Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Hoping for Healing

Today I bring you Yao Ming, the oft injured center, who is one of the most fundamentally sound centers to ever grace the basketball court. His greatest asset, his size (Yao stands at 7'6" and weights 300 pounds), has also become his greatest liability, and he has been marred by injury problems his entire career. It was announced recently that Yao will have foot surgery this off season and will miss the entire 2009-2010 season, leaving his career in jeopardy. One can only hope that he will return healthy in 2010, because his presence will surely be missed.

Yao Ming 
Image Credit: Sydney Morning Herald

If Eddy Curry is a behemoth, then Yao Ming could simply be described as monolithic. The 7'6" Ming was initially scrutinized before becoming the first overall draft pick by the Houston Rockets in 2002, as a lumbering giant, destined to be posterized by the Association's most formidable dunk artists, the likes of which had not been seen since Shawn Bradley.

After Yao's second full season as pro, Yao had asserted himself as one of the league's next great big men. He was a legitimate 25-12 threat after his third season, who did nothing but help the team. He made his free throws (his 83.2% career mark almost equals Kobe Bryant), passed well out of double teams, had a reliable outside shot, did not turn the ball over, avoided foul trouble, and played solid defense. He was on his way to becoming one of the 10 greatest centers to ever play.

Putting his basketball skill aside, Yao Ming was also funny. He was personable off the court, he spoke English well (better than many of his American born brethren), and he was a good teammate. Yao was so much more than anyone could have imagined. He was truly on his way to becoming something special.

However his body did not agree with his ascendance into the pantheon of great centers. Like many great big men before him, the constant pounding of the NBA season began to take its toll. He has broken both his feet (on separate occasions), and suffered a fractured knee.

In his first three full seasons Yao played 244 of a possible 246 games (99.1%). In the 4 seasons since, he has played 231 of a possible 328  games (70.4%).

As tragic as it may be, this is a story that is all too common in the NBA. There are countless stories of other big men who have faced injury problems and have never lived up to their full potential (Bill Walton comes to mind), Yao is just another name to add to the list.

But Yao is so much more than a talented big man. Yao was the NBA's medium through which it truly became a global game. With all apologies to Wang Zhizhi, Ming bridged the gap between the NBA and the world's largest market, China. He became the gateway to connect the NBA and the far east.

This was no more evident than on November 9th, 2007 when Yao's Rockets played the Milwaukee Bucks, the team of countryman Yi Jianlian. The NBA estimated that over 200 million Chinese watched the meaningless regular season game in the middle of November.

Yao Ming was the reason that Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and other "Redeem Team" players were treated like royalty at the Beijing Games last August. Yao Ming was the reason that the Cleveland Cavaliers sold 15% of their team to Chinese businessmen. He's the reason that eight NBA preseason games have been played in China.

The legacy he leaves behind is already so expansive, that he has transcended the sport like only one other before him (Jordan - 23).  He means so much more to basketball than anything he would be able to produce on the court. He has opened the NBA to a market that is three times the size of America, a market that is growing exponentially.

While China may be tuned in now, it is more than reasonable to think that if Yao leaves the game prematurely, then their interest may wane, and it may be impossible to captivate and capture that audience again. That would be an incredible blow to the league, one that they might not be able to recover from.

And that would be the real tragedy. 

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