Yao Ming just wasn't for those of us that enjoy pristine footwork, brilliant touch, versatile low-post maneuvering, and clever on-court cat-and-mouse games with those players who didn't even deserve to stick a forearm in his back. Yao Ming was for … actually, he was for those of us. He was many other things to many other people, but Yao was appreciated best for those that obsessed over his craft.
He's going to retire now, according to Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski. The feet couldn't handle the man. What pair of feet ever could?
You'll no doubt read an endless array of well-meaning tributes to the former Houston Rockets center, focusing on his contribution to making the basketball world a bigger place. How his presence in Texas made it so Allen Iverson jerseys flew off the racks in China. How he made documentary filmmakers, coaches, owners, league luminaries and sportswriters endless heaps of cash. How his wit and willingness to please charmed anyone who ever came in contact with him, or watched him from afar. The hardest I think I've ever heard my wife laugh came after Yao told Ron Artest that he was going to "see you in the club." This is what Yao did to most people.
What he did to the rest of us was wish we had three chances to see him a night. Low-post play -- due to generational shifts, rule changes and the vicissitudes of who gets born where and with what sort of heft in their lower end -- is a lost art. There are precious few 7-footers that can turn into a jump hook while chewing gum at the same time, much less make a living out of it on the pro level. Yet, there Yao was. And he would have been there, even if he was 6 inches shorter than his 7-6 frame. Maybe if it weren't for those extra 6 inches, he and his Rockets would have played into the conference finals last spring.
That frame was never worth it. Three initial seasons of playing more than 80 games a year led to an average of 41 games a season between 2005 and 2011. A 77-game run in 2008-09 led to broken hearts amongst every basketball fan, as they watched him pull up lame on basic cable television on a Friday night, working as best he could to defeat the Lakers in the second round of the playoffs. This is a game that was created for winter, to distract young men from cabin fever, and Yao's run was as cold and cruel as those dreary New England months around the turn of the last century that created what we, in the heat of July of 2011, obsess over. Fairness had no say in the deal.
He gets to move on now, though. He doesn't have to work through the same fusion surgeries and (20 years into a successful broadcasting career) crippling back pain that Bill Walton had to endure. More optimistically, though, he doesn't have to act the role of the punchline as Sam Bowie did, partially because the man taken directly behind Yao in the 2002 draft literally wrecked his own chances at a significant NBA run somewhere around Honore and Fletcher, just over eight years ago.
No, Yao isn't leaving us with memories of what could have been, or what should have been. He's retiring with November of 2006 still fresh in our minds. With January of 2006, right there. With February of 2003, still potent. With all those spins, turns, and "how-do-you-guard-that" plaudits. He destroyed every one of our teams. For a while there, Yao Ming couldn't be stopped.
And that's why it's so hard to let the hope go. There was always something in us, telling us that things were going to turn around. Pleading with us to ignore the obvious. Stupid flipping fandom, always in the way.
Yao is going to get out of the way for us, now. And it's probably for the best. Because, for once, Yao Ming is going to do something completely self-serving. He's going to walk away, while he can still walk. You're allowed to admire that, even while you curse and cry.
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