As soon as he bought the cash-strapped Shanghai Sharks, Yao Ming(notes) was pressured into a most defensive declaration: This wasn't done as a retirement toy, but born of obligation to his hometown team. That's how it goes for him now. That's the reality of his every move. All across the world, the fears that Yao never plays basketball again are real and justified.
The Houston Rockets are counting on an innovative and complicated surgical procedure to repair the hairline fracture in his left foot. They hope it'll ultimately create a base for his body that'll withstand the unprecedented pounding delivered beneath his 7-foot, 6-inch frame. Nevertheless, Yao will miss next season and Houston officials operate with private doubts he'll ever be a sturdy player again.
They won't say this, because it does no good for Yao's rehabilitation and the psyche of the Rockets faithful. Whatever happens, this has turned into one of the sport's saddest stories. Yes, it's reminiscent of Bill Walton's saga, but Yao is a far bigger, far more important figure in basketball history. Yes, Walton could've been one of the most accomplished centers in history, but Yao's powers have been truly transformative.
He changed everything for the NBA and David Stern, for China and the Far East. Together, they all conspired to use him, wear him out and ultimately toss him aside. For years, the Rockets played him too many minutes, and China played him too many summers for the national team.
As the global game goes, he's basketball's most important player since Michael Jordan. He's the reason the world's most populated country grew smitten with the NBA. He's the reason that the NBA makes hundreds of millions of dollars out of the Far East, why its American players were treated like rock stars in the Beijing Olympics.
A lot of NBA players and commentators treated Yao with disdain upon his arrival, an overhyped stiff they promised to embarrass. Truth be told, there was a racial element to the criticism. Perhaps they didn't want to believe an Asian could become an NBA star. Perhaps they feared an impending wave of Chinese 7-footers to gobble up jobs. Whatever the genesis, the criticisms of Yao pushed beyond legitimate basketball doubts and were nasty and needlessly personal.
Perhaps, there's never been a modern athlete with the burden that belonged to Yao. For the Chinese sports machine, his birth to accomplished, athletic parents was treated like a science experiment. Brook Larmer's magnificent book, "Operation Yao Ming," told it all. He won the respect of his peers in the NBA. He worked relentlessly, and became an unstoppable force when his body was well. Three years ago, Yao was the NBA's MVP until breaking his leg two months into the season.
His blessing turned out to be his curse: His deftness and mobility at 7-foot-6 could've been his undoing. His lower body couldn't support the agility and crumbled beneath him. The Rockets believed they could've surrounded Yao with players and won multiple NBA championships.
Now, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey told Yahoo! Sports, "We feel like with Tracy [McGrady] healthy we can be a playoff team next year. Without T-Mac and Yao, we were 2-2 against the Lakers in the playoffs. One thing is for sure: We have players who will fight all season long. We sure aren't giving up on this season."
Morey has been too savvy of an executive to let the Rockets bottom out, and the Trevor Ariza(notes) signing could be a bargain for the next five years at $34 million. McGrady is nothing but an expiring contract now, and Yao could be remembered as the greatest what-could've-been story the sport's ever seen.
Basketball has had a lot of folk heroes who never met their promise, but make no mistake about Yao Ming: He met his destiny. He brought the NBA to the world, and the world to the NBA. There are Hall of Fame players with MVP trophies and championship rings who never gave so much to the game. Yao Ming goes away for a year now, maybe more – maybe for good – but his legacy is untouchable.