Probably the longest post I will ever write on this blog, but I felt it fitting because this is for one of my favorite NBA players.
One of the hardest workers in basketball, a humble player with the biggest heart both on and off the court. The most popular player during his truncated career, receiver of the worst nicknames in the league, and most importantly, a cultural icon.
Yao Ming is retiring from basketball.
The 7’5 giant is what got me into basketball. After Yao made it to the NBA, basketball started to capture the hearts of people in Asia. He’s the reason I started watching basketball, and like many other Asians, I adopted the Rockets as my favorite team.
Yao isn’t just tall. He’s super tall. There is a lot of confusion to the non-basketball enthusiast about Yao Ming’s game. When they watch him on TV, they see a slow and sluggish, awkwardly tall Asian man hobbling up and down the court. When he is able to fight for position and get the ball, he’ll turn and either fire a fade away jump shot or muscle in a little and put up a hook shot. Chances are it goes in… But that’s just because he’s tall right?
False. This is one of the biggest (pun not intended) misconceptions about Yao Ming to the casual fan and the unintelligent Orlando Magic homer. Yao Ming is to big men what Allen Iverson is to little men. Just like it was rare to find great players that were 6 feet and under, it was rare to find players in that ‘super tall’ category, which I define as anything over 7’3. Kareem is an all-time great at 7’2, but he is a bit of an anomaly and it’s at that 7’3 and taller range where height starts to take a toll.
Up until Yao, great stature rarely correlated to great basketball success. Also in the super tall category were Manute Bol, Shawn Bradley, and Gheorghe Muresan who were known more for their height than their basketball accomplishments. Bol was a prolific shot blocker, but his inability to do anything else effectively kept him from playing major minutes. Bradley was a serviceable center, and also the victim of many poster dunks. Muresan if anything, was a 7’7 Romanian Jeremy Lin. Although he wasn’t terrible, he was worth keeping around just because he was 7’7. He did have one pretty good season averaging close to 15 points and 10 rebounds a game to go with 2 blocks, and that won him the Most Improved Player award.
There was also Rik Smits, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who were reliable centers in the NBA. Mark Eaton anchored some of the best defensive teams in the league and had two defensive player of the year awards, but he was far from All-NBA material.
The closest things to a super tall superstar were the 2-3 seasons of Ralph Sampson back in the 80s, and one of the biggest ‘what ifs’ in the NBA in Arvydas Sabonis.
There have also been countless of other super tall NBA prospects with varying degrees of success. Some have played a game or two in the NBA, some dwell in lesser basketball leagues, some were just drafted with a throw away draft pick, some never got drafted.
And then there was Yao Ming. Just forget the fact that he is Asian and that he represented the largest ethnic group in the world. A 7’5 center from some foreign league drafted with the number one pick. That just spells bust.
Yao had a slow start and came off the bench early on. His breakout game came against the Lakers, where he scored 20 points on perfect 9/9 shooting from the field, while Shaquille O’Neal watched from the sidelines. Yao would also have a 30 point, 16 rebound game in a losing effort against the perfect 11-0 Dallas Mavericks, and it was after that game that the Rockets found themselves a new franchise center. Yao was not amazing as a rookie, but he had moments of brilliance. We can also blame the backcourt of Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley for not involving Yao more on offense.
By now, the hype was building up for the game where Yao Ming will take on the inexorable force that was Shaquille O’Neal. In the Rockets win, Yao had his moments, scoring on Shaq in the early going and swatting away some of the Big Diesel’s shot attempts, but Shaq had 31 points that night to Yao’s 10.
After the game, it wasn’t about who won or who had more points. It was about the idea of having two Centers who could go to war against each other one on one in the post. Shaq has miles ahead of everyone else, and the next best centers— guys like Dikembe Mutombo, Ben Wallace, and Alonzo Mourning were more one way defensive specialists, and when they played Shaq, their objective is to limit his points. Enter Yao Ming. Not only did he have to stop The Big Aristotle, he had to score against him on the other end of the court. Yao vs Shaq games were now highly anticipated, and the popularity of Yao Ming was skyrocketing (ha ha).
Yao would shatter All-Star voting records, and cause some controversy to basketball purists when he got the starting nod over Shaq. People complained about the All-Star internet voting system, and in the future, people would start to complain about how Tracy McGrady kept starting the All-Star Game.
The popularity and hype would actually hurt Yao’s reputation as a basketball player. Yes, Yao Ming was clearly inferior to Shaq. Shaq is an NBA legend. But what a lot of the general public fail to understand was that between Shaq’s decline and Dwight Howard’s rise (which sadly coincided with Yao’s injuries) Yao Ming was clearly the best Center in the NBA, and that he was one of the best in the business. Yao was someone that every team had to adjust to, and the reason why 7 foot scrubs still had jobs in the NBA. Yao drew more double teams than anyone else in the NBA, and he would still dominate those measly NBA frontlines of the 00s. Yao also had a feathery soft touch for his size and shot a career 83.3% from the free throw line. If you were going to foul him, you might as let him have the basket so you save yourself a foul and you save everyone 30 seconds of their time.
Yao Ming was an amazing basketball player, and had he stayed healthy, he could have had a career that rivaled Dirk Nowitzki. Dirk has had quite a few first round exits but now that he has finally won a championship, people start to forget about those disappointing seasons.
People knock on Yao for not being a winner, even with a talented teammate like Tracy McGrady. Looking back at it now, Tracy McGrady was to Yao what Russell Westbrook is to Kevin Durant. One of the best players in the league, but just found a way to hurt the team when it mattered the most. If Yao had a few more seasons to try and lead the Rockets, who knows how far he could have taken them.
And that’s just the basketball side of things.
It is rare for a foreign player to come in and represent their country that well in the NBA. One of my Turkish friends told me that Hedo Turkoglu is a national sports hero back home. Yao most definitely is, but even his own people didn’t realize that Yao was one of the NBA’s elite. Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and yes even Pau Gasol all represented their country, but none of them were ever as good as Yao.
Yao also goes down as the greatest Asian to ever play basketball. With all due respect to Dirk, Gasol, Parker, and Ginobili, Europe was already home to a lot of powerhouse basketball countries. And yes, mentioning Ginobili was a joke. Argentina is not in Europe.
Back on topic, a great European player was not unheard of. Petrovic played NBA basketball, and Sabonis was drafted back in 1986.
But Asians in the NBA? There was Wataru Misaka (who played college basketball) way back in the 40s, back when the NBA was still called the BAA. Wang Zhi Zhi was the first to set foot on the hardwood, followed by Mengke Bateer. Both ended up being NBA legends, which made the Yao Ming pick a safe choice.
Not really. Wang and Bateer combined for 87 games in their 3 combined seasons between Yao’s arrival. An Asian basketball star was simply unheard of and was as wild a pick as picking Darko Milicic… And now looking back at it, the Yao pick may have had an effect on the Pistons decision to draft Milicic.
Yao officially made basketball cool in China. Rockets game were broadcasted all the time and people would wake up in the morning to catch games live. The knockoff jersey industry was blooming and NBA logos found their way onto potato chips and beer bottles. Any ex-Rocket… Bonzi Wells, Steve Francis, Mike Harris, Rafer Alston, could all find a post-NBA basketball stint in China and become an instant fan favorite. In a way, the Chinese Basketball Association became the Rockets’ D-League team.
Yao Ming is a truly special man and will go down in the Basketball Hall of Fame as the greatest Asian basketball player ever, an ambassador in the globalization of the game, and as a world-class human being.
I wish Yao the best of luck in his post-NBA endeavors and pray to the basketball gods I get to meet him one day.