Yao Ming landed in the U.S. in the summer of 2002, 7-feet, 6-inches worth of fancy footwork, armed with a soft shooting touch. He was the top pick of that draft, selected by the Houston Rockets, whose new arena would soon be sponsored by Toyota. The Japanese carmaker had just opened a new plant in China, and the company bet that Yao fans would soon become Corolla fans.
For many Americas, Yao was their initial exposure to the Chinese economic engine. He was a government project, nurtured from a young age in order to showcase the new China to the world. China fulfilled its promise; since those heady days of 2002, through the Beijing Olympics and beyond, the country has stayed on its path towards superpower status. Yao, sadly, fell short.
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According an initial report from Yahoo! Sports, which was confirmed by several other news organizations, Yao is going to retire. He just couldn’t conquer the injuries. A stress fracture in his left foot sidelined Yao after just five games last season. A broken foot forced him to miss all of the the 2009-2010 season. In fact, due to foot and knee injuries, Yao played in more than 55 games just once over the past six seasons.
Prior to Yao, players over 7’4″ were usually one-dimensional freaks. Manute Bol, at 7’7″, blocked shots and, during one stretch, started hoisting awkward three-pointers. Shawn Bradley, 7’6″, had skills, but was far too meek to be a star. Yao, however, could do it all. At his peak, in 2006-2007, he averaged 25 points per game. His turnaround jumper was unstoppable. His post-passes were usually on the money. (It helps when you can see over everyone.) Yao, who played in just eight seasons, finished his career averaging 19.0 points, and 9.2 rebounds, per game. His Rockets never advanced further than the second round of the playoffs.
Whatever on-court milestones Yao’s body never allowed him to achieve, he more than made up for off the court. Yao was so much more than a basketball player. To the Chinese public who adored him, he was a symbol of his home country’s possibility. Yao carried the Chinese flag at the Olympic opening ceremonies, soaking in the love of his country.
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The NBA, and basketball in general, has greatly benefited from Yao’s emergence. Hoops is hot in China — just witness the Nike-clad kids on the Beijing blacktops, showing off their crossover dribble — largely because of him. Nike executives, and NBA commissioner David Stern, should genuflect at Yao’s size-18 feet. A 1.3 billion-strong market is not a bad place to be booming.
Yao just got it. He became conversant in English, and could crack wise on Jimmy Kimmel’s show or play pitchman for Visa. Teammates loved him. Sure, it’s easy to dream about what might have been. Maybe a healthy Yao could battle Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki for Western Conference supremacy.
But you must acknowledge what Yao Ming did accomplish. The game, and its fans, think more globally, thanks to him. No broken bones sully that enormous achievement.