Yao Ming emerged from a thick cloud of red smoke and high-fived each of his teammates before trotting to center court to grab a microphone, and the attention and soul of a franchise hoping to satiate its starved fanbase.
He was going to feed the red-clad masses another season opening salutation, return from a broken foot and reconstructive surgery that ended his 2009-2010 campaign, and carry a city's hopes again on his broad shoulders and cursed frame. Here was Yao to save the day and a season slipping fast.
Then, it was unfathomable after such a promising two-point defeat in L.A. that the Rockets would lose their first five games and start 1-6, or that Aaron Brooks would suffer an ankle sprain a week later and not play again.
Coach Rick Adelman and GM Daryl Morey expected rust and a lengthy adjustment period. Armed with a non-negotiable 24-minute restriction, handed down as an educated guess by the team's medical staff, the Rockets hoped Yao would come back and reprise his role as The Great Wall. With no better option in waiting, Adelman and Morey had no choice.
He flashed glimpses of what a 7'6" center could do as a rim protector and interior presence in a home opening 107-94 defeat to the Denver Nuggets. He blocked a Nene dunk and converted his trademark Shanghai Shake as he was fouled. However, Yao was not the same, and now time cannot change what Thursday's news makes necessary and inevitable.
On the same day the NBA announced Yao as the top vote-getting Western Conference center in the first round of All-Star balloting returns, the Rockets revealed that a stress fracture discovered in his left ankle will keep him sidelined "indefinitely." Yao sprained his left ankle in Houston's sixth game at Washington and has not taken the court since.
After sitting out just two contests in his first three years, Yao has missed 193 games in the last six. That number will reach the 200s by month's end. Five major injuries derailed him in five straight campaigns. Two of those ended seasons.
The Rockets saw Yao in 2002 as the perfect towering star to govern an empire. Now, with the walls collapsing around them, the franchise's decision makers must find someone else to assume the throne. The Ming Dynasty was supposed to produce a parade of championships and a league-altering clamor. Instead, it ended with a decrescendo and a trail of tears.
Morey once faced an agonizing decision: extend a hobbled Yao in a contract year, or let him walk next summer in free agency? Thursday, the proper course of action became obvious for a shattered organization and its cracked foundation. Another "major setback" is the last straw. The Rockets must move on and end this insanity.
Yao loves basketball, but it has not loved him back. His response when asked how he was handling the news showed his classic, infectious wit.
"I'm eating fried chicken and drinking a beer. What did you expect. A funeral?"
Owner Leslie Alexander should find a bugle player pronto to play a rocking rendition of "Taps" and a stand-up comedian to deliver Yao's pro basketball eulogy. He can insist he will not retire all he wants, but the time to lift the burden of the NBA grind on his body has come. He was not built to take the pounding big men who hang around the basket endure.
He owes it to the Rockets and himself to give up the hoops career the basketball gods never let him enjoy. A grown man can only laugh so much and deflect so much pain.
Every time he broke something or tweaked a body part, he swore he would come back stronger, with a vengeance his peers would feel. Every time, he ended up becoming the victim of his own relentlessness. How can Alexander, Morey and Adelman not expect this latest scenario to end the same way?
Alexander will detest parting with a marketing machine who also happened to be one of nicest, funniest guys around. Yao brought the Rockets billions of fans and a presence in China that flabbergasted his teammates when they ventured there. Now, it's time for he and the front office to accept Thursday's "major setback" as closure.
The Rockets tried everything—from pairing him with Steve Francis, to trading Francis for Tracy McGrady, to adding Luis Scola's well-traveled, rugged game and sweet midrange stroke—to give Yao the ammo he needed to blast the squad out of the post-Hakeem Olajuwon cellar. Blame it on defective bullets, or the Chinese National Team, or some sick form of ancient voodoo practiced by a living being who despises Houston.
The blame game will not yield justice in this case. It will make the wounds appear worse and the hysteria that much more absurd.
One playoff series victory notwithstanding, the Rockets remain in the basement. That 2009 playoff run, then, might hurt most. Yao finally quarterbacked his team to the second round before a broken left foot squashed any hopes of sending the L.A. Lakers home early.
The Rockets know what they can be when Yao plays at full strength. Opposing coaches game-plan around his rare skills for a seven-footer. He becomes a go-to option in the fourth quarter. He clogs the lane.
A glance at the Western Conference centers selected for the All-Star ballot shows the pathetic lack of star power at the position. Yao, at his finest, trumps every 5 man in the league not named Dwight Howard. Moving on will prove difficult.
If Morey is sincere about craving a title, he will cut ties with this crippled starting center and figure out a way to repair an embarrassing defense that has allowed a trio of headlining feats. Derrick Rose forcing overtime with a heroic three-pointer? Monta Ellis with a career-high 46 points in the Golden State Warriors opening night triumph? John Wall with his first career triple-double in the first week of the regular season?
The Milwaukee Bucks and Sacramento Kings, two of the NBA's five worst shooting teams, skipped and waltzed to facile 50 percent-plus outings in the last week. The Bucks fell to 48 percent late because their ineptitude bested that of the Rockets' porous defense.
Houston did more than lose in Oklahoma City on the second night of a back-to-back on Wednesday. It surrendered an inexcusable 117 regulation points. Championship teams get stops. The Rockets cannot stop the bleeding.
Oh, the team will return to .500 by January and make a run at a postseason berth, but this roster, as constructed, cannot play into May, much less June.
Morey's job now: find another foundation on which to build a new program. Relying on Yao to become durable is foolish and dangerous wishful thinking. The GM, as of last week, just needed a replacement complementary star. A franchise-leading talent now tops his list.
Starting point guard Aaron Brooks, interviewed on a Houston sports talk station Thursday afternoon, flouted Yao's professionalism and approach to rehabilitation as defining qualities. Such praise has been a theme during the center's time here.
"No one loves basketball more or works harder than Yao Ming," Brooks said.
Ron Artest told a Sacramento radio station last year, "Yao is one of the toughest guys I've ever played with."
The flattery is not a smokescreen or a facade. Players and coaches respect Yao, and they know how much this all means to him. A second stress fracture in less than two years means that it's all over.
Yao should expand his entrepreneurship and focus on fatherhood and husbandry. The Great Wall of Heartbreak does not need to keep putting on a brave face. At 30, with so much life left to live, he should walk away from the sport that has caused him as much grief as jubilation.
The Rockets must stop praying for a miracle that will never come. They can no longer count on Yao. Hand the microphone to someone else, and let him carry those red-clad fans' hopes for a change.