Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Legacy of Yao Ming

Yao Ming, the 7'6" all-star center from China has beaten the odds his entire career. Picked first in the 2002 draft by the Houston Rockets, he was ridiculed for being "soft" and "overrated". Yao struggled in his first few games in the NBA, and was heckled by analysts such as Charles Barkley who claimed, "Kenny [Smith] I will kiss your ass if he [Yao] scores at least 19 points in one game this season". Dick Vitale, a guy who is in the basketball hall of fame for his analytic skills, claimed that Yao would fail in the NBA. As did one of my favorite sports writers, Bill Simmons. But Yao would prove Barkley and Simmons and Vitale wrong that rookie season. In Yao's 8th game as a pro he dropped in 20 points against the Lakers to shut the loud-mouthed Barkley up (and yes, sir Charles did in fact keep up his end of the deal and kissed Kenny Smith's ass). He continued to exceed the expectations of doubters throughout his rookie season, but even as he excelled on the court, the ridicule continued. Shaquille O'neal, who then played for the Los Angeles Lakers, made fun of Yao's nationality on television. But doubts and jokes and even racist remarks were nothing compared to what Yao had to deal with as an NBA player. Yao was tasked with carrying a country filled with 1 and a half billion basketball fans. As the first Chinese basketball player in the NBA, Yao had to overcome the pressure of his home country's expectations along with the doubt from many major analysts and NBA figures to become a star.

Since that tumultuous rookie season(one that he finished with a more than respectable 13.5 ppg and 8.2 rpg), Yao has garnered respect from every NBA player and analyst as one of the elite centers in the NBA. Paired with fellow all-star Tracy McGrady in the 2004 season, the Rockets were expected to make a big playoff run. While McGrady had spent his entire career averaging a ton of points, he was never a very efficient scorer and has never won a playoff series. McGrady has also never completed a full 82 game schedule in his 12 year career, and that really took a toll on the Rockets. Yao missed only two games in the first 3 seasons of his career, and he seemed to have defeated the idea that extremely large centers could not stay healthy. However, in the 2005-06 season, Yao suffered a toe injury and had to receive surgery. The Rockets fell in the first round of the playoffs without their all-star center. In the 06-07 season, Yao averaged a career high 25.0 ppg for the surging Rockets, but broke his leg during a game which once again led to a first round playoff defeat. In the 07-08 season, Yao suffered a stress fracture in his left foot, and again missed the playoffs as the Rockets were dealt yet another first round defeat.

All this time that Yao spent getting injured, McGrady was getting injured too. However the 2008-09 season held some promise for the Rockets. They acquired free agent Ron Artest to form a "big 3", and were deemed a championship contender, if, and only if, all 3 could stay healthy. McGrady had season ending surgery in February of 2009, and so the Rockets, without a playoff series win since 1996, seemed unlikely to pull one out this year. But Yao battled on and played 77 of the 82 regular season games. With Artest replacing McGrady for Houston's new 1-2 punch, the Rockets were able to shed the young Blazers in 6 games and advance to the second round for the first time in Yao's career. It appeared that the Rockets had finally gotten over the hump, and after stealing game 1 in L.A. of the western conference semi-finals, Houston seemed like it might have had a chance at the NBA title. However, in game 3 of the Lakers-Rockets series, Yao Ming began to limp late in the fourth quarter. They were forced to take him out of the game, and the Houston doctors declared that he was done for the rest of the 2009 playoffs. Without Yao, the Rockets pushed the heavily favored (and eventual NBA champion) Lakers to 7 games. Which makes one wonder, would the Rockets be NBA champions right now if Yao had remained healthy?

The fact that gets lost in the shuffle here is that Yao has had zero time off since he started playing professional basketball. He spent all of his summers carrying the Chinese national team. And after 7 NBA seasons, 11 summers with the Chinese national team, and 4 years in the CBA(Chinese Basketball Association) prior to his entry into the draft, Yao Ming is facing a possible career threatening injury. The stress fracture in his left foot in the 2007-08 season had resurfaced. Doctors claim that there is no surgical procedure to help it, and he could miss all of next season, or even the rest of his career. This is no new thing for 7'+ centers, Bill Walton had a shortened career due to countless foot injuries, and more recently, prospect Greg Oden of the Portland Trail Blazers has had trouble staying on the court due to knee trouble. But the really sad thing about Yao's career threatening injury is because of his body of work. While he is incredible on the basketball court with a polished post game and great passing ability, it is what he does off the court that makes him so special. Yao carried China's flag in Beijing this past summer for the Olympics. He has been involved in countless charities in order to help his struggling home country. He is not a hero to millions, he is a hero to billions, as Forbes has ranked him as China's most popular person for six straight years. To see someone who is doing such great things both on and off the court is a sad thing to see, but as they say, injuries are a part of the game.

The rest of us can only imagine how hard it must be to keep a 7'6" body injury free(I struggle to do so with a 6'5" one). Yao has worked extremely hard to become strong enough and conditioned enough to sustain such injuries to the best of his ability. As a career 83% free throw shooter, Yao is one of the best mid-range and free throw shooting big men of all time. He is a surefire hall of famer because he is the pioneer for all Chinese basketball players. But me and everyone else in the world want to continue to see him play in the NBA and fight for that ever elusive championship. Only time will tell as to whether or not Yao will ever return. As for the 2009-10 Houston Rockets, things certainly aren't looking good so far.

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