Yao Ming

When we learned this afternoon that Yao Ming has informed the NBA that he’s retiring, most NBA fans probably weren’t shocked by the news — we knew this day would come, possibly within the next few years. If we’re shocked by anything, it’s the timing of the announcement. I certainly hoped and assumed that the lockout would give Yao an opportunity to carefully rehabilitate from January surgery to repair a stress fracture in his left ankle. But in spite of recent reports that his ankle was healing according to schedule, Yao must have come to the conclusion that his massive body simply couldn’t handle the punishment of NBA basketball anymore.

There are a multitude of reasons why Yao’s presence will be sorely missed from the game. He was a unique specimen and talent who was widely respected and adored by basketball fans around the world. When he was the first “truly international player” to be selected first overall in the NBA Draft, there were as many people expecting him to become the most important player in NBA history in terms of global impact as there were people who were convinced that he was a stiff who would prove to be one of the all-time busts.

Charles Barkley famously made a bet with Kenny Smith on “The NBA on TNT” on November 7, 2002 that he would kiss Kenny’s ass if Yao scored 19 points in a game in his rookie season. Just 10 days later, Yao had a 20-point game (and followed that up with a 30-point game four days later) and Kenny brought a donkey onto the set so that Charles could settle the bet. It remains one of the highest comedic moments in the history of the most popular NBA studio show, and it reminds us that Yao started becoming a legend within the first 10 games of his NBA career.

While Yao was a lock to be voted into the NBA All-Star game every season he played due to his global popularity, you can make the case that he was a legitimate All-Star by his second season in 2003-04 when he averaged 17.5 points, 9.0 rebounds and 1.9 blocks while playing all 82 regular season games. Among “true centers” that season who played at least 60 games, only Shaquille O’Neal averaged more points. Yao had arrived as a star even sooner than most of his believers expected, and fans and experts alike started to wonder if we finally had a player who could challenge Shaq’s supremacy as the best center in the league.

Determining Yao’s peak over the remaining five “real seasons” of his career isn’t cut-and-dry because his most impressive statistical season was 2006-07 when he averaged 25.0 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.0 blocks, but he also missed 34 games due to injury. After only missing two games over his first three seasons, Yao’s body began to break down at the age of 25 and it started to become clear that a lengthy NBA career probably wasn’t in the cards for China’s national treasure.

As much as we worship size in the NBA, the problem with men of Yao’s and Shaq’s stature is that the human body simply isn’t meant to grow to those proportions. Knee, ankle and foot problems are commonplace with seven-footers in this sport, and those were the very problems that started to plague Yao — a toe infection in 2005, a fractured right knee in 2006, a stress fracture in his left foot in 2008, a hairline fracture in that same foot in 2009, and finally the stress fracture in his left ankle in 2010. A pattern developed that Yao obviously could no longer deny — he simply couldn’t hold up to the rigors of NBA basketball anymore.

If this seems like a sad end to the Yao Ming story, it’s because we surely all agree that the NBA was much more interesting when he was healthy and playing. At a point in time where there is only one true superstar center in the game, we wanted Yao to challenge Dwight Howard’s supremacy now like we hoped he would battle Shaq for supreme big man honors in the late 2000s. But as much as we wanted Yao Ming to play and succeed, I’ve never been convinced that Yao wanted it as much as his fans — including the 1.3 billion people he was expected to represent.

Can any of us possibly understand that kind of pressure, the monumental weight of those expectations? Can you name another athlete in the history of sports who carried that burden? I’ve never felt like Yao was consumed with a burning desire to win multiple championships, have a Hall of Fame career and bring great sporting honor to his homeland. It always seemed to me that he was a generally nice, pretty smart, and rather charming guy who happened to be seven-foot-six (or perhaps “only” seven-foot-three, according to Henry Abbott) and Chinese. What else was he going to do with his life besides attempt to become the greatest Asian basketball player of all-time?

There’s more to life than sports, even for Yao Ming. He got married in 2007 and became a father last year. Obviously, he’ll have a lot more time to spend with his family now. In December of last year, here’s how he responded to a question about his NBA future: “I haven’t died. Right now I’m drinking a beer and eating fried chicken. What were you expecting, a funeral?”

Does that sound like a guy tortured about the possibility that he might never play again? Yao hopefully has a long, fruitful life ahead of him, and now he can split his time between family and a likely role as a national ambassador for Chinese sports. He will never not be one of the most famous, recognizable athletes in the world, and I predict that he’ll continue to bring joy to millions of people simply by showing up for charity events and contributing his image to various foundations. Show me a person who wouldn’t be psyched to meet Yao Ming and I’ll show you a person who has no soul.

It’s OK for us to be a little bummed out that we’ll never get to see Yao play basketball again. But I bet when he finally decided to call it quits, the main emotion he felt wasn’t regret, but relief. A great burden has finally been lifted, and Yao’s aching feet, ankles and knees probably feel a little bit better already.

Comments (18)

  1. Its always such a shame when someone we had so much hope for…retire due 2 injuries.bt u do hv a point, it seems yao has much more perspective than many of us fans!!

  2. You’re totally wrong when you suspect that Yao didn’t want it as much as his fans. The guy has spent the last several years re-habbing his leg in hopes of returning to the NBA. You don’t put yourself through that much painful therapy and that many lonely workouts if you are fully dedicated.

  3. Every time I watch that clip I crack up more at the fact that it’s Jesse the Body in the 4th chair than anything else. The man never showed up on Nitro, but he appeared on TNT’s second-most-successful show. :)

  4. (Although Kenny’s line about Chuck welshing on bets is funnier in retrospect)

  5. Wait, isn’t the Basketball Jones the greatest NBA studio show? I dispute.

  6. Andrew: There might not be another NBA game for 15 months. Why retire now? His condition could improve considerably over that period.

    H to the Immo: That was an egregious and unforgivable oversight on my part that I’m going to blame on the fact that I was trying to crank this out within an hour of the news breaking. I’ve changed the descriptor to “most popular”.

  7. Another reason not to be sad for Yao:
    HE’S RICH AS HELL and never had to work a regular shit job

  8. I dont think you can say Yao didnt care or didnt want it. As previously mentioned, he did go through the rigors of rehabilitation. Plus, while other players were out “Beaslying” it up or golfing, yao spent his summers playing for the chinese national team. Yao didn’t just carry the weight of his ginormous body, but also the weight of the most populated country in the world. He began his career as global icon and ended it the same way.

  9. I’m calling crap on this article. We shouldn’t be sad for him, but not for the reason presented here.

    A really competitive guy who also happens to be very bright doesn’t have a response other than fried chicken and beer. He knows he can’t play any more, and he comes to terms with it. He’s smart enough not to be tortured by how cruel, cruel fate made him 7’6″ (and thus more prone to physical breakdowns), and so he enjoys what he’s been blessed with (those 90 inches got him plenty of green).

    Also, it’s worth noting that Shaq was so special because he basically never broke down. Yeah, he might’ve been out of shape, and he sat for injury every once in a while, but a 7’2″ monster with a frequent belly who never had a severe knee or ankle injury is pretty damned remarkable.

  10. Yao’s role as an international ambassador, a role model for Asian-Americans and a force at the center position will all be sorely missed. Few professional athlete’s transcend their roles but Yao was one of them – blending his script as a Chinese, masculine figure with American ideals of manliness resulting in a compelling and charismatic figure that both markets could call their own. I will personally miss Yao’s post game, amicability and unique touch on the NBA. I can only hope he stays involved in some ways,

  11. “Can you name another athlete in the history of sports who carried that burden?”
    Yup, Sachin Tendulkar.

    But i’m really glad you brought up how it is important for us fans to understand the burden of expectation.

  12. Brownjesus: I’m glad you brought up Tendulkar, because I asked a few Score co-workers about which athletes could possibly relate to Yao’s burden, and while none of us are cricket fans, Tendulkar was the one person we discussed that might qualify.

  13. great piece, scott.

  14. yeah..it’s all true. Everybody or everything goes to a halt sometimes. Even though Yao ming will retire soon, we still hope for the best for him. This shows that its the time for the budding and young aspiring athletes’ turn to show off what they’ve got and their talents, abilities and skills.

  15. What about “Tiger” Tim Henman? He used to carry the expectations of Great Britain into every Wimbledon, only to fail… Every time…

  16. Good morning world and welcome to the cricketjones….

    Tendulkar was a child prodigy and probably the closest comparsion I can think of.
    Haile Gebrselassie the distance runner from Ethiopia is another that comes to mind, although on a smaller scale.
    Lance Armstrong would be other one that I’d also float out there and see what people think.

    Or in the world of music : Bjork? No, I’ve lost you there.

    Anyway, good article Scott.

  17. Im mad. He was my go to man in nba2k11

  18. He’s alive! …on 2K xD

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