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.