July 11, 2011

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Despite Injury-Shortened Career, Yao Lived Up To The Hype

By: Anson Whaley

Way back in 2002, Yao’s detractors stood almost as long as the Great Wall of China. We all remember the pre-NBA Draft video footage, right? Sure, he looked fine against a run-of-the-mill center from Oregon, Chris Christoffersen (not to be confused with Kris Kristofferson), in a one on one matchup in front of a host of NBA scouts. Yes, he could shoot jump shots and block shots as well as advertised, but we’d also been down that road before (see Shawn Bradley circa 1993).

The fact is there were question marks about Yao Ming – and lots of them.

The trendy pick for the No. 1 selection was point guard Jason Williams out of Duke. He was a ‘proven commodity’ shall we say, having played against the best amateur players in the world. Unfortunately, Williams suffered a career-ending motorcycle crash shortly thereafter, ending his brief NBA career and ensuring that the mantra ‘There is no sure thing’ remained firmly intact.

But back to Yao. The Houston Rockets gambled with the No. 1 pick taking the big man. Ming immediately paid dividends on a poor Rockets’ team, averaging more than 13 points and 8 rebounds in his first season. The best news, though, was that there was far more to come. Three seasons later, Yao averaged 20 and 10 and had established himself as one of the NBA’s best big men.

Even though Yao Ming had become an NBA star, his biggest contribution may have been expanding the reach of the league overseas. Ming was an instant hero in China and at many points over his career, was one of the league’s leaders in jersey sales. His influence was apparent when he repeatedly led the NBA in All-Star voting at center, even in seasons in which he was injured.

More importantly than that is that Yao Ming appears to be a genuinely good person. When Shaquille O’Neal mocked him with faux Chinese, Yao was the bigger person choosing to not make it a big deal. Yao Ming has also donated two million dollars and set up a foundation in order to help rebuild schools after the earthquake in Sichuan.

But on the court, the problem was that injuries eventually derailed his career. Yao missed 25 games in his fourth season and was never quite right the rest of his career. The frustrating part was that when he played, it was clear that he had the talent. From 2005 through last season, Yao was heavily injured playing only one full season over that span. But during those years, he averaged more than 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. Now at the young age of 30, Ming’s been reportedly forced to retire.

The announcement hasn’t yet been made official, but if all reports are correct, Yao has decided to call it a career. The good news is that he may be back. At 30, he’s still young enough to even sit out for a year or two and still have several more seasons left. One of his agents is saying the chance exists for him to make a return and that’s encouraging.

So if it’s the end of the line, where does Yao stack up amongst the greats? It’s hard to find a spot for him as a top ten center of all-tme because his career ended so early and he’s not a likely selection for the Basketball Hall of Fame. But Yao Ming was definitely one of the best centers of his era and proved a lot of people wrong on draft day.