Yao leaves lasting imprint on NBA

Yao Ming missed at least 25 games because of injuries in five of the past six seasons

Remember Yao Ming(notes) on that Olympic night three summers ago, grimacing, hobbling off the floor, a fist finally thrust straight into the air to say simply: I did it. Here was the start of the Olympic Games, and basketball’s seminal figure, 7-foot-6 and falling apart, had gone the distance for the sport.

From the Chinese government and sports machine, to David Stern’s NBA, to the American basketball icons Kobe Bryant(notes) and LeBron James(notes) across the floor on that night in Beijing, Yao had pushed and pushed until his body betrayed him. This was the summer night in 2008 when his worlds collided, and everyone could see the magnitude of the connection that he created between East and West, between basketball’s yesterday and its tomorrow.

“Yao built the bridge for all of us,” Bryant said.

Finally, Yao has decided he’s done with the comebacks, done with the endless rehabilitations of his reconstructed left foot. Yao Mingdecided to retire, sources told Yahoo! Sports on Friday. He leaves the game a conquering hero, a forever figure in the sport.

He’s 30 years old, played parts of nine seasons in the NBA, and yet he’ll be remembered as a historic icon. In a Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame full of political appointees as ‘contributors’ to the game, Yao deserves enshrinement for a global impact perhaps impossible to measure. You can’t write the history of basketball without Yao Ming, and that’s why his legacy ought to someday be recognized in Springfield.

So many others reaped the riches of his journey, and Yao lived with the consequences of carrying a burden too big for even this gentlest of giants. Yao was one of the most talented, refined and dominant centers to ever play, but his lower body couldn’t withstand the game’s grind, especially that of a Chinese basketball federation that overworked and overused him.

Yao had come back too soon from foot surgery in the summer of 2008, and it was clear the moment he walked into the arena to play Team USA that night. These were his Games, his creation, and the reason this gathering of global icons in China promised to transcend the American stars and the American game. Most of all, Yao had an incredible will, a humble, self-deprecating wit and a persona perfect to play the part of franchise star and ambassador.

“Yao was trying to do what no man his size had ever done before: Be the No. 1 option on a really good team,” former Houston Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy told Yahoo! Sports on Friday. Van Gundy was emotional on the phone, subdued, because Yao is probably the man he admires the most in the sport. “People forget that when Dwight Howard(notes) and he were young, that was a mismatch. An utter mismatch. Yao scored on him at will. Give Howard credit, because he’s gotten a lot better, but there’s no doubt if Yao had remained healthy, he’d still be the best center in basketball.”

Looking back, Yao never should’ve played for China in those Olympics, but he considered it an obligation. China needed its biggest star to carry that flag into the opening ceremonies and be there for the center jump with Kobe, Howard and Chris Paul(notes). He wasn’t in shape to play well that night, but it spoke so much of his character that he was willing to look bad on the stage out of duty, responsibility. Yao spent much of that game crumpled over, clutching his shorts and gasping for air. Before Team USA crushed China, there was a moment with Yao. Before a basket had been scored, he stepped back behind the 3-point line and delivered a long, true shot. The arena erupted, and even the Americans found themselves enamored in the moment. As much as anyone, Yao Ming always defied range and reach.

“I felt honored to be there watching that,” Paul said. “It felt like a storybook when he hit that shot.”

There was never a storybook ending for Yao Ming, who ultimately crumbled from the weight of his incredible gift, his unprecedented burden. Someday, he belongs in the Basketball Hall of Fame because his won’t simply be a story of what could’ve been. Just take a look around the world now, to the Far East and back, and you’ll understand the unparalleled part Yao Ming played in what is and what will always be. The game’s great giant, his body battered, finally sits down now. His work’s done, and it will last forever.

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