If all of the reports are true, and Yao Ming really intends to announce his retirement in a news conference on July 20, then that makes it even more depressing that his career ended at Verizon Center. It seemed like an innocuous collision on Nov. 10, when JaVale McGee crashed into Yao in the first quarter of one of John Wall’s most memorable games as a rookie.
But when Yao struggled to get up, grimaced as he walked off the court, and later limped to the sideline, the gravity of the situation started to take hold. Only a month later, the Houston Rockets announced that Yao’s season had come to an end. Now, it seems, so has his career after Yao played eight seasons in nine years after going No. 1 overall in 2002; betrayed by brittle bones in his lower body.
Yao’s exit made me think back to his delayed NBA debut, which still stands as one of the greatest misses for the Wizards franchise.
After his eye-opening appearance in the Sydney Olympics in 2000, when Yao -- then barely 20 years old -- caught the attention of NBA scouts by blocking a dunk attempt by the Frederick-Weis-hurdling Vince Carter, he was expected to be the possible No. 1 overall pick in the next NBA draft. He glided down the court for a big man, had excellent touch on his jumper and incredible passing skills.
Yao also had done something else only two years before the Olympics — he impressed Michael Jordan with his skills while attending his camp in Santa Barbara, Calif. Yao had made a three-pointer over Jordan and Jordan reportedly joked that the Chicago Bulls should sign him. ESPN The Magazine anointed Yao as “Next.”
Late in the 2001 season, with the Wizards trudging through a miserable campaign that would yield the top pick, the Post did a story on Yao and asked if he could see himself playing in Washington. “How can I have an opinion about a team I’ve never seen?” Yao told Post reporter Philip P. Pan from Shanghai. “I’ve heard their record is a little bad. I’ve also heard that Michael Jordan might come back to play, maybe with Charles Barkley. I don’t know if that’s true.”
At the time, Yao coming to the NBA seemed more realistic than Jordan’s return to the Wizards after a three-year hiatus, but you already know how that turned out.
Brook Larmer chronicled in his book, “Operation Yao Ming,” that Yao’s move to the U.S. was beyond complicated and shrouded in controversy. His team, the Shanghai Sharks, was reluctant to let Yao go without considerable compensation. The Chinese Basketball Association was leery about losing one of its biggest stars shortly after Wang Zhizhi to the NBA. The Chinese government, which didn’t support Wang’s departure, was especially careful about how Yao’s move would be handled. And there was a battle between Yao’s agent, Bill Duffy, and David Falk. Falk had helped guide Jordan into being a global icon and actively tried to court Yao before a letter signed by Yao arrived at the players’ union rebuffing Falk’s advances.
The situation got plenty messy, and the Sharks announced on May 11 — eight days before the Wizards won the top overall choice in the draft lottery — that Yao would not enter the NBA draft. Bai Li, an executive with the Sharks, said at a news conference, “Before joining the NBA draft he must prepare adequately, both physically and mentally. The club feels that, at this time, Yao Ming is not there yet.”
Yao was reportedly hurt about having to wait a year to come to the NBA, but landing in Houston actually pleased him because it freed him of being in a city with a large Asian population like New York or San Francisco that might’ve placed more demands on him off the court. But with Yao — and to a lesser extent Jay Williams (who opted to return to Duke) — out the mix, there was no clear-cut top choice.
The Wizards went on to draft Kwame Brown instead.
Yao’s impact on the game cannot be measured simply by his all-star credentials because he always represented so much more — to China, to the NBA and to the game of basketball. And, it was a responsibility — as an ambassador for all three — from which he never retreated.
I tried to get a reaction about Yao’s retirement from Yi Jianlian, but he withheld comment through one of his representatives since he had yet to speak with Yao. Yi was upset last December when Yao was forced to miss the rest of last season with a stress fracture in his left foot. He apparently isn’t ready to believe that Yao is done and is still quietly hoping that the man who helped opened the door for him to play in the NBA will give it one more go. With the Wizards not giving Yi his qualifiying offer, there aren’t any Chinese players under contract next season in the NBA.
I rarely had the chance to speak with Yao without being surrounded by a media horde, but I’ll always remember an instance when I actually got to speak with him one-on-one. I was working on a story about the second matchup between Yao and Yi, a game that arrived only a few days before the Lunar New Year and was dubbed “the Chinese Christmas game” by longtime Chinese basketball analyst Xu Jicheng.
During our conversation, Yao said something that truly gave me some perspective on the immense burden that he carried every time he stepped on the court. I asked Yao to compare his rookie season to Yi’s and he said, “My first year, I had a lot of pressure. Sometimes, the only two places I felt comfortable was basketball court and home.”
It’s no wonder that his feet were too feeble to handle so much weight upon the shoulders of a 7-foot-6 man. Yao will go into the Hall of Fame because of the bridge that he created between the world’s most populous nation and the United States.
Wang was the first Chinese player to break through into NBA in 2001, but Yao was the best and most equipped to take the game to unprecedented heights. Terry Rhoads, a former Nike executive who signed Yao to his first contract, once told me that Yao was “the tipping point for the NBA business in China.” And that influence was felt during the Beijing Olympics in 2008, when the U.S. started its trek toward reclaiming gold with an opening victory over China.
Only a few months after he had suffered a season-ending foot injury, Yao shouldn’t have been playing in the Olympics, but understood his obligation to his nation, which wanted to use the competition as a shining example of its place as a world power. Yao not only played, but made the first basket of the game with a long three-pointer that caused fans to erupt with cheers. Dwyane Wade said Yao, “Scripted it perfect.”
The closing of Yao’s career was suddenly flawed, with injuries limiting it the past four seasons and eventually cutting it short.