Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey let out a long, exasperated sigh over the telephone Tuesday, as though to say: Are you kidding? Asking Yao Ming to ease back on his Chinese basketball commitments – never mind sit out the Beijing Olympics in August – is a request that'll go unasked to his franchise star.
Yao's body takes a terrible toll at 7-foot-6, something needs to change and still the Rockets are at the mercy of a Chinese basketball federation that never truly let the NBA have the most popular and beloved of its 1.3 billion people. He's forever on loan, forever on the way to getting his career run into the ground.
"Asking him to not play for China is like, well, asking him not to play basketball," Morey said. "We understood that when we drafted him and it's still the case. We know that he belongs to the fans of the NBA and those of China. It isn't a consideration to discourage him."
Yao has gone down again. This time, it's a stress fracture in his left foot. The threshold of chronic injury to his legs and feet creeps closer. There's a disturbing, depressing pattern. He has broken his foot twice in the past two years. He's broken a leg. He's had an infected toe. Four surgeries in two years and the truth is increasingly inescapable: With the way he moves, with 7 feet, 6 inches of unprecedented polish and power, Yao has asked his lower body to support a style, a frame, that no basketball player his size has ever maintained.
What complicates everything is the demands, the pressure, the loyalty that Yao has to his national team. NBA commissioner David Stern had to undergo years of glacial negotiations to crack the Chinese market, to get Yao and Milwaukee's Yi Jianlian into the league. Yao is such an earnest and loyal son, honorable and decent to the core.
"The national team is a part of who he is," his old coach, Jeff Van Gundy, said.
Yao has trouble saying no to anyone, Van Gundy said – never mind the government that manipulated his development from birth to the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft. Van Gundy calls Yao the hardest-working and best teammate in the NBA. He loved coaching him, loves counting him as a friend. And truth be told, he's desperately worried about Yao's future.
As it turned out, Van Gundy walked into a Houston health club Tuesday afternoon and still hadn't heard the news about Yao's injury. He was on the telephone with a Miami radio station when someone finally informed him. Just then, guess who walked through the doors?
Yao’s personal trainer, the Rockets former strength-and-conditioning coach, keeps his office in the site. So, Van Gundy and Yao talked for a half hour, and what Yao insisted in his news conference – that missing the Olympics would be “the biggest loss of my career until right now” – was repeated with emotion in private. Yao had to get back to represent China, he insisted to Van Gundy.
As Van Gundy said, "The Olympics means so much to him, but after that, he's turning 28 and it doesn't do anybody any good if his body is going to be chronically injured. Either he has to develop more of a 'no' personality – which isn't his way – or someone around him needs to be the bad guy for him and say 'No' for him."
It isn't just the physical toll that the summers with Chinese basketball have taken, but the mental, too. For Yao, he never gets a break when he plays for his country in the summer. It isn't the Chinese way to make allowances for Yao when he's playing for the national team. They run long and relentless training camps and Yao sits out nothing. He would never be inclined to ask for a drill off – never mind a day – and they'd never be inclined to offer it.
The Rockets doctor insisted on Tuesday that Yao should be recovered for Beijing. Here's the scariest question for Houston management: Will that even matter to the Chinese basketball federation? This isn't just any Olympics for China, but its ultimate stage. Publicly, they insist that they can medal in these Games. That's doubtful, but it will still be their best team ever. And do you think China would hesitate to play Yao at 70 percent, or 80, or anything below complete recovery?
Whatever the circumstances, Yao will play in Beijing and beyond. As always, the Rockets will have little to no say in it.
When reached Tuesday, a high-ranking international basketball official sounded unoptimistic about Yao's chances of ever catching a break with the Chinese basketball federation.
"They will continue to pressure him," the official said. "The one thing they do with all of their athletes is drive them into the ground with training. The strongest survive. If you don't, they'll find another to come and do it.
"I mean, they don't do little things like block out good airline seats for them when they travel. They can all be in middle seats in coach for all they care, and that's how Yao travels with them. Whatever happens with his injuries, they're going to insist that he keeps playing for them."
Morey, the Rockets GM, was respectful and realistic Tuesday. He knows the drill: Yao Ming is his franchise player, but he belongs to China. And always will. This was the deal when they drafted him and that'll be the way it goes without negotiation.
That's Yao Ming. That's his identity, his life, his burden. Until he can no longer run on the floor, he's China's basketball star. For his own good, his own survival, this has to end with the Beijing Olympics. For once in his dutiful life, Yao Ming has to be the bad guy.
- Yao Ming