October 05, 2010
This is such a great read, from AOL FanHouse's Sam Amick, that I'm tempted to just cut and paste the entire column. Copyright laws being what they are, however, I'll have to take a pass. Just promise me you'll take a read.
Yao Ming(notes) is working himself into the type of shape that will allow him to play his first batch of NBA basketball since his left foot fell apart, again, in May of 2009. Though Yao has the all-clear, as of now, to resume life as Houston's go-to big man, the rehabilitation process is still ongoing, and the knowledge of that isn't lost on the formerly dominant center that has spent the entirety of his late 20s and early 30s either fearing injuries or recovering from them.
The gentlest of giants is sitting on a training table courtside at the University of Texas' Cooley Pavilion, his colossal frame resting against the wall while his left leg is wrapped in a device that stretches from his ill-fated foot to his hip. There might have been a time not so long ago when the pride of China was discussed as one of the best players of this era, an iconic talent who would bring basketball to his homeland and a championship to his Houston Rockets, but this is an MVP performance of a different kind.
This is the "Most Valuable Pump" -- brought to you by Norma-Tec -- a device with a marketing-friendly moniker that is currently pushing Yao's blood from the bottom of his leg toward the top. And after suffering through 16 months away from the game and the reality that his latest injury had him thinking retirement at the too-soon age of 30, it's no wonder Yao is having some trouble above the neck too.
You would, too.
No player has undergone as much scrutiny as Yao Ming has, since Michael Jordan's retirement. You can point out LeBron James'(notes) Sports Illustrated covers from his junior year in high school or Kobe Bryant's(notes) off-court incidents or the "grandma knows his name" entity that is Shaquille O'Neal(notes), but nobody comes close to Yao.
And this is just speaking as a stateside observer, with his every move (and, eventually, every injury) documented and bandied about on the cable sports news shows, with every offseason interview and catch-up piece being met with either rolling eyes or a frustrated sigh. This isn't even getting into Yao's influence in his homeland where, as Amick noted, his jersey recently fell out of the top 10 in sales.
Which stinks, to no end. Because at his best, Yao was one of the better players in the game. Not just top 10, but top five. For certain parts of 2005-06 and 2006-07, it was Yao and Kobe and LeBron and D-Wade trading fours, working as the best this league had to offer. It's October of 2010, and three of those men have legitimate title aspirations. Yao is just left wondering if coming off the bench might be the best move in order to pull his Rockets out of the lottery and into the playoffs.
He'll have to start slow. Twenty-four minutes a game this season, no more, as he works that foot back into shape. But while you might shudder at the thought of the 30-year-old needing yet another year to get right, understand that 7-6 guys with skill tend to stay that way even as they hit their mid 30s. If 2010-11 might be the most frustrating season that Yao actually plays in (save for, perhaps, all those years where a series of stupid-first point guards didn't pass him the ball), then 2011-12 could be the year where all that promise pays off.
For now, though, he'll have to start small. One rehab session at a time.