For Yao, one and done is no longer an option

Photo Yao Ming made all nine of his shots in Game 1 against Joel Przybilla and the Trail Blazers.
(NBAE/ Getty)

While his teammates were out on the floor hoisting jump shots, flicking in finger rolls, taking their final warm-ups for the start of the playoffs, Yao Ming was sitting on the Houston Rockets’ bench with his head bowed, his eyes closed and his arms crossed on his lap.

It was the last time he was silent all night.

Yao exploded like a hand grenade in a china shop, and now the conventional wisdom says it’s the Portland Trail Blazers who must pick up the broken pieces.

That’s because Yao did virtually anything he wanted against the defense of Joel Przybilla and Greg Oden. He shot a perfect 9-for-9 from the field, 6-for-6 from the free-throw line for his 24 points, grabbed nine rebounds and blocked two shots in a stunning and decisive 108-81 victory in the series opener.

He was confident. He was comfortable. He was ready to lead. He was not ready to celebrate.

“Get out of the first round,” Yao said. “Get out of the first round. Get out of the first round.”

It is the mantra in his head and the thorn in his side. For all of the attention that’s been given through the years to Tracy McGrady’s failure to win an NBA playoff series, Yao’s ledger is not quite as thick, but just as empty.

Yao was the Rockets’ center when they were whipped by the Los Angeles Lakers in 2004, blew a 2-0 lead to the Dallas Mavericks coming home to Houston in 2005 and leads of 2-0 and 3-2 to the Utah Jazz in 2007. Then he watched helplessly with a broken bone in his left foot as the Jazz eliminated the Rockets in the opening round again last season.

All of which is why Yao has often used the same response this spring to every question this side of: How’s the weather?

“Get out of the first round. Get out of the first round. Get out of the first round.”

Yao wears it like a hair shirt, an uncomfortable, irritating reminder that for all of his accomplishments in the NBA, he has not done the one thing that matters most – win in the postseason.

So there he sat on the Rockets’ bench as the clock counted down to the start of another playoff season, reflecting as a way of motivating himself.

“I just think what is important for me,” Yao said. “My wife, my family and these games. I think that’s how we win – mentally.”

It might as well be an anvil dangling from a thick chain around his neck for the way Yao feels the weight, which is just one more way that he is different from McGrady.

While T-Mac can jump and soar and perform amazing feats on a basketball court, Yao was simply born big. While McGrady – in his prime – could instinctively do things with a ball that others only dreamed about, Yao had to toil continuously to make that 7-6 frame into a seven-time All-Star center.

While T-Mac throws up his arms and nods toward his supporting casts when it’s pointed out that he is the only NBA scoring leader (two times) in league history to have never won a playoff series, Yao sees the Rockets’ shortcomings as his personal burden. While McGrady now spends his time during these playoffs in Chicago rehabbing his left knee that underwent microfracture surgery in February, Yao sat powerlessly and painfully on the bench for every game last season following surgery on his broken left foot.

Two years ago, before entering the playoffs against Utah, McGrady proclaimed, “It’s all on me.” Then after the Jazz won the series, he shrugged and said, “It was never on me.” On that night one year ago when the Rockets were eliminated in Utah, Yao sat on a training table inside the locker room with tears running down his face because he could not help.

It is a burden that Yao carries representing two vastly different constituencies and cultures that both expect the same high level of success. He literally stands head and shoulders above the other celebrity symbols of China’s rising power in the 21st century. He is constantly aware of the weight of 1.5 billion countrymen resting on his shoulders. Yao also knows the Rockets made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 NBA draft with the expectation that he would carry on the franchise’s MVP tradition at center in the footsteps of Moses Malone and Hakeem Olajuwon, both of whom carried their teams to the NBA Finals.

At 28, now finishing his seventh season in the NBA, Yao understands that time and careers have a way of slipping by quickly and he hears the seconds and the seasons ticking loudly inside his head.

“You only get so many years and so many chances,” he said. “I am tired of waiting for the next year.”

So even in another season when the Rockets suffered another crippling injury, there was more resolve than regret in the response of Yao. Who would have believed that Ron Artest could prove to be a better Robin to Yao’s Batman than McGrady? Who would have thought the Rockets could roll on to a 22-8 conclusion to the regular season after T-Mac shut it down? Who could have envisioned such a dominating start to the playoffs?

Perhaps the huge man sitting on the bench with his head bowed, his eyes closed and his mind on one thing:

“Get out of the first round. Get out of the first round. Get out of the first round.”

It’s Yao Ming’s mantra and his millstone.


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Updated Monday, Apr 20, 2009