injury, while Amar’e returned from microfracture knee surgery and played all 82.
Of all the criticisms on Yao’s legacy, injuries would be the most unfortunate. After playing an ironman 244 of 246 regular-season games in his first three seasons, Yao has only managed 237 of 410 in his most recent five. When a man stands 7-foot-6, weighs 310 lb, and plays basketball year-round for the NBA and the Chinese national team, his legs and feet will inevitably collapse and crumble.
One may wonder how Yao Ming’s career could have unfolded had his life paralleled that of his Houston Rockets predecessor Hakeem Olajuwon, joining the NBA at a time when professional basketball players couldn’t compete in international competition and hailing from a country that had no Olympic aspirations in basketball anyway.
If Yao had spent every summer healing his injuries and improving his skills, rather than being forced to tax his body in more games for a cannibalistic national program, where would he be? What could he have accomplished? How would we view him?
Futile questions. He didn’t get to walk that path, so he had to forge a different type of legacy.
Thank God Yi Jianlian Wasn’t the First
As unfair as it is, NBA fans will naturally compare the first Chinese basketball player of any significance to the second Chinese basketball player of any significance. The problem is that the second Chinese basketball player of any significance happens to be not that good so far in his career.
Blame Charles Barkley, who pulled an audible on Chinese athletes during Yi’s rookie-sophomore game and called him out as being a future star (while conspicuously not giving the same confidence to Kevin Durant). Barkley once again proved he’s infallibly entertaining and infallibly wrong.
After three seasons, Yi Jianlian holds a 9.6 career scoring average, has been traded twice, and is, by one account, the softest power forward in the league.
By the way, the second time Yi was traded, it was for Quinton Ross. And New Jersey had to throw in an additional $3 million for Washington to take him. Ouch.
Three years into his career, Yi Jianlian is still best known for his holdout in the 2007 draft. This serves as a prime example of how, as Sean Deveney of the Sporting News put it, Yi is not Yao.
After Yi was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks, Yi’s handlers, a brain trust including executives from the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) and agent Dan Fegan, stalled and pressured Milwaukee to trade Yi to a bigger market. They were unsuccessful in extricating Yi, but they did succeed in creating several weeks of strained NBA-CBA relations and sportswriter fodder.
This is not to say that farce never could have happened with Yao, but Yao has demonstrated much more backbone in managing his own career. Before he was drafted, Yao’s CBA team, the Shanghai Sharks (which he now owns), also tried to pick Fegan as his agent, but Yao insisted on finding his own representation and did so. In 2003, when the CBA sold Yao’s image to Coca-Cola for an ad, Yao, then a Pepsi spokesman, fought the Chinese state-run regime and won.
And despite China’s authoritarian sports association’s rambling criticisms of him, Yao remains one of China’s most popular figures and still has the cajones to shoot back his own critiques of their national basketball program.
Finally, Yao clearly wins when it comes to swagger on the court.
What is Yao Ming’s legacy?
Yao Ming only turns 30 this year, and it would be a tragedy if he were retired by 31. Yet if the worst case scenario does happen and Yao hobbles his way through his last NBA season this year, how would we remember him?
- He was the first international player ever drafted first overall in the NBA draft.
- He was the key to David Stern’s aggressive NBA marketing campaign in China that created 300 million basketball fans.
- He made Charles Barkley kiss Kenny Smith’s ass.
- He is great friends with Shaquille O’Neal and was quite possibly the least-offended Asian in this country by Shaq’s purported racist comments toward him.
- He was the best offensive center in the NBA from 2005 to 2009. His career free throw percentageof 83.2% is unheard of at that center position.
- His defining game is Game 7 of the 2007 Western Conference First Round against the Utah Jazz. In this series-deciding game, Yao rumbled for 29 points, including 15 in the fourth quarter. On the other hand, he also had no clue how to stop Carlos Boozer, who eviscerated him for 35 points and 14 rebounds in a four-point Jazz victory.
- He rebounded far less than one would expect from someone 7’6”. In that crucial game against Utah, he only managed six, and he averages 9.3 over 32 min for his career.
- He has made tireless efforts for charity in China. Buying the crappy Shanghai Sharks franchise that used to employ him must be included as part of that.
- And around the time he became really, really good was the same time he could never seem to stay healthy.
If Hall-of-Fame applications were built on class and character alone, Yao Ming would be a shoo-in. But does his career to this point merit a spot in Springfield?
Certainly six to eight more years in the league with a championship ring or two would solidify that honor. Yet even with the fatalistic prediction that we may have seen all there is of Yao Ming, the resume he has put together on and off the court screams for his induction.