Saturday, 9 July 2011


A Chinese democracy in the NBA.


JUNE 26, 2002

It still seems like yesterday. You can almost hear David Stern speak. With the 1st pick in the 2002 Draft the Houston Rockets select Yao Ming. A wide smiled, 7 foot 6 high phenomenon received the news just sitting on a bog-standard chair, in a place in China. No suit, no tie, no table of champagne and well-wishers, he looked like he just came from practice, but either way he was ready to play. The moment looked more like a conversation on Skype than an internationally televised event. It was all too unique, just like Yao.

The world and Yao however were ready for the next Ming dynasty. There hadn't been a number one draft pick this compelling for years (and aside from 'The Chosen One' a year later), there hasn't been one since, how exciting this post-M.J. league became. There where great expectations but also reasonable doubts back on this draft day. Could this guy really chop it up with the huge American bigs? The excitement on the other hand was undeniable; the whole of the NBA was watching and now so was the whole of China.

July 9th, 2011.

Today however it feels more like seven days have passed than more than seven years but as another 'Big' once said 'Things Done Changed'. It was all good just a week ago, or so it seems. Yao's been around for awhile, but it seems that between injuries, shedding 'soft' labels and constant questions we haven't appreciated him for that long. Now just like not knowing what you've got till it's gone a foot injury has called time on Yao before we truly received him in his prime. Joni Mitchell never lies, but here does Yao's career. There may be no official statement from the man himself, or the Houston Rockets (due to the lockout) but despite whatever happens in the NBA this year one things a lock; Yao will not play next season.

So while Yao's chronic foot injury lingers, his decision on whether to retire or not doesn't. He's done. Yao's still however leaves with his career shrouded with questions which somewhat tarnish the shine of what he's already achieved. How good was he really? Is he worthy of the Hall of Fame? Is this really it? This is a shame because just like in the beginning, the end of his career is took an unsure, forced direction. Ming however is much more than the speculation and talk that has come hand in hand with his development in the NBA. He's answered his own questions.

Even though Yao's career is more like Walton's or Sabonis' than Shaq's or Hakeem's what he has done for the sport of basketball, let alone the NBA should never be put in question. Just like Bill and Sabonis, Yao has made a massive impact in what seems like spare time and the idea of what could of been with more time and health is a powerful, legendary notion. Yao birthed a revolution of basketball in China and the rest of Asia. He has inspired kids to pick up a basketball which is one of the most influential things an athlete can ever do for his sport.

His Rockets number 11 jersey is like Jordan's number 23 in China (Although McGrady did outsell him one year). His jersey even makes a 'blink and you'll miss it' cameo appearance in the latest 'Karate Kid' movie, you know it was put in there for respect. Speaking of 'The Karate Kid', Yao may be the biggest cultural icon from China since the legendary Jackie Chan. Even if his story in retrospect seemed like a rushed hour more then a noon and night tale.

Yao made travelling Houston Rockets fans, (national and world-wide) out of people who probably wouldn't choose Houston as their first American holiday destination, (with all due respect to the beautiful city). From commercials, to skyscraper billboards and basketball hoops used on the regular right next to ancient temples, Yao has ushered in change and made basketball a new tradition in his home country China and continent Asia. His inspiration and positive influence has been huge and to be basic about it, this guy has made so much money for his team, league and country. Money talks and what more can you say about all that Yao has earned, not only in his career but also in his young life so far. Still love is more important then money and Yao has helped fuel and fill hard-wood and concrete floors with passionate ballers, making Asia pick-up games as busy as Rucker Park or Venice Beach.

The questions and doubts that cloaked the beginning of Yao's career where soon checked at the door. This boy has come a long way from his 0 point, 2 rebound debut, now proving he more than belongs with career averages of 19.1 points and 9.3 rebounds per-game. Sure he got dunked on by Kobe et al but he didn't get posterized like Shawn Bradley. He gave his good as he got. People remember the block, but Yao was more than a highlight reel, his game was complete, the real thing. It's not just his influence and inspiration that's hall worthy, its his basketball I.Q. and impact too.

Ming would eventually dominate inside, dunking and rebounding with the authority some critics always thought Yao would never command. The only thing soft about this guy’s game is his touch, smooth like some of the greatest. Able to shoot from distance and sky hook with authenticity, Yao channelled and capped everyone from Kareem to Hakeem. It wasn't all a dream after all. Even Yao's post moves where on point and pivot and still probably are today despite the foot. Over the years he has developed some fine footwork courtesy of some 'Dream Shake' tutoring from Olaujawon. The centre's play has garnered nearly as much attention as his massive celebrity has.

Good things always seem to have a habit of ending too soon however and Yao's retirement echo's other short-lived great things associated with his career. Just like the hyped partnerships with Steve Francis and Tracy McGrady which offered some great moments but where taken away before their franchise or number one potential time. Or just like how close his team was to knocking out the eventual champion Lakers in 2009 playoffs. With a strong team featuring Ron Artest, Luis Scola, Von Wafer and many more Houston could have gone all the way. In the end however Yao's foot put a stop to him and his team stepping any further. As Yao was taken to the locker room by trainers he protested and tried to walk back on to the floor. This showed another side of the mild-mannered, quiet warrior that is Yao. A side that is often overlooked and ignored, his heart, passion and desire for the game. This crouching tiger showed his hidden dragon, as this hero proved he was fearless. In those few seconds you didn't need a chest thump or mean mug to see that. The Rockets could have taken off to their first championship. If they had too, Ming would have been the centrepiece of this.

While Shaquille O'Neal was still in his prime Yao showed that he could more than hold his own. At the start of Yao's career he received a lot of hate from fans due to the amount of votes he received from China for the All-Star Game (which would Shaq's previously untouched starting position from the Western Conference team). As the years passed by however and Yao got better the hate turned to love and respect even from Shaq. Once O'Neal went East and both centres started and faced off in the All-Star game it was clear Yao belonged. Before Shaq's best years where behind him and before injuries got the better of Yao these two bigs had some epic duels. It's a shame two of the last 'true' centres in the league (Aside from Dwight and Bynum) couldn't duke it out for longer. Still some epic battles are short and at the same time it's kind of touching and meaningful that they retire together in the same year. As the big man position gets smaller, these huge talents never felt smaller then their size or larger then life prominence.

Yao has also had the honour of representing his country in the Olympics. Today however the chances of him leading the way to London in 2012 are even smaller then the "very small" prospects he predicted last year. Still remember Ming has retired from the NBA not all basketball, he undoubtedly has the passion to pick the ball up again. The talent of Chinese basketball players is growing thanks to Yao and others; however guys like Yi Jianlian or former Laker Sun Yue haven't been enough. The national team lost embarrassingly to Iran in last Summer's Asian championships. Without Yao they are raw and in development, with him the Ming dynasty could result in more competitive basketball from China. This would further enhance Yao's already King like royalty in China but more importantly it would help improve the development of basketball in China and China in basketball even more. Still however it looks more then likely that the 8-ball will see Yao suited up in a tie in the crowd than on the floor in uniform. You never know however and who knows the man with the most influence and inspiration may one day make the best coach for his native land.

Times however have gone all Dylan on us and changed. It's hard to believe Yao is now over 30. Yao once lit the Olympic flame but now before 2012 Yao is stressing the importance of the torch being passed to a new flagship basketball player for China, "I'm 30. As an athlete, I am not the future of China basketball anymore", Yao told the press last year as the Rockets also remain grounded on Yao's situation by recruiting tough centre Brad Miller for insurance. Yao Ming is still a young man however and could play if it wasn't for that foot. Instead of joining the Jordan and Shaq ranks, he stays in the injured trench statues of the Penny Hardaway's and Grant Hill's, Yao like these guys however is still a legend regardless.

Yao may have played his last game as a Houston Rocket and his status and ticket for London, 2012 remains only a hopeful doubt. The fact that can't be doubted however is the unparalleled, positive influence Yao Ming has had on the centre position, the critic’s opinion of Asian basketball players and the influence of basketball in China. Yao is a Hall of Famer because he's given more to this sport then most hometown legends, making it famous in corridors outside the United States. Basketball is big in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and his native China because of him. Plus Yao's play at home and the international level has proved what a good player he is worthy of all the hype and legend. Sometimes we don't need a lockout to show us that the sport of basketball is more then just the massive NBA. It's internationally known and accepted like all major credit cards, making more then money, paying off in dividends of hopes and dreams. Yao's career may be at rest, but he woke up the world. When looking at these factors the one thing that can be removed is...?

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