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The time is Yao

NEW YORK – Outside his locker, Yao Ming closed his eyes, squinted hard and declared himself unimpressed late Monday night. Do you see the scar, his uneasy disposition was trying to tell everyone. Do you see it? All shapes, all sizes, all relentlessly probing and poking and prodding him. As Yao was questioned, the gentlest soul in the sport declared himself unaware that it had been Knicks pest Nate Robinson who was responsible for blocking his layup attempt.

Most of all, the Houston Rockets center wanted everyone to understand that ridiculous rejection came with a flailing hand poking his pupil, momentarily blinding him. It left a bulbous bump on his eyelid, a souvenir to bring back from his annual trip to Madison Square Garden. It left Yao unwilling to find the cuteness in a moment that isn't so cute when they just swing wildly for you and treat you like a tree to be torn down.

"Is that who did it?" Yao coyly said, insisting it was impossible to tell that a 5-foot-9 Robinson had blocked him. Well, Yao would say, "I've been blocked by a 5-foot-3 guy before, so that's not a record."

There was just a hint of something seldom seen with Yao – a stubborn edge – that had not been part of his disposition. He is running roughshod through the NBA now, pounding people into submission, performing at 7-6 in a way that never seemed possible.

Everyone still is holding onto Shaquille O'Neal, refusing to believe the reality of his changing body. Everyone is scared of dismissing Shaq these days, choosing to respect the mythology that surrounds what is no longer a legitimate force.

"I think Yao is the best center in the NBA," a truth-teller named Tracy McGrady declared Monday night at the Garden. This wasn't audacity out of McGrady, nor embellishment. He's watching every night, and he knows what he sees. Let everyone else saddle themselves with a grudging respect for Yao Ming, but McGrady sees him on the cusp of taking these Rockets a long, long way.

Yes, Yao Ming is the best center in the game. If not, what is everyone watching this season? This was an inevitable truth and it has arrived. No one had to see Shaq go down with knee surgery last week to declare him diminished, because if you watched the Heat on the way to the NBA championship, you understood that it was the greatness of Dwyane Wade that was the difference. Shaq was dangerous, but he no longer was dominant.

For some reason when it comes to Yao, people refuse to believe their eyes. Night after night, he has transformed into everything people feared upon his ceremonious arrival four years ago, delivering 30 points and 15 rebounds on nights now as easily as a man walks down his driveway for the morning paper. He dropped 34 and 14 on Shaq last week. He's averaging 26.4 points and 10.4 rebounds a night – much better than his career averages – and he's using his 310 pounds near the basket to move bodies and that reach to block everything within his wingspan.

Every moment now, he's a presence. "At his height, his ability, he's almost unstoppable," Houston's Rafer Alston said.

Everything is up, way up for him, especially his turnovers, which tells Yao that "there is more physical contact." Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy tried to defend him a few days ago, and it cost him $25,000 to the league office. Yes, Van Gundy always has been overprotective of Yao. He always has been that way with his stars, but he isn't exaggerating the level to which people reveled in Yao's sluggish moments, almost reveling in his failures – real or perceived.

"I've never understood the Yao-hate," Van Gundy said. "I'm trying to figure out why people have a problem with him. They always kind of say what's he not. … He doesn't refer to himself in the third person. He hasn't given himself a nickname. And he doesn't try to offset his negative nights with excuses."

Part of the discomfort with Yao was the unknown that surrounded him – the threat, the idea that some within the American basketball culture feared the tapping of Asia could start another stream of dominant players to the NBA. They could live with the Europeans on some level, but beginning on draft night in 2002 there has been a transcendent level of nastiness and unfair standards of success for him. He was as accommodating and as respectful as any star to enter the league in years, yet there was an element who treated him as an intruder, like an experiment that needed to fail.

Along the way, Shaq mocked Yao's heritage with a verbal slur, and too many people laughed it off. Outwardly, Yao laughed also, letting Shaq off the hook. Not anymore, though. If you watched his recent meeting with O'Neal, you noticed the deference was gone. Respect yes, but no longer deference. After he hung 35 and 17 on the Knicks' Eddy Curry on Nov. 10, he quickly disappeared into the Rockets' weight room, pumping iron and preparing himself for a meeting with Shaq in the next 48 hours. That's when Yao hit him for the 34 and 14.

Now, Yao Ming is 26 and has taken every shot this league has for him. He keeps coming back, stronger and stronger, tougher and tougher. And, as McGrady sees it, "He's playing at an MVP-caliber level."

They've come at him for five seasons – with words and slurs, slaps and scratches, doubts and dismissals – and the solemn, sure relentlessness of Yao Ming kept churning and churning, until the NBA was left with a talent suddenly impossible to stop, a phenomenon suddenly transcending the game.

Yao Ming, best center in basketball.

He has the scars to prove it, too.

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