JUNE 26, 2002
It still seems like yesterday. With the 1st Pick in the Draft the Houston Rockets select Yao Ming. A wide smiled, 7 foot 6 high phenomenon received the news sitting on a chair in a place in China. No suit, no tie, he looked like he just came from practice. The moment looked more like a conversation on Skype than an internationally televised event. It was unique, just like Yao.
The world and Yao however were ready for the next Ming dynasty. There hadn’t been a number one draft pick this compelling for years (and aside from ‘The Chosen One’ a year later), there hasn’t been one since. There were great expectations but also reasonable doubts back on this draft day. The excitement on the other hand was undeniable; the whole of the NBA was watching and now so was the whole of China.
SOME EIGHT YEARS LATER
Today however it feels more like seven days have passed than more than seven years but as another ‘Big’ once said ‘Things Done Changed’. It was all good just a week ago, or so it seems. Yao’s been around for awhile, but it seems that between injuries, shedding ‘soft’ labels and constant questions we haven’t appreciated him for that long. Now just like not knowing what you’ve got till it’s gone a foot injury may call time on Yao before we truly receive him in his prime.
So while Yao’s chronic foot injury lingers so will his decision on whether to retire or not. So once again Yao’s career is shrouded with questions which tarnish the shine of what he’s already achieved somewhat. Will he come back? Will he ever be the same? Is this it? This is a shame because just like in the beginning, the possible end of his career is taking this unsure direction. Ming however is much more than the speculation and talk that has come hand in hand with his development in the NBA.
Even if Yao’s career is more like Walton’s or Sabonis’ than Shaq’s or Hakeem’s what he has done for the sport of basketball let alone the NBA should never be put in question. Yao birthed a revolution of basketball in China and the rest of Asia. He has inspired kids to pick up a basketball which is one of the most influential things an athlete can ever do. His Rockets number 11 jersey is like Jordan’s number 23 in China (Although McGrady did outsell him one year). His jersey even makes a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ cameo appearance in the new ‘Karate Kid’ movie. Speaking of ‘The Karate Kid’, Yao may be the biggest cultural icon from China since the legendary Jackie Chan.
Yao made travelling Houston Rockets fans out of people who probably wouldn’t choose Houston as their first American holiday destination, (with all due respect to the beautiful city). From commercials, to skyscraper billboards and basketball hoops right next to ancient temples, Yao has ushered in change and made basketball a new tradition in his home country. His inspiration and positive influence has been huge and to be basic about it this guy has made so much money for his team, league and country. Money talks and what more can you say about all that Yao has earned, not only in his career but also in his young life so far.
The questions and doubts that cloaked the beginning of Yao’s career where soon checked at the door. This boy has come a long way from his 0 point, 2 rebound debut, now proving he more than belongs with career averages of 19.1ppg and 9.3rpg. Sure he got dunked on by Kobe et al but he didn’t get posterized like Shawn Bradley. He gave his good as he got, people remember the block, but Yao was more than a highlight reel, his game was complete. The real thing.
Ming would eventually dominate inside, dunking and rebounding with the authority some critics always thought Yao would never command. The only thing soft about this guy’s game is his touch. Able to shoot from distance and sky hook with authenticity. Even Yao’s post moves are on point and pivot. Over the years he has developed some fine footwork courtesy of some ‘Dream Shake’ tutoring from Hakeem. The centre’s play has garnered nearly as much attention as his massive celebrity has.
Good things always seem to have a habit of ending too soon and although Yao isn’t gone for sure the mere prospect of him retiring echo’s other short-lived great things associated with his career. Just like the hyped partnerships with Steve Francis and Tracy McGrady which offered some great moments but where taken away before their time.
Or just like how close his team was to knocking out the eventual champion Lakers in 2009 playoffs. With a strong team featuring Ron Artest, Luis Scola, Von Wafer and many more Houston could have gone all the way. In the end however Yao’s foot put a stop to him and his team stepping any further. As Yao was taken to the locker room by trainers he protested and tried to walk back on to the floor. This showed another side of the mild-mannered, quiet warrior that is Yao. A side that is often overlooked and ignored, his heart, passion and desire for the game. In those few seconds you didn’t need a chest thump or mean mug to see that. The Rockets could have taken off to their first championship. If they had Ming would have been the centerpiece of this.
While Shaquille O’Neal was still in his prime Yao showed that he could more than hold his own. At the start of Yao’s career he received a lot of hate from fans due to the amount of votes he received from China for the All-Star Game (which would Shaq’s previously untouched starting position from the Western Conference team). As the years passed by however and Yao got better the hate turned to love.
Once Shaq went East and both centres started and faced off in the All-Star game it was clear Yao belonged. Before Shaq’s best years where behind him (You’ve still got it though daddy) and before injuries got the better of Yao these two bigs had some epic duels. It’s a shame two of the last ‘true’ centers in the league (Aside from Dwight and Bynum) couldn’t duke it out for longer.
Yao has also had the honor of representing his country in the Olympics. Today however he see’s the chances of him leading the way to London in 2012 as, “Very small”. The talent of Chinese basketball players is growing thanks to Yao and others; however guys like Yi Jianlian or former Laker Sun Yue haven’t been enough. The national team lost embarrassingly to Iran in the Asian championships. Without Yao they are raw and in development, with him the Ming dynasty could result in more competitive basketball from China. Which would further enhance Yao’s already King like royalty in China but more importantly it would help improve the development of basketball in China and China in basketball even more.
Times however are changing. It’s hard to believe Yao is 30. Yao once lit the Olympic flame but now before 2012 Yao is stressing the importance of the torch being passed to a new flagship basketball player for China,”I’m 30. As an athlete, I am not the future of China basketball anymore.” The Rockets also remain grounded on Yao’s situation recruiting tough centre Brad Miller for insurance.
Yao may not have played his last game as a Houston Rocket. He may have not even played his last game for China but it is evident that things are not looking good. Until we see him in uniform again or suited up at a press conference debate will rage over what will happen. One things for sure is that right now when or if he returns is anybody’s guess, we just don’t know. The fact that can’t be doubted however is the unparalleled, positive influence Yao Ming has had on the centre position, the critic’s opinion of Asian basketball players and the influence of basketball in China. When looking at these factors the one thing that can be removed is…