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For the goodly chunk of this Basketball Hall of Fame week, and deservedly so, you’re going to hear endless paeans to Yao Ming’s impact off the court. How he pushed the sport of basketball into becoming more and more of a prominent global phenomenon; it’s fair to assume that in terms of pure numbers behind fandom, only Michael Jordan outreaches Yao. How he used his celebrity and riches to make his world a more suitable and humane place, in ways that dwarf his relatively brief professional basketball stint. How Yao changed the world for so, so many.
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Those features will be appropriate, expertly written, and accurate. The issue with them, as Yao sets to take the stage in Springfield, is that his particular book isn’t nearly halfway finished. This is why we’re only interested in Chapters 4-through-9.
This is why it’s time to remind people just how devastatingly good Yao Ming was as a basketball player between 2002 and 2010. And how he was way, way better than you remember.
Yao Ming was a dinosaur before he even made it stateside, and it didn’t matter. The NBA was a different league in 2002, but it was far closer to the modern state of things than the 1970s or 1980s-era “runs” that Yao would have supposedly found his warmest home in. The pace was still slow, hand checking was unofficially legal and coaches still called the shots to an annoying (and ratings-damning) degree, but the move away from the pivot had already begun.
The league’s two best players by then, Tim Duncan and Shaquille O’Neal (switch the two depending on Shaq’s motivation and resultant body shape), were sturdy low post champions; but the rest of the league was moving farther away from the paint and into isolation or two-man mode. The NBA legalized strong side zones in 1999 and did away with illegal defense rules in 2001, making life amongst the trees for low post players a hard sell. To be able to work as the ghosts of the past had, you had to be quick.
By the middle of the last decade, Yao Ming was the only guy that was quick enough.
Shaq, as he hit a too-early winter, was not quick enough. His weight gain and related toe issues diminished his ability to pivot and dunk over foes routinely as he had prior to the weight increase and the new rule changes that followed his best season in 1999-00. Tim Duncan responded by becoming more of an all-around player, doing his best work defensively while submitting to a fluid offensive attack that at first highlighted his perimeter-based teammates (as the 2005 and 2007 championships showed) or the five man unit as a whole.
Dwight Howard was never good enough down there. Kevin Garnett and Rasheed Wallace barely bothered to head “down there.” Amar’e Stoudemire was a pick and roll player, and Ben Wallace couldn’t hit a jump hook in an empty gym.
Yao Ming could hit 12 jump hooks a game with the weight of the sold-out gym draping each of his arms. It will take a monster of a player, talent and person to even approximate what Yao Ming brought to the NBA’s low post from 2002 until 2010. If we ever see anything like him again, we’ll be looking at the best player in the NBA.
For a small turn there, Yao was at the very least in the conversation for the best player in the league. For stretches in 2006-07 and 2007-08, in between injuries, Yao was a dominant force in the scoring and rebounding ranks for the Houston Rockets, pumping up double-figure rebounds and over 25 points on average. At worst, he was in the argument alongside Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, and the all-around play of a burgeoning LeBron James.
One wouldn’t be out of place in ranking Yao – who somehow managed 25 points, 9.4 rebounds, two blocks and two assists in 2006-07 despite playing just 33.8 minutes per game – ahead of all of them for those stretches; because defense and efficiency matter. For a guy that was shepherded onto a series of nationally televised affairs to take advantage of his global fame, he still somehow remained a League Pass favorite and darling of those who were attempting to push some semblance of advanced statistical knowledge into the mainstream press.
On either block, going over either shoulder, with either hand – the man was a marvel. Without the benefit of growing up with his bunny ears picking up the CBS Games of the Week, NCAA tournaments, or the NBA on NBC, or even the rise of Turner Sports in the years that preceded his move stateside, Yao just had a bit of everyone in him.
He could face and go glass like Duncan or Bill Walton, face and splash in with an arc like Rik Smits, or Dream Shake like, well, Dream Olajuwon. The triple-threat potency was there, a tribute to David Robinson, and the turnaround jumper was well in place even before Patrick Ewing became a mainstay on the Houston Rocket bench. He could drop step and dunk on a defender like Shaq, and jump hook you into oblivion. And you didn’t have to be Eddy Curry-styled lazy to be beaten down the floor by big Yao.
Nothing could touch him. It wasn’t because he worked 7 1/2 feet off the floor and it wasn’t because known pure point guards like Steve Francis, Rafer Alston and Luther Head were setting him up with perfect entry passes. He was just better than anyone in the low post, better than anyone we’d seen in a long time, and better than anyone else we’ll see at this level for what could be the remainder of the NBA’s existence.
And it was taken from us, far too early. A broken bone in his left foot ended 2005-06. A broken knee followed. Then the stress fractures, which ultimately did him in. A broken toe. A devastated ankle. Feet that, like the rest of the NBA, just could not keep up.
It, like his game, wasn’t fair. And for those of us that are selfish, his mindful work off of the court is cold comfort. Everyone deserved more than 486 games, in nine years, from Yao Ming’s feet.
We’re certainly happy with what we got, though. Yao Ming wasn’t better than remembered by curio standards, or better than expected considering what could have been the millstone of a cultural shift that almost defied comprehension even in 2002.
He was a brilliant basketball player. Don’t let anyone forget this.
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